Hawks CEO Steve Koonin expects an audience “much younger, much louder and different than what you’ve seen before – it’s not a corporate crowd.”
Photo: Photo by Roger Kisby/Getty Images
Photo: Photo by Roger Kisby/Getty Images

Hawks, new CEO want to make a hip opening statement

Fifty-four days after their controlling owner’s “the black crowd scared away the whites” memo came to light, the Hawks play their first real game at home Saturday.

As part of opening night, the rapper T.I. is scheduled to perform at Philips. “Fo’ shizzle,” declared the team’s new CEO Steve Koonin, a.k.a. Stevie K, as the 57-year-old executive referred to himself in a promotional video he cut with the entertainer.

A sell-out audience will be treated to a futuristic system projecting 3-D images upon a new-look court, a bigger sound all around, upgraded giveaways and fresh-ground beef and hand-cut fries at the concession stand. Presumably there will be some professional quality basketball between the Hawks and the Indiana Pacers as well.

Beyond simply refuting the notorious Bruce Levenson memo decrying the racial make-up of the average Hawks crowd, the seeming intent of this opening night is to blow it to smithereens.

The result, Koonin said, will be an audience “much younger, much louder and different than what you’ve seen before – it’s not a corporate crowd.”

You see, Koonin was appalled on multiple levels by Levenson’s 2012 sentiments that, when whittled to their core, asserted that the Hawks following was too black. Yes, first, the remarks represented a basic insult to humanity.

But then they also were just bad business, Koonin figured. “I didn’t agree with the strategy,” he said.

“The elusive mini-vans filled with families coming down to the game — I don’t believe that’s ever going to be our audience,” he said. “It hasn’t been for 40 years.

“The NBA (fan base) is the youngest of all sports. The average age for the NBA is 20 years younger than baseball. So, why am I going to target somebody 50 years old, in the suburbs, when the viewership — which I can get with precision — says who we need to be targeting? And we’re targeting African Americans and Millennials, 21 to 35 year olds.”

About the only obvious thing Koonin has in common with T.I. is his Atlanta roots. Growing up here, he and his father were regulars at the old Omni. His best friend was a Hawks ball boy.

As a native, Koonin is personally acquainted with the angst woven into the genetic makeup of Atlanta’s spectator class. “My greatest day as a Hawks fan was when we drafted David Thompson and Marvin Webster — that was insane. My worst day was when we drafted David Thompson and Marvin Webster,” he said. Both Hawks first-rounders in 1975, they instead went off to begin speckled careers in the rival ABA.

Going on to pursue a noted career in marketing and programming — 14 years with Coke, 14 years with Turner Broadcasting — Koonin also became familiar with the Hawks as a hot product. He witnessed the rise of a franchise as a must-see-and-be-seen destination in the mid-1980s, and that memory continues to be a reference point for him today.

“I want young urban professionals in Atlanta saying, ‘We got to go to the Hawks game, then we can go out to the clubs.’ I want it to be the epicenter of social life in Atlanta — that’s what it was in the ‘80s,” he said.

He came to the Hawks in April with so many grand visions. And he and all the good intentions were thrown almost immediately into a wood-chipper. In the aftermath of his memo being revealed, Levenson announced he would sell his controlling share of the team; the fractured ownership continued to eat its own; general manager Danny Ferry went on leave after his racially insensitive comments on free agent Luol Deng were made public.

It’s really hard to be hip when the whole town is tsk-tsking you.

Nothing in a very rich business background quite prepared Koonin for such corporate blood sport. At TNT, they know drama (and Koonin was instrumental in recruiting much of the talent that manufactured it). As for the Atlanta Spirit, they had a knack for producing way too much drama.

Certainly Koonin had to be asking himself, ‘I left show business for this?’

“Of course, you have doubts,” he said.

Could he even jet off to Canada Wednesday to take in his team’s season opener (a loss to Toronto)? No. Koonin stayed back in Atlanta interviewing candidates for a newly created position, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer.

Can he at least enjoy the perk of the best seat in the house Saturday? Hardly. Those need to go to the paying customers, he said. The seats he had when he was with Turner, now those were prime.

What he has is a giant task of building a bridge of credibility between the Hawks and Atlanta. It is a job that he is taking as personally as any he has ever held.

“I have a more personal relationship with this one for what just happened,” he said. “I came here to do something civic, because I thought sports unites a city. And I just lived through sports dividing it.”

On the court, the product does not conform to the NBA star-driven model. Rather, these Hawks rely upon the strength of Mike Budenholzer’s system and the subtle magic of ball movement and effort. And they take comfort in the fact that their floor leader, Al Horford, has run out of new pectoral muscles to shred.

Off it, still no new owner. And still no word on the ultimate fate of Ferry. And there likely will be none until the ownership question is settled.

While Budenholzer and Koonin have acted as the glue binding prominent fractures, can this team operate efficiently and effectively with such vacancies at the top?

“Unequivocally yes,” the CEO answered.

“There’s no one person who does it all. There’s a really strong team in place. The infrastructure is there. Danny was the conductor of the symphony; he didn’t play every instrument. Those instruments are being played.”

With T.I. providing the vocals.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.