NBA Front-Office Talk Can Be Brutal, but Execs Say Hawks’ Ferry Crossed Line

When the doors are closed, and NBA team executives are speaking freely among themselves, the words can be blunt, and the judgments harsh. A player might be called selfish, or lazy, or a knucklehead, or an alcoholic.   

Before lavishing a player with a multimillion-dollar contract, a team might scrutinize his family life, his friendships, his work habits, his drug use, his faith and even his sexuality. Nearly everything known—or saidabout a player might end up in a scouting report that shapes a team’s perceptions of him.   

There is a line, however, and the Atlanta Hawks stomped all over it in their now-infamous dossier on Luol Deng.

“He’s a good guy on the cover, but he’s an African.”

That racially charged assessment, attributed to a Cleveland Cavaliers official, found its way into the Hawks’ internal report on Deng and was repeated by general manager Danny Ferry on a June conference call with team owners.

Others on the call deemed the remarks offensive, setting off a chain of events that has rocked the franchise and renewed concerns about racism in the NBA’s executive suites.

Ferry has taken an indefinite leave of absence, his Hawks career likely over. Owner Bruce Levenson has elected to sell his controlling stake, after his own racially charged memo was discovered during an investigation of Ferry’s remarks.

And the public has been given a rare glimpse into the Hawks’ front-office machinations thanks to an ongoing battle of leaks and counter-spin between warring factions within the franchise.

We have now heard the recording of Ferry saying Deng has “got some African in him,” and we have seen a PDF of the offending scouting report, all of which raises the question: Is this really how team executives and scouts talk about players behind closed doors?

The answer, generally speaking, is no.

Detailed scouting reports like the one at the center of the Hawks controversy are common, and they can be incredibly thorough, invasive even. Teams will collect insights and anecdotes from former coaches and teammates, ball boys, trainers and reporters. The goal is to get a complete portrait of the player’s character, as well as his skills.

But references to race and ethnicity are rare, according to a small cross section of scouts and executives who spoke with Bleacher Report.

The five people interviewed have a combined 68 seasons of front-office experience, with multiple franchises. None have worked for the Hawks. All were granted anonymity to protect their relationships. All said they were stunned by the racial stereotyping in the Hawks’ report on Deng.

“I’ve never seen anything like what was in that report, just in terms of the language,” said a former team executive with nearly two decades of front-office experience. “I think most people would tell you that would be surprising.”

A Western Conference executive put it more bluntly: “It is horrible,” he said. “For me, it’s a lot of incompetence, not racism.”

His point: Yes, it’s shocking that someone made the remark. It’s more shocking that someone would put it in a scouting report and read it on a conference call.

None of the team officials interviewed for this story view Ferry as a racist. All of them, however, questioned his judgment for making the remarks.

“There’s no defense for what he did, under any circumstances,” said the former team executive.

A longtime Western Conference scout noted, “We’re as diverse a league as anybody. There’s too many people in organizations that are going to read it that you wouldn’t [use racially charged language].”

Indeed, the NBA has long been recognized as the most progressive of the major North American sports leagues, recently receiving an A-plus for racial hiring from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.

Although there are only a handful of black general managers, and just two owners of color (Charlotte’s Michael Jordan and Sacramento’s Vivek Ranadive), NBA front offices have become increasingly diverse, which would presumably give anyone pause before making a racial remark.

One black executive with more than a decade in the league said he had never heard a racist remark in a scouting report, but speculated, “Maybe because I’m black, I may have been shielded from some comments.”

In a league where 76 percent of the players are black, racial profiling seems even more ludicrous—or at a minimum, pointless.

In the Deng report, the profiling was as puzzling as it was offensive. No one interviewed for this story had ever heard “African” used as a critiqueor as a synonym for “two-faced,” which is what the unnamed Cavaliers official was asserting in the report.

“He’s a good guy on the cover, but he’s an African,” the person said of Deng, who is from South Sudan. “He has a little two-step in himsays what you like to hear, but behind closed doors, he could be killing you.”

On the conference call, Ferry paraphrased the passage this way: “He’s a good guy overall, but he’s not perfect. He’s got some African in him. And I don’t mean that in a bad way.”

Elaborating, Ferry used the analogy of a shop owner who runs a legitimate operation up front, “but he may be selling some counterfeit stuff behind you.”

Ferry could have avoided this mess simply by saying that Deng was viewed as duplicitous by the Cavs, leaving race out of it entirely. That’s what baffled rival executives the most. Ferry risked his job and his reputation by repeating someone else’s offensive remarksand without stipulating that the words were not his.

