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Hawks' PR Problems Focus Attention On Race In NBA, Atlanta Sports


The Atlanta Hawks have some PR problems. It was revealed this week that the team's general manager made racially charged comments about Sudanese basketball player Luol Deng. Danny Ferry said Deng, quote, "has a little African in him." And then went on to call him a cheat and liar. Meanwhile, Hawks owner Bruce Levenson announced his intent to sell the franchise after a two-year-old e-mail was uncovered that outlines concerns about the team's fan base. Levenson wrote, my theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites. For reaction and to talk more about the racial divide in Atlanta sports, we reached Nubyjas Wilborn. He's the co-founder of ESPN's blog on the Hawks, hawkshoop.com

NUBYJAS WILBORN: There are a lot of people in Atlanta that are upset, because quite honestly, Bruce Levenson's e-mail basically said there aren't enough affluent African-Americans in Atlanta to carry a season-ticket base. And I think that's malarkey to be quite frank. There are plenty of them. The question is do you provide an exciting enough product?

CORNISH: What's the speculation about why this information is being made public now? I mean, this is years later. Some people are saying maybe he wants to offload the team.

WILBORN: Well, yes, I mean, the Hawks had a deal set in 2011 to sell the team. They had the owners set up. Everything was good. But the problem was when the MBA went and investigated, the guy's money didn't quite add up to what they felt could sustain a franchise. So they ended up not selling to him. They tried several other times since to sell as a group, and it just hasn't worked. So after that, they kept the team, took off the name Atlanta Spirit and just tried to rebrand themselves. It never worked. So to me I think Bruce Levenson finally wanted out. And he wanted out before Danny Ferry's comments came out because Danny Ferry's comments were recorded, and they happened in the aftermath of everything with Donald Sterling. So I think this was one way to sell and two - a way for him not to embarrass himself. The most interesting thing is the Hawks didn't actually do any of the things in the e-mail. I go to the games all the time. The organist literally plays hip-hop organ. The cheerleaders are still majority black. Rapper 2 Chainz, for instance, sits with Bruce Levenson and the owners at a majority of the games. So for him to bring an e-mail out after the fact that he didn't do any of it to me tells me that he wanted to get out in front of the Danny Ferry situation and/or wanted to sell anyway.

CORNISH: Just for a point of comparison - what is the relationship, say, with the NFL team the Falcons? I mean, obviously, the NFL has a very diverse fan-base. But it seems like there's a different attitude towards them in Atlanta.

WILBORN: Well, there's a much different attitude towards them in Atlanta. And this goes back to 2002 when the Falcons signed Mike Vick. And you had a black quarterback in Atlanta. And that matters because Atlanta is a very strong African-American community, and we want to see people who look like us in prominent positions. So both white and black and everybody else feel that they are included in the experience. It's a totally different relationship. Plus the NFL has done a great job of marketing itself whereas the MBA, going back to the '70s, has always had an issue of not wanting to be seen as too black of a league. You have to remember the previous commissioner put in a dress code because he was afraid of the hip-hop images of guys like Allen Iverson - that they've presented. So they've always fought this issue of not being seen as, quote-on-quote, "too black" or too hip-hop to not scare off the, quote-on-quote, "white fans." So yeah, it's always been an issue in the MBA. And I don't know how they fix it.

CORNISH: Nubyjas Wilborn, thanks so much for speaking with us.

WILBORN: No problem. Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Nubyjas Wilborn - he is the co-founder of ESPN's blog on the Hawks, hawkshoop.com. He spoke to us about Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson surrendering his franchise over racially insensitive comments he made in a 2012 e-mail. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.