By CHARLES ODUM
ATLANTA (AP) - The Atlanta Hawks released an open letter of apology to fans and city of Atlanta on Saturday, saying the organization "did not do the right thing" to correct racially inflammatory words and innuendos "over a period of years."
The apology, signed by CEO Steve Koonin, was released one day after the team announced general manager Danny Ferry was taking an indefinite leave of absence following his racially charged comments about Luol Deng.
Last Sunday, co-owner Bruce Levenson announced he'd sell his controlling share of the team following the release of his racially inflammatory comments in an email to Ferry and the team's other owners.
"We are very sorry," Koonin said in the letter.
"Over the course of the last week, the Hawks have let down our players, our employees, our fans and the city we love. Our shortcomings have been broadly shared - including how we have failed to operate well internally and externally. It has been humbling and, while we have read, seen and come to know many things about ourselves, our learnings have just begun."
Ferry described Deng, who is from South Sudan, in a conference call with the Hawks' ownership group as someone who "has a little African in him."
"He's like a guy who would have a nice store out front and sell you counterfeit stuff out of the back," said Ferry during the June call, which was recorded.
An internal investigation into Ferry's comments uncovered an email sent two years ago by Levenson, who theorized that "the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a significant season ticket base."
Koonin said the Hawks' failures were not limited to Ferry's comments or Levenson's email.
"We know enough today, based on investigations conducted by the league, by external legal counsel on behalf of the team, and information that has appeared in the media, that our shortcomings are beyond a single email, a single person or a single event," Koonin said. "To the contrary, over a period of years, we have found that there have been inflammatory words, phrases, inferences, and innuendos about race. We as an organization did not correct these failures. We did not do the right thing."
Koonin said the Hawks "must own these shortcomings and failures."
"To be clear, I am angry that this has happened," he said. "I am deeply saddened and embarrassed that this has put a blemish on our team and our city, which has always been a diverse community with a history of coming together as one. We should build bridges through basketball, not divide our community and serve as a source of pain.
"I am committed to seeing the Hawks change because of these past shortcomings. It starts by taking a hard look at ourselves, which in this case has been a particularly difficult thing to do."
Koonin said the team will work with a diversity consultant and hire a chief diversity officer.
On Wednesday, Koonin cancelled a scheduled meeting with civil rights leaders, and the leaders said they were offended.
Koonin said in the letter the team also will reach out to community leaders "not just now, but in an ongoing way to ensure that our values reflect, in the broadest sense, the community in which we play and work."