Scouting reports are filled with labels and coded language. The player who spends all of his time complaining and riling up teammates? That’s the “locker-room lawyer.” The guy who refuses to run plays? “Coach killer.” The guy who never works hard? “A dog.” The guy with the bad attitude and the short temper? “Ticking time bomb.”

And while race is rarely discussed, some geographic stereotypes persist. International players, particularly those from Europe, are still frequently tagged as “soft.” The phrase “typical Euro” is immediately understood: good shooter, weak defender, lacks toughness.

White players get stereotyped, too.

“When I first started, a scout told me, ‘American-born white centers fail. Stay away from them,’” said a second Western Conference executive. “That was 15 years ago.”

A ridiculous generalization? Perhaps. But at the time it rang true, with teams having badly overpaid the likes of Bryant Reeves, Jim McIlvaine, Travis Knight and Chris Dudley.

“You start looking at all the research and the numbers (at the time), and there’s some merit to it,” the same executive said. “But it’s a stereotype.”

Talent evaluators rarely focus on race, ethnicity or nationality these days. They are much more fixated on character. Here’s one scout’s laundry list of questions that might be addressed before deciding whether to recommend a player to ownership:

“Does he work hard? Does he go to practice? Does he get to the gym without someone asking him to go the gym? Does he seek out help to get better, or does he only do what he’s asked to do?

“Does he lift weights and work in the offseason on his game? Does he take care of his body? Does he sleep at night, or is he partying all the time? Is he a partier? Is he a drinker? Is he a smoker? Beyond that, is he a follower? Is he independent? Is he a leader?

“Is he a winner? Has he won in college? Won in high school? Won in the pros? Around his teammates, is he a positive guy, a negative guy, a neutral?

“What’s his family situation? Does he have one or more kids? Does he have a posse? Is he married? A serious girlfriend?”

Aside from all of that, teams want to know basic personality traits, like how well the player treats other people. Or, as the scout put it: “Whether they’re a butt-hole off the court. That’s a big thing.”

This information is often shared with a team’s owners via conference call, especially during free agency or trade talks. Many franchises have large ownership groups, and all of those part-owners want to be part of the process. These calls are also routinely taped and transcribed, either for posterity’s sake, or to distribute to the owners who couldn’t make the call.

“I’m always cautious,” said a longtime Eastern Conference general manager.

Several executives also raised this point: When you pick up the phone, there’s no telling who else is on the call, so it’s wise to filter your comments, divulging only the most critical information.

Atlanta’s fractious ownership group made for an even more perilous situation for Ferry. Levenson and Ferry are closely aligned, and Ferry had largely shut out the minority partners, creating resentment, according to team sources.

“At no point would I go into any sort of details like he ever mentioned,” said the first Western Conference executive. “Not only is it the wrong thing to say, it’s not even the level of detail I would ever tell an owner.”

The Western Conference scout concurred, saying that his guiding policy is, “You should always write your report thinking that the owner might read it…or that the opponent might read it. So that would eliminate the Luol Deng issue.”

That view was not universal, however. Generally speaking, team owners want an unvarnished assessment, and that might include repeating some impolite descriptions, the second Western Conference executive said.

“You get the information,” he said. “What do you filter? And say somebody comes up and says, ‘This guy’s a (expletive).’ And the owner says, ‘What did his former team say?’ Do you say he’s a (expletive)? How do you rephrase that? It’s a fine line.”

And if the information being quoted is potentially offensive, it’s usually wise to add a disclaimer. “I’ve said it maybe 15,000 times: ‘These aren’t my words.’ But the job was to go get the information.”

And yes, these exhaustive scouting reports sometimes veer into delicate territory.

Gang concerns have largely faded over the last 15 years, but teams might ask about a player’s circle of friends back home, based on where they grew up.

“The majority of guys in the NBA now are good guys,” the second Western Conference executive said. “A lot of the inner-city [players], they’re fading away.”

And although Jason Collins proved definitively last season that an openly gay man can play in the NBA without wrecking team chemistry or creating some imagined “distraction,” some teams still inquire about a player’s sexuality as part of their intelligence gathering.

If a GM believes his owner or coach would objecton religious grounds or otherwiseit puts the onus, albeit uncomfortably, on the front office to provide the information. That said, “It’s becoming much easier now” to avoid the topic altogether, the Eastern Conference GM said, because society at large has become more accepting.

