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Another NBA owner to sell team over offensive remarks

Atlanta Hawks majority owner Bruce Levenson Associated Press/Photo by John Bazemore

Another NBA owner to sell team over offensive remarks

For the second time this year, a National Basketball Association owner will sell his team because of ill-advised comments about race made in private.

Atlanta Hawks majority owner Bruce Levenson revealed Sunday he sent a racially insensitive email in 2012 while trying to figure out how to get the Hawks out of the NBA’s attendance doldrums.

This latest firestorm comes less than a month after courts finalized the $2 billion sale of the Los Angeles Clippers. While former Clippers owner Donald Sterling told his mistress he did not want black people at his games, Levenson sought to bring more white people to them

Levenson’s letter to general manager Danny Ferry observed that, from cheerleaders to music styles to in-game promotions, the Hawks seemed to cater to African-Americans. “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," Levenson wrote.

The basic theory Levenson raised—that a fan base can experience white flight—wasn’t necessarily the problem. The way he worded it, though, assumed Southern white men wouldn’t attend events where they feel outnumbered by blacks.

“I trivialized our fans by making clichéd assumptions about their interests (i.e. hip hop vs. country, white vs. black cheerleaders, etc.) and by stereotyping their perceptions of one another (i.e. that white fans might be afraid of our black fans),” Levenson’s apology reads. “If you're angry about what I wrote, you should be. I’m angry at myself, too.”

Hawks CEO Steve Koonin told CNN that general manager Danny Ferry, who has since been disciplined, read an overtly racist scouting report at a team meeting in June. An investigation turned up Levenson’s email, which prompted the owner to report himself to the NBA in July. Commissioner Adam Silver confirmed that Levenson voluntarily decided to sell his stake in the team Saturday, even though the NBA hadn’t completed its own investigation.

“I commend Mr. Levenson … for putting the best interests of the Hawks, the Atlanta community, and the NBA first,” Silver said. While Silver agreed the comments were wrong, he gave no indication that he would ban Levenson for life as he did Sterling.

Atlanta civil rights leaders have requested a meeting with Hawks officials in the next two days. Preacher Markel Hutchins has said the incident shows the whole organization is characterized by racist attitudes.

NBA great and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar defended Levenson and said he was “too quick to rend his clothing.” Abdul-Jabbar said the media, looking for a race-based ratings boost, pounced on Levenson. “Business people should have the right to wonder how to appeal to diverse groups in order to increase business,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “They should even be able to make minor insensitive gaffs if there is no obvious animosity or racist intent.”

Others, though, said Levenson brought on his own demise by publicly hammering Donald Sterling. “I strongly believe that the league has to have a zero-tolerance policy against racism and discrimination in any form,” Levenson said during the Sterling scandal, endorsing the NBA’s stripping him of ownership.

The Hawks on Monday appeared to have already removed Levenson from ownership portions of the team website.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Andrew Branch Andrew is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD correspondent.

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