Hawks’ Danny Ferry granted request for leave of absence

The firestorm that has rocked the Hawks organization the past week continued with the team announcing Friday that embattled general manager Danny Ferry asked for and was granted an indefinite leave of absence. The leave will be effective immediately.

In addition, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained the background report on Luol Deng that contained a racist comment that Ferry read from during a conference call in June that set off the current sad state of affairs for the organization.

Ferry has come under fire since Sunday when controlling owner Bruce Levenson announced that he would sell his stake in the team following the discovery of a racially charged email he wrote in 2012. The letter was discovered during an independent investigation into racist remarks Ferry made during a June 6 conference call with ownership and management to discuss potential free agents, including Deng. In that call Ferry said that Deng has “got some African in him.”

“No words can adequately describe my remorse for the hurt that I have caused many people through the statements I repeated, most importantly Luol Deng,” Ferry said in a statement following the announcement.

Ferry declined further comment.

CEO Steve Koonin, who approved Ferry’s request, had maintained that Ferry would remain on the job despite the comments, which the organization insists were read from the background report. Koonin issued an undisclosed punishment of Ferry. The organization has faced heavy pressure for Ferry to resign or be fired, including from co-owner Michael Gearon Jr.

Gearon wrote a letter to Levenson six days after the conference call protesting the remarks about Deng. That letter spurred the investigation. Gearon could not be reached for comment.

“This has been an incredibly difficult time for him and his family and it is my hope that this time away from the Hawks organization allows him the privacy he needs to listen to the community, to learn about his mistakes, and to begin the long process of personal healing,” Koonin said in a statement. “As a human being, manager and friend, I wish him well as he undergoes this process.”

Ferry is in the third year of the six-year, $18 million contract he signed when he joined the Hawks in 2012.

According to Koonin, coach Mike Budenholzer will assume oversight of basketball operations during Ferry’s absence. He also said the organization would hire a chief diversity officer.

Koonin said the process of selling Levenson’s stake in the team is underway and that the team will remain in Atlanta.

“My focus moving forward is to tirelessly work to rebuild trust with this community and with our fans,” Ferry said in the statement. “I realize that my words may ring hollow now and my future actions must speak for me. I will maximize my time during this leave to meet with community leaders and further educate myself and others on the extremely sensitive issues surrounding race, diversity, and inclusion. I will find a way to make a positive difference in this area, and further learn from the sensitivity training that I will go through.”

The National Basketball Players Association said Friday it will continue to monitor the situation.

“The NBPA deplores the insensitive and thoroughly inappropriate remarks by Danny Ferry. We are pleased to learn that Ferry acknowledges his statements were offensive, has extended a personal apology to Luol Deng and the other Atlanta Hawks players and that the Hawks organization has determined that discipline of Ferry was warranted.”

The background report, with names and some passages redacted, contains racially insensitive remarks about Deng. The source of the redacting is unclear.

A section of the background report, which is dated June 6, 2014, reads: “He is a good guy on the cover but he’s an African. He has a little two-step in him = says what you want to hear, but behind closed doors he could be killing. Con isn’t bad but there. African-like, store front looks great but there’s a black market section in the back.”

Another section reads: “He complained about things like not enough team jerseys in the team store or that his bobble head was last during the year.”

In the audio recording of the conference call obtained by the AJC, also from June 6, Ferry said the following: “The rap on him is little bit, um, body is not as torn up as you think, um, although he’s played a lot of minutes. If managed the right way he’ll be fine. He’s still a young guy overall, um, but here is also, he is a good guy overall but he’s not perfect. He’s got some African in him. And I don’t say that in a bad way other than he is a guy who will do something behind you.”

He also said: “He has a storefront out front that is beautiful and great, but he may be selling some counterfeit stuff behind you. And when I say that, what I mean for example, is he can come out and be an unnamed source for a story, um, and maybe two days later come out and say ‘That was absolutely not me. I cannot believe someone said that.’ But talking to reporters you know it’s him.”

The source of the information and who entered it into the team’s database remains unknown. According to the cover page on Deng, the information was gathered from either a teammate or front office personnel in Chicago or Cleveland.