PAUL NEWBERRY, AP Sports Writer
ATLANTA (AP) — The mayor has already heard from plenty of potential buyers for the Atlanta Hawks.
And the city is ready to kick in a hefty sum to make the deal happen.
Flanked by Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins and other city leaders, Mayor Kasim Reed said Tuesday he expects the sale of the team to move briskly after racially charged comments by owner Bruce Levenson and general manager Danny Ferry.
“I have had conversations with no less than six prospective buyers,” Reed said during a City Hall news conference. “All six of those prospective buyers will have to go through a process to be vetted by the NBA. That process is going to occur very quickly.”
The Hawks have been under fire since it was revealed Levenson sent an email two years ago theorizing that many suburban whites would not attend NBA games because of the team’s African-American fans. He agreed to sell his share of the team, but it also emerged that Ferry had disparaged then-free agent Luol Deng on a conference call with team owners this past summer, saying he “has a little African in him.”
Ferry has taken an indefinite leave of absence.
The NBA, meanwhile, is left to deal with another embarrassing case after stripping the Los Angeles Clippers from longtime owner Donald Sterling. He was forced out for telling his girlfriend on a secretly recorded audio not to bring Black fans to his games.
Reed said he plans to meet with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver on Sept. 26 in New York to discuss the sale of the Hawks. According to the mayor, the league is already lining up an investment bank to look into the finances of any potential buyer.
“I think we’re going to end up in a superior position, based on everything we know today, than we were before,” Reed said.
He didn’t identify the prospective buyers, but whoever steps in would apparently have majority ownership. Levenson owns 24 percent of the team, and his Washington partner, Ed Peskowitz, has also agreed to sell his share, meaning that 50.1 percent of the team is now available, Reed said.
In addition, Reed said the city will likely be willing to offer concessions to any new owner to ensure the Hawks commit to remaining in Atlanta for another 30 years. He said there could be as much as $150 million available after the city sells Turner Field, the current home of the Braves, though the mayor said that process has been held up by the baseball team’s refusal to negotiate terms for its departure.
The Braves are planning to move to a new stadium in suburban Cobb County in 2017.
Team spokeswoman Beth Marshall said the Braves aren’t required to notify the stadium authority of its plans until Dec. 31, 2015, but added, “It is our hope to be able to work with them, the city of Atlanta and Fulton County, on negotiating an exit so they can best prepare for the future of the Turner Field site.”
In the meantime, Reed said the city would be heavily involved in efforts to find new ownership for the Hawks, since it is responsible for the debt on 15-year-old Philips Arena.
Wilkins, a former Hawks star who now serves as a team vice president and television commentator, said he would “absolutely” be interested in taking on a greater role with the franchise. The city already plans to honor him with a statue outside Philips Arena before a March 6 game against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Reed said city leaders would look favorably on Wilkins’ involvement with any new ownership group, especially if it gives the team more diversity in the front office.
Hawks CEO Steve Koonin has refused calls to fire Ferry, saying he believes the general manager can learn from the experience. Ferry met privately Monday with civil rights leaders, hoping to mend fences within the city, and has said he will undergo sensitivity training during his leave.
But Ferry’s future is still very much in doubt, with the start of training camp only two weeks away.
Wilkins would neither endorse Ferry nor call for him to be ousted, knowing that any decision about the general manager will likely rest with the new owner.
“That’s not a choice I can make,” Wilkins said. “The only thing I can say is whatever pieces are put in place are going to be the right pieces to help our franchise heal from what we’ve been through.”