Drug and alcohol use and an overabundant nightlife are much larger concerns. Scouts and coaches generally know who the heavy drinkers and the so-called “potheads” are, and that information is generally shared as well.

If a player is considered two-faced, a team might want to know that, too. But this might be the strangest aspect of the Hawks saga: It’s hard to find anyone in the NBA (outside of Cleveland, apparently) with a negative word to say about Deng.

In Chicago, Deng was considered a model teammate and consummate professional. He’s also been widely lauded for his humanitarian work, particularly in war-ravaged South Sudan. Last spring, Deng received the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award in recognition of his efforts.

Offensive language notwithstanding, the problem with the Hawks’ report on Deng, rivals said, was that it was simply inaccurate. And although some feel sympathy for Ferry, they all seem certain he’s going to lose his job.

“A huge error in judgment,” the second Western Conference executive said. “I just hope I don’t make that same error one day.”

 

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

Read more NBA news on BleacherReport.com

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NBA Front Office Talk Can Be Brutal, but GMs Say Hawks’ Ferry Crossed Line

When the doors are closed, and NBA team executives are speaking freely among themselves, the words can be blunt, and the judgments harsh. A player might be called selfish, or lazy, or a knucklehead, or an alcoholic.   

Before lavishing a player with a multimillion contract, a team might scrutinize his family life, his friendships, his work habits, his drug use, his faith and even his sexuality. Nearly everything known—or saidabout a player might end up in a scouting report that shapes a team’s perceptions of him.   

There is a line, however, and the Atlanta Hawks stomped all over it in their now-infamous dossier on Luol Deng.

“He’s a good guy on the cover, but he’s an African.”

That racially charged assessment, attributed to a Cleveland Cavaliers official, found its way into the Hawks’ internal report on Deng, and was repeated by General Manager Danny Ferry on a June conference call with team owners.

Others on the call deemed the remarks offensive, setting off a chain of events that has rocked the franchise and renewed concerns about racism in the NBA’s executive suites.

Ferry has taken an indefinite leave of absence, his Hawks career likely over. Owner Bruce Levenson has elected to sell his controlling stake, after his own racially charged memo was discovered during an investigation of Ferry’s remarks.

And the public has been given a rare glimpse into the Hawks’ front-office machinations thanks to an ongoing battle of leaks and counter-spin between warring factions within the franchise.

We have now heard the recording of Ferry saying Deng has “got some African in him,” and we have seen a PDF of the offending scouting report, all of which begs the question: Is this really how team executives and scouts talk about players behind closed doors?

The answer, generally speaking, is no.

Detailed scouting reports like the one at the center of the Hawks controversy are common, and they can be incredibly thorough, invasive even. Teams will collect insights and anecdotes from former coaches and teammates, ball boys, trainers and reporters. The goal is to get a complete portrait of the player’s character, as well as his skills.

But references to race and ethnicity are rare, according to a small cross-section of scouts and executives who spoke with Bleacher Report.

The five people interviewed have a combined 68 seasons of front-office experience, with multiple franchises. None have worked for the Hawks. All were granted anonymity to protect their relationships. All said they were stunned by the racial stereotyping in the Hawks’ report on Deng.

“I’ve never seen anything like what was in that report, just in terms of the language,” said a former team executive with nearly two decades of front-office experience. “I think most people would tell you that would be surprising.”

A Western Conference executive put it more bluntly: “It is horrible,” he said. “For me, it’s a lot of incompetence, not racism.”

His point: Yes, it’s shocking that someone made the remark. It’s more shocking that someone would put it in a scouting report, and read it on a conference call.

None of the team officials interviewed for this story view Ferry as a racist. All of them, however, questioned his judgment for making the remarks.

“There’s no defense for what he did, under any circumstances,” said the former team executive.

A longtime Western Conference scout noted, “We’re as diverse a league as anybody. There’s too many people in organizations that are going to read it that you wouldn’t” [use racially charged language.]

Indeed, the NBA has long been recognized as the most progressive of the major North American sports leagues, recently receiving an A-plus for racial hiring from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.

Although there are only a handful of black general managers, and just two owners of color (Charlotte’s Michael Jordan and Sacramento’s Vivek Ranadive), NBA front offices have become increasingly diverse, which would presumably give anyone pause before making a racial remark.

One black executive with more than a decade in the league said he had never heard a racist remark in a scouting report, but speculated, “Maybe because I’m black, I may have been shielded from some comments.”

