Why the Atlanta Hawks will rally in a big way at the Atlanta Pride Parade

The NBA and Atlanta Hawks staff float last year. (BECKY STEIN PHOTOGRAPHY)

Credit: Becky Stein

Credit: Becky Stein

The NBA and Atlanta Hawks staff float last year. (BECKY STEIN PHOTOGRAPHY)

Three years ago, the Atlanta Hawks took their first steps in participating in the Atlanta Pride Parade – a couple dozen employees walked the route, and Harry the Hawk showed up on a motorcycle. Participation grew last year.

This year, the Atlanta Hawks will march in the parade with a big and lively presence – with as many as 150 Hawks employees including executives (and friends and family), along with Hawks center Mike Muscala (and his fiancee and their dog) participating. A custom, carnival-themed-float will feature the popular DJ Toni K spinning live from the deck with waving rainbow flags embedded with the Atlanta Hawks logo. 

“The first year it was about making an appearance,” said Keith Wente, senior director of customer service and operations for the Atlanta Hawks. “But we have done through the years and what is important this year with Pride is to send a message that speaks to our values of a company and what we believe in – that we believe in an inclusive and diverse environment that embraces all of the people in Atlanta.”

Atlanta Pride returns this weekend for its 47th year, and among a full calendar of events are its centerpiece marches and parades.

Last year, more than 200,000 attended the parade and festival, which celebrates the lives and historical discrimination against those who identify as lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual and queer community. It's one of the oldest gay pride parades in the nation. Though many of the parades take place during the official Gay Pride month in June, Atlanta celebrates closer to National Coming Out Day, which was on Oct. 11.

The Atlanta Hawks staff float from Gay Pride 2016. (BECKY STEIN PHOTOGRAPHY)

Credit: Becky Stein

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Credit: Becky Stein

The Atlanta Pride Parade which starts Sunday at 12 p.m. Assembly begins at 9:30 a.m. on the streets near the Civic Center MARTA Station. The Route: From the Civic Center MARTA Station, the parade merges off Ralph McGill onto Peachtree Street and travels toward 10th Street, turning on 10th toward the the Charles Allen Gate entrance of Piedmont Park, where the parade officially ends.

Atlanta United, a first-year expansion team having a sensational debut and in the playoffs, is also listed as a participant in the parade. It will mark the professional soccer team’s second consecutive year participating. 

“Our inaugural 5-stripe kit pays tribute to that, embodying the strength, diversity and unity of the people of Atlanta. . . We are honored to be a part of the festival,” Atlanta United said in a statement.

Nzinga Shaw, chief diversity & inclusion officer and senior vice president of community for the Atlanta Hawks, said three years ago (when she joined the organization), the Hawks was in the middle of a public relations crisis, and "a lot of stemmed from making disparaging comments about underrepresented groups." There were comments by general manager Danny Ferry during a conference call with team officials in which he quoted racist observations about an NBA player from a scouting report. That incident led to an internal investigation that later turned up a racially

Charged email written by then-majority owner Bruce Levenson noted that the Hawks draw more heavily among African-Americans than other NBA teams and speculated that, for that reason, white people no longer felt comfortable attending. “My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a significant season ticket base,” he wrote.

Ferry eventually left the team, and Levenson agreed to sell his stake in the team.

Over the past three years, Shaw, said the team has been on a “diversity and inclusion journey,” which started with forming the Hawks Diversity & Inclusion Council.

Shaw and Wente said the parade has been jumping off point to launch other efforts to promote diversity and inclusion. Over the past three years, the Hawks have held lunch-and-learn conversations about reaching out the LGBT community. During National Coming Out Day recently, the Atlanta Hawks social team posted an image showing the Atlanta Hawks logo in pride colors.

For Wente, who is gay, and who has worked at the Hawks for the past 16 years, the changes at the organization have impacted him profoundly.

“When I first started with the organization, the sports world as a whole was not super accepting of the LGBTQ community and being openly gay it was not a platform I could stand for,” he said. “But with changes in organization, and in society and in laws allowed me to marry my husband. And the work we are doing with the organization, I jumped to be a part of that.”

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