The biggest story in the NBA over the past week has been the bumbling and bizarre situation in Atlanta involving ownership, GM Danny Ferry and Luol Deng, a free agent this summer who eventually signed with the Miami Heat but not before inadvertently putting himself at the center of the NBA's latest racially-charged controversy. If you haven't been paying attention, here's what you need to know.
- Earlier in the week, it came out that Hawks majority owner Bruce Levenson was selling his share of the team after an insensitive email from 2012 surfaced discussing the demographics of Atlanta's attendance woes. