Jonathan Walton, a professor of religion and society at Harvard University, received a phone call in September from Danny Ferry, who had recently started a leave of absence as the general manager of the Atlanta Hawks.
Walton and Ferry had gotten to know each other through Tommy Amaker, the men’s basketball coach at Harvard. Walton is that team’s faculty fellow, and Ferry played with Amaker at Duke in the late 1980s. The conversation between Walton and Ferry that day formed a foundation for more substantive ones over the coming weeks and months.
“You could just tell that he was reeling,” Walton recalled in a recent telephone interview.
When the Hawks won the opener of their their first-round NBA playoff series Sunday against the Brooklyn Nets, they did so as the top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference. They were one of the league’s great surprises in the regular season, running their record to 60-22 while playing unselfish basketball. They play the Nets again Wednesday night.
Yet the person most responsible for assembling the Hawks has not attended any of their games this season. Ferry has been on indefinite leave since shortly after it was disclosed that, during a conference call with team owners, he had made an insensitive remark about Luol Deng’s African heritage while reading from a prepared scouting report.
It is a messy situation without any easy solutions. In the wake of Ferry’s comments, which were recorded – as well as the release of a racially charged email from 2012 that was written by Bruce Levenson, the team’s controlling owner, in which he speculated that the team’s black fans “scared away whites” – the team was put up for sale, a process that is continuing.
For now, the result has been purgatory for Ferry, 48, who was roundly criticized for describing Deng during the conference call as having some “African in him.” Ferry, who was reading from a scouting report that had been written by someone else, went on to say that Deng, who was born in what is now South Sudan, was the type of person who was capable of running a legitimate business upfront but could be “selling some counterfeit stuff” in the back.
One of the owners later sent a letter to Levenson calling for Ferry’s removal. When Ferry went on leave, Steve Koonin, the team’s chief executive officer, said in a statement that “the heart of this dispute is an unfortunate disagreement amongst owners.”
“Clear your name”
Jon Barry, an analyst for ABC and ESPN who lives in Atlanta and knows Ferry personally, said he questioned the motives that led to Ferry’s remarks being taped and leaked. Nevertheless, Barry added, “Whether that’s fair or not, the fact of the matter is, he said something he shouldn’t have said, and I know he realizes that.”
Since apologizing to Deng and going on leave, Ferry has not spoken publicly on the advice of his lawyers, who are in discussions with the Hawks, according to two people who have been briefed on those talks. Ferry, who declined to comment for this article, has three years remaining on his contract.
“My advice to him has simply been ‘Danny, do what you need to do to clear your name because you don’t want to be labeled as being racist in your history,’ ” said Wayne Embry, 78, who became the NBA’s first black general manager when the Milwaukee Bucks appointed him to the position in 1972.
Embry added: “I’ve known racism. I’ve known it quite well. And I told Danny that this is all really a shame because we need more people like him in the league.”
Ferry, who lives with his wife and five children in Atlanta, has been spending more time with his family, friends and acquaintances.
But far from being reclusive, he has embarked on something that loosely resembles a sabbatical for personal growth, meeting with ministers, professors and community leaders.
Toussaint King Hill Jr., the minister of West Hunter Street Baptist Church in Atlanta, said that he had struck up a friendship with Ferry over the past six months. During their first meeting, which lasted roughly four hours, Hill said he repeatedly challenged Ferry and found him to be “open and responsive.”
If anything, Hill said, Ferry was guilty of being insensitive to cultural differences – a product of Ferry’s growing up as part of a privileged class, Hill said. Hill gave him several books to read, including “Slavery by Another Name,” by Douglas A. Blackmon, and “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander.
In the weeks that followed, Hill said, Ferry met with faculty members at Spelman College and Morehouse College, two historically black colleges in Atlanta. In December, Ferry and his oldest daughter, Hannah, traveled to Senegal, where they were accompanied by Amadou Gallo Fall, an executive with NBA Africa, Hall said.
Ferry was also a regular at high school and college basketball games over the winter. Last month, after watching one of his daughters swim at a meet in Orlando, Fla., he drove to Jacksonville to join Walton, the Harvard professor, for the Crimson’s first-round game in the NCAA tournament.
“I’ve been trying to encourage him and tell him, ‘If you come back from this’ – and I definitely think he should – ‘you have the opportunity to be a leader, to both lead by example and to take this conversation where it needs to go,’ ” said Walton, who grew up in Atlanta and attended Morehouse.
In September, when Walton learned of the report about Ferry, his reaction was blunt: “You idiot,” he said.
“To have the appearance that executives are peddling in cultural and ethnic stereotypes is a big problem,” Walton said.
During their early conversations, Walton and Ferry spent a lot of time talking about why his comments had been so hurtful, Walton said. At one point, Ferry told Walton that a lot of people had called him a jerk over the years – even his closest friends say he can be abrasive – but nobody had ever accused him of holding racist views.
Ferry’s remarks became public at a particularly sensitive time, Walton said. Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, had been banished from the NBA for making racist comments, but the league was still coping with the fallout. And the country was navigating racial tensions that resulted from the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.
In that context, Walton said, it was not that surprising to see Ferry quickly cast as a villain. The words attributed to him were not easy to dismiss.
“It caught him like a whirlwind, and he was trying to figure out what was going on,” said Walton, who added that Ferry had spent those first few days reaching out to black friends. “And I was just, like: ‘Dude, stop. Because now you’re allowing everyone else to set the narrative.’ He was trying to get his orientation back.”
For now, and for at least the near future, Ferry’s fingerprints remain all over the Hawks. He signed, acquired or drafted nearly every player on the roster.
Ferry also persuaded ownership to hire Mike Budenholzer, who had spent 17 seasons as an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs, as the Hawks’ head coach before last season. When Ferry went on leave, Budenholzer assumed oversight of the team’s basketball operations department. Last week, the Hawks nominated Budenholzer for the league’s Executive of the Year Award.
Koonin, the team’s chief executive officer, declined a recent interview request to discuss Ferry’s status.
Many of the players, meanwhile, have expressed their support for Ferry. Budenholzer, in a brief interview last week, credited much of the team’s success to Ferry, whom he described as a close friend. Budenholzer said he had been in regular contact with Ferry.
“I think it’s probably important to both of us that those conversations are somewhat private,” Budenholzer said. “It’s safe to say that we talk about everything.”
When Budenholzer was asked if there was an ideal resolution, he replied that it would be inappropriate for him to comment.