Posted: Wednesday August 17, 2005 12:36PM; Updated: Wednesday August 17, 2005 11:59PM
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.)