In a league where 76 percent of the players are black, racial profiling seems even more ludicrous—or at a minimum, pointless.

In the Deng report, the profiling was as puzzling as it was offensive. No one interviewed for this story had ever heard “African” used as a critiqueor as a synonym for “two-faced,” which is what the unnamed Cavaliers official was asserting in the report.

“He’s a good guy on the cover, but he’s an African,” the person said of Deng, who is from South Sudan. “He has a little two-step in himsays what you like to hear, but behind closed doors, he could be killing you.”

On the conference call, Ferry paraphrased the passage this way: “He’s a good guy overall, but he’s not perfect. He’s got some African in him. And I don’t mean that in a bad way.”

Elaborating, Ferry used the analogy of a shop owner who has a legitimate operation up front, “but he may be selling some counterfeit stuff behind you.”

Ferry could have avoided this mess simply by saying that Deng was viewed as duplicitous by the Cavs, leaving race out of it entirely. That’s what baffled rival executives the most. Ferry risked his job and his reputation by repeating someone else’s offensive remarksand without stipulating that the words were not his.

Scouting reports are filled with labels and coded language. The player who spends all of his time complaining and riling up teammates? That’s the “locker-room lawyer.” The guy who refuses to run plays? “Coach killer.” The guy who never works hard? “A dog.” The guy with the bad attitude and the short temper? “Ticking time bomb.”

And while race is rarely discussed, some geographic stereotypes persist. International players, particularly those from Europe, are still frequently tagged as “soft.” The phrase “typical Euro” is immediately understood: good shooter, weak defender, lacks toughness.

White players get stereotyped, too.

“When I first started, a scout told me, ‘American-born white centers fail. Stay away from them,’” said a second Western Conference executive. “That was 15 years ago.”

A ridiculous generalization? Perhaps. But at the time it rang true, with teams having badly overpaid the likes of Bryant Reeves, Jim McIlvaine, Travis Knight and Chris Dudley.

“You start looking at all the research and the numbers (at the time), and there’s some merit to it,” the same executive said. “But it’s a stereotype.”

Talent evaluators rarely focus on race, ethnicity or nationality these days. They are much more fixated on character. Here’s one scout’s laundry list of questions that might be addressed before deciding whether to recommend a player to ownership:

“Does he work hard? Does he go to practice? Does he get to the gym without someone asking him to go the gym? Does he seek out help to get better, or does he only do what he’s asked to do?

“Does he lift weights and work in the offseason on his game? Does he take care of his body? Does he sleep at night, or is he partying all the time? Is he a partier? Is he a drinker? Is he a smoker? Beyond that, is he a follower? Is he independent? Is he a leader?

“Is he a winner? Has he won in college? Won in high school? Won in the pros? Around his teammates, is he a positive guy, a negative guy, a neutral?

“What’s his family situation? Does he have one or more kids? Does he have a posse? Is he married? A serious girlfriend?”

Aside from all of that, teams want to know basic personality traits, like how well the player treats other people. Or, as the scout put it: “Whether they’re a butt-hole off the court. That’s a big thing.”

This information is often shared with a team’s owners via conference call, especially during free agency or trade talks. Many franchises have large ownership groups, and all of those part-owners want to be part of the process. These calls are also routinely taped and transcribed, either for posterity’s sake, or to distribute to the owners who couldn’t make the call.

“I’m always cautious,” said a longtime Eastern Conference general manager.

Several executives also raised this point: When you pick up the phone, there’s no telling who else is on the call, so it’s wise to filter your comments, divulging only the most critical information.

Atlanta’s fractious ownership group made for an even more perilous situation for Ferry. Levenson and Ferry are closely aligned, and Ferry had largely shut out the minority partners, creating resentment, according to team sources.

“At no point would I go into any sort of details like he ever mentioned,” said the first Western Conference executive. “Not only is it the wrong thing to say, it’s not even the level of detail I would ever tell an owner.”

The Western Conference scout concurred, saying that his guiding policy is, “You should always write your report thinking that the owner might read it…or that the opponent might read it. So that would eliminate the Luol Deng issue.”

That view was not universal, however. Generally speaking, team owners want an unvarnished assessment, and that might include repeating some impolite descriptions, the second Western Conference executive said.

“You get the information,” he said. “What do you filter? And say somebody comes up and says, ‘This guy’s a (expletive).’ And the owner says, ‘What did his former team say?’ Do you say he’s a (expletive)? How do you rephrase that? It’s a fine line.”

