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As the NBA world turns

Hawks' struggle summer's most compelling drama

Posted: Wednesday August 17, 2005 7:05PM; Updated: Wednesday August 17, 2005 7:05PM
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One look at the sports pages, and you'd think that the Philadelphia Eagles owned the market on team soap operas. But theirs isn't even the most compelling offseason melodrama. While As T.O. Talks plays Desperate Housewives to the masses, the head-scratching saga that is the Atlanta Hawks (complete with broken promises, bad blood and a palace coup) continues to unfold in front of a largely niche audience.

Haven't been paying attention? Let me catch you up:

Episode I: The Courtship of Joe Johnson

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If an Atlanta YMCA sponsored a support group entitled, "I'm Obsessed with 6-foot-9 Forwards," the Hawks would be about due for an intervention. How sweet are they on swingmen? Well, they drafted one last year (Josh Smith), traded for another (Al Harrington), rented one more from Dallas and dropped him off in Boston (Antoine Walker), then drafted another with the second overall pick in this year's draft (Marvin Williams). Throw in the grossly overpaid Chris Crawford (who was waived in February), and that's five altogether. Their combined record after this love affair: 13-69.

So you can imagine what a relief it must have been for Hawks fans when the home team decided to throw caution to the wind and go after a guard who can play the point in the offseason. (In therapy, this is what is known as a breakthrough.) They found an ideal fit in Johnson: 6-7, smart and a statistical stud who averaged 17.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists for the Phoenix Suns last season. A restricted free agent, Johnson, 24, initially had expressed a desire to remain in Phoenix -- so long as the price was right. But, "this is a business, and business comes first," he said back in June.

By July 30, Atlanta had a sign-and-trade in the works: The Hawks got Johnson for five years and $70 million; the Suns got Boris Diaw, conditional first-round picks in '06 and '07, and a $10 million trade exception -- and all before the Aug. 2 deadline. Not a bad day's haul for Hawks GM Billy Knight. "We're bringing in guys that fit now that fit for the future," he'd say afterward.

Episode II: Return of the Gift

But not everyone was thrilled with the deal for Johnson, and perhaps no one objected more strongly than Steve Belkin, a rosy-cheeked entrepreneur with an apparent aversion for neckties. His claim to fame, as outlined in the Hawks' '04-05 media guide, is "pioneering the concept of using direct-mail marketing" -- a boast that, were it mine, I'd be inclined to keep to myself. (My father would womanize; he would drink. He would make outrageous claims like he invented the question mark.)

Belkin also controls a 30 percent stake of the Atlanta Spirit, which counts the Hawks and Thrashers among its holdings. (Really, the Ewing Oil of professional sports holdings ...) As the Hawks' NBA governor, Belkin enjoys "the power and authority to manage the business and affairs of the team and to act for and bind the team without the consent of any other person." These were Belkin's words to Knight and Hawks CEO Bernie Mullin, in an e-mail -- filed among a mountain of letters, affidavits and other e-mails to a Boston court -- that would reinforce Belkin's displeasure with the Johnson trade. Squarely at issue was Knight's decision to include the team's lottery picks as part of the package. "I have told Billy not to include our '06 pick at all," Belkin wrote. "This is our best offer."

The e-mail touched off a flurry of activity on the atlantaspirit.com server. One owner, Bruce Levenson, sent a note outlining seven reasons for the trade. Another owner, Michael Gearon Jr. -- a real straight shooter and sincere Hawks fan whom I had a chance to visit with inside the Hawks locker room after a rare home win last year -- was shocked the Suns hadn't asked for more. "I expected them to also ask for [Josh Childress or Josh Smith]," he wrote in response.

The dialogue continued on a hastily arranged conference call later that night. When Belkin moved to block the deal again, Levenson threatened to have him removed as governor. When Belkin hung up on the call, Knight vowed never to speak to Belkin "under any circumstances going forward," according to meeting minutes.

Around midnight, Gearon fired off an e-mail to Belkin. Just a heads-up, he warned, we approved the trade "after you got off the call last night," he wrote. He went on: "If you take any action as NBA governor to interfere with this trade, you will be removed." The next day, Belkin's lawyer zipped a fax to the league office. It decreed: "Any representative of the Atlanta Hawks attempting to make [the Joe Johnson] trade is unauthorized to do so."

The next day, more than a few media outlets -- including this one -- reported the trade had "hit a snag."

Episode III: Eight Is Enough

On Aug. 5, eight of the Hawks co-owners scheduled a meeting to oust Belkin, who caught wind of the meeting and filed a restraining order in a Boston court against them the next day. "There was no option but to seek legal protections," Belkin would write in an e-mail to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

(Before we press on, a little background: Belkin is in the first year of a five-year term as the team's NBA governor. There are only two ways he can be impeached: 1) if he votes against the owners -- the first salvo appearing in owner inboxes July 30 -- or 2) if he takes any action that legally binds the team against the wishes of the majority owners -- the latest salvo taking on the form of a restraining order.)

Following Belkin's decision to file the restraining order, another co-owner, Michael Gearon Sr., jumps into fracas, calling out Belkin in the papers a day after the restraining order is filed for trying to operate the franchise on the cheap. "There is a broader issue here, which is the future of the franchise" said Gearon Sr., who functioned as the Hawks president and general manager in a past life. Gearon Jr. added, "I think Steve's goal is to run the Hawks on a very low budget,"  Mullin, too, had testified to as much, in a sworn affidavit saying that Belkin recommended a Hawks payroll of $32 million -- more than $5 million under the minimum required by the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement. (They'd later settle at $48 million.)

Johnson's five-year, $70 million contract likely would have sunk Belkin's skinflint plans, but Gearon Sr. was convinced it was a good deal for both sides, heralding it quite modestly as "the most critical free-agent acquisition in the history of the franchise." The second biggest? "Dan Roundfield [back in '78]." I'm not making this up.

Episode IV: I'll Take David Stern to Block

The laughs didn't stop there. After rejecting the Hawks' bid to jettison Belkin on Aug. 10, a Boston judge makes an attempt at empathy. "We have a history of bad trades in this city," the judge offered. "You know ... Harry Frazee?"

The judge's decision granted Belkin a preliminary injunction to keep his partners from removing him as the team's governor until further notice from him or another appellate court. Knight took the verdict stoically, shrugging off Belkin's attempt at a handshake in front of the courthouse steps to produce one of the more spectacular disses ever caught on film. "There's no reason for us to engage in conversations," Knight would tell the AJC a day earlier. "He's not someone I can trust."

On his way out of the courtroom, Belkin passed a note to reporters -- "I am pleased that the judge's ruling has provided clarity that we all needed regarding our decision-making and governance structure so that we can get back to the task of building a championship-caliber team." -- before retreating to an owners meeting in an adjacent conference room inside the courthouse. "It was like every meeting we have," Gearon Jr. said. "Steve doesn't say anything; we vote; he dissents; majority rules." A day later, NBA commissioner David Stern votes with Belkin's partners to support his removal as the team's governor in favor of Gearon Jr. Johnson the sets off for Atlanta in search of a new house.

Episode V: How Much Worse Can It Get?

After Stern's decision, the judge in the case removes the injunction, freeing the eight to remove the one, Belkin. Needless to say, this thing doesn't look like it has much hope of resolving amicably. (If last week's meeting between Belkin's and his partners' lawyers at league headquarters in New York is any indication, both sides appear headed for a buyout.) At this point even if Belkin rescinds his trade veto, the damage is already done.

With the Johnson deal still unconsummated, there's no telling who will cross whom next. Don't take my word for it. Just ask Kenny Smith -- a man who, as an analyst for TNT, knows a thing or two about drama: "The whole thing is just a travesty in miscommunication," the Smith told me. "It never gets to that point with any other team. Any good franchise is not gonna allow this to happen."

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