Mention of Howard, Paul may constitute tampering

The Hawks may have violated the NBA’s anti-tampering policy by mentioning Dwight Howard and Chris Paul by name in a recent letter sent to prospective ticket buyers.

Howard, who is from Atlanta, and Paul are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents July 1. As each currently is under contract, with the Lakers and Clippers respectively, a team is not allowed to speak about them publicly.

The letter, obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was sent via email by a member of the ticket-sales department. It was on team letterhead and headlined “Hot New Player news: Chris Paul and Dwight Howard.” It began with the statement: “The buzz around our offseason is more than heating up. With massive cap space, 4 draft picks, and free agency rapidly approaching, we sit in the best position in the NBA. Player interest is skyrocketing as the possibilities of landing Chris Paul & Dwight Howard become more and more of a reality.”

The letter included a link to a story on reporting that Paul was unhappy with the notion that he played a role in the dismissal of coach Vinny Del Negro last month.

“This is your opportunity to get on board before its (sic) too late. Once we solidify our signings there will be no seats left,” the letter added.

Hawks president Bob Williams issued a statement on the issue Tuesday evening. “The letter that has been referred to was written by one of our season-ticket reps of his own volition. While certainly he is a member of our business staff, his specific reference clearly does not represent how our basketball operations or our business staff have consistently communicated about free agency. It is unfortunate that this mistake, by a single ticket rep with no ill intent, occurred.”

According to a league spokesman, the NBA would not comment on the situation.

As part of its collective bargaining agreement, the league defines tampering as when a player or a team directly or indirectly entices, induces or persuades anyone under contract with another team in order to negotiate for their services. The NBA detailed its anti-tampering policy in a memo sent to all 30 teams in 2008. The letter read: “If a member of your organization is asked by the media about a potential free agent before the July 1 following the last season covered by the player’s contract, or about any other person under contract with another NBA team, the only proper response is to decline comment.” The ban extends to general managers, coaches, players or any employee of an organization.

The league has issued hefty fines in the past for tampering, particularly in 2010 when LeBron James became an unrestricted free agent, for the mere mention of a player under contract with another team. The Hawks were one team disciplined.

Co-owner Michael Gearon was fined $25,000 for comments he made to the AJC on May 27, 2010 about then-Cavaliers forward James. Gearon said “If somebody came to us tomorrow and said you can have LeBron for max money and it puts you in the luxury tax, I’d do it in a heartbeat. But am I going to do that for (Zydrunas) Ilgauskas? Am I going to do it for Jermaine O’Neal? I don’t think so. …”

That was the third time that week that the league issued a fine for tampering. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was fined $100,000 for saying “anybody” would be interested in James in an interview. He added that it would be tough to sign the league MVP in free agency, but a sign-and-trade deal with Cleveland is something he would look at. Steve Kerr, then president of basketball operations for the Suns, was fined $10,000 for comments he made.

Staff writer Jeff Schultz contributed to this article.