And if the information being quoted is potentially offensive, it’s usually wise to add a disclaimer. “I’ve said it maybe 15,000 times: ‘These aren’t my words.’ But the job was to go get the information.”

And yes, these exhaustive scouting reports sometimes veer into delicate territory.

Gang concerns have largely faded over the last 15 years, but teams might ask about a player’s circle of friends back home, based on where they grew up.

“The majority of guys in the NBA now are good guys,” the second Western Conference executive said. “A lot of the inner-city [players], they’re fading away.”

And although Jason Collins proved definitively last season that an openly gay man can play in the NBA without wrecking team chemistry or creating some imagined “distraction,” some teams still inquire about a player’s sexuality as part of their intelligence gathering.

If a GM believes his owner or coach would objecton religious grounds or otherwiseit puts the onus, albeit uncomfortably, on the front office to provide the information. That said, “It’s becoming much easier now” to avoid the topic altogether, the Eastern Conference GM said, because society at large has become more accepting.

Drug and alcohol use and an overabundant nightlife are much larger concerns. Scouts and coaches generally know who the heavy drinkers and the so-called “potheads” are, and that information is generally shared as well.

If a player is considered two-faced, a team might want to know that, too. But this might be the strangest aspect of the Hawks saga: It’s hard to find anyone in the NBA (outside of Cleveland, apparently) with a negative word to say about Deng.

In Chicago, Deng was considered a model teammate and consummate professional. He’s also been widely lauded for his humanitarian work, particularly in war-ravaged South Sudan. Last spring, Deng received the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, in recognition of his efforts.

Offensive language notwithstanding, the problem with the Hawks’ report on Deng, rivals said, was that it was simply inaccurate. And although some feel sympathy for Ferry, they all seem certain he’s going to lose his job.

“A huge error in judgment,” the second Western Conference executive said. “I just hope I don’t make that same error one day.”

 

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

Read more NBA news on BleacherReport.com

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Watchability: How will Hawks deal with scandal?

A racism controversy in the upper ranks of the organization complicates the Hawks’ season.

      
 

 

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Atlanta Hawks: No. 20 in NBA Watchability Rankings

A racism controversy in the upper ranks of the organization complicates the Hawks’ season.

      
 

 

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Hawks giving Dominique Wilkins statue outside of arena

The Atlanta Hawks held a press conference concerning the sale of the team. But it was also revealed that a Hawks legend will be getting his own statue very soon. It’s long overdue, in fact. Via Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Dominque Wilkins will get a statue on March 6, 2015. — Chris Vivlamore (@CVivlamoreAJC) September 16, 2014 Dominique Wilkins played 12 of his 16 NBA seasons with Atlanta, where he’s the franchise leader in points, games played, and minutes. He’s also the 12th all-time leading scorer in NBA history with 26,668 points. Wilkins was the leading scorer in the 1985-86 season and was a two-time slam dunk champion. With all these accolades, it’s a wonder what took the Hawks so long to get him a statue. Congrats to ‘Nique. *** Wilkins picture courtesy of Getty Images.

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Atlanta mayor: Plenty of potential Hawks buyers (Yahoo Sports)

The mayor has already heard from plenty of potential buyers for the Atlanta Hawks. 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. ”All six of those prospective buyers will have to go through a process to be vetted by the NBA.

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Hawks’ ownership feud uncovered racism scandal

Michael Gearon Jr. never got along with GM Danny Ferry and disagreed with co-owner Bruce Levenson.

      
 

 

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Hawks’ ownership feud uncovered Danny Ferry-Bruce Levenson racism scandal

Michael Gearon Jr. never got along with GM Danny Ferry and disagreed with co-owner Bruce Levenson.

      
 

 

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Ownership fued led to uncovering of Hawks’ scandal

Michael Gearon Jr. never got along with GM Danny Ferry and disagreed with co-owner Bruce Levenson.

      
 

 

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Atlanta mayor: Talked to 6 possible Hawks owners (Yahoo Sports)

ATLANTA, GA - JUNE 27: General Manager Danny Ferry of the Atlanta Hawksspeaks during a press conference introducing the Hawks 2014 picks on June 27, 2014 at Philips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images)

ATLANTA (AP) — Mayor Kasim Reed said Tuesday he has already talked with six potential buyers of the Atlanta Hawks and expects a sale of the team to move quickly after racially charged comments by owner Bruce Levenson and general manager Danny Ferry.


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