ATLANTA—The Atlanta Hawks cancelled a scheduled meeting between their CEO and city civil rights leaders Wednesday, prompting one of the group’s leaders to say his community was greatly offended.
The Rev. Markel Hutchins said the meeting with CEO Steve Koonin was called off “at the last minute.” He later said he received a call from Hawks spokesman Garin Narain on Tuesday night asking the appointment be postponed.
Hutchins said he needed to hear that request from Koonin, and because Koonin didn’t personally cancel the meeting, the group of 12 civil rights leaders showed up as planned.
When they entered Philips Arena and were told there would be no meeting, Hutchins and the other leaders said they were insulted.
“The entire civil rights community, locally and nationally, have been offended, the likes of which we have not seen in this community in decades,” Hutchins said.
The group asked for the meeting to discuss what Hutchins said was the Hawks’ “disrespect for people of colour.” The request followed racially charged comments by Hawks co-owner Bruce Levenson and general manager Danny Ferry.
In a statement Wednesday, the Hawks asked for patience from the community and said they want to reschedule the meeting.
“Koonin postponed today’s meeting last night,” the Hawks’ statement said. “This conversation is a priority for us. We are committed to having this meeting and will work with community leaders to reschedule as soon as possible. We ask our community to work with us, be patient with us, and help us heal.”
The Hawks did not say why the meeting was cancelled.
Levenson said Sunday he will sell his majority share of the team. Koonin said Tuesday Ferry has been punished but won’t be fired.
Hutchins said when he arranged the meeting with Koonin on Monday night, he made it clear the group wanted Ferry to lose his job.
“Perhaps one of the reasons why they cancelled the meeting is we made it very clear we were going to demand in our conversations that Danny Ferry be fired or resign,” Hutchins said. “There is no way that a man who uses the kind of language and holds the kind of sentiments that he does should be the general manager of the basketball team in the home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the cradle of the civil rights movement.”
Others also have called for Ferry to be fired. Former NBA great Magic Johnson said late Tuesday on his Twitter feed “Atlanta Hawks GM Danny Ferry should step down after making racist statements about NBA player Luol Deng.”
Deng and Ferry are former Duke players under Mike Krzyzewski, who is coaching the U.S. team at the World Cup. Krzyzewski said he couldn’t comment on the controversy involving his former players because he hasn’t followed the news.
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, serving as an assistant on the U.S. team, defended Deng on Wednesday.
“I’ve never been around a better person,” Thibodeau said. “He’s not only a great basketball player, he’s an even better person. I’ll stand by Luol any day. He’s good. He’s done a lot of great things in the community. He’s a great human being. He’s a very humble guy. He has a lot of integrity. I can’t say enough good things about him. … It was a privilege for me to be his coach.”
Thibodeau said he “can’t imagine” why Ferry made the statements.
Ferry made inflammatory comments about Deng in a conference call with the Hawks’ ownership group in June when the team pursued Deng as a free agent. Ferry described Deng as someone who “has a little African in him.”
Deng, who was born in what is now South Sudan, now plays for the Miami Heat. He responded to Ferry’s comment on Tuesday by saying, “I’m proud to say I actually have a lot of African in me, not just ‘a little.”‘
A letter from co-owner Michael Gearon Jr. to Levenson recommended that Ferry resign or be fired. Gearon said Ferry made that description of Deng to the team’s ownership group.
Gearon’s June 12 letter to Levenson said Ferry went on to say, “Not in a bad way, but he’s like a guy who would have a nice store out front and sell you counterfeit stuff out of the back.”
Added Gearon: “Ferry completed the racial slur by describing the player (and impliedly all persons of African descent) as a two-faced liar and cheat.”
AP Basketball Writer Brian Mahoney in Barcelona, Spain contributed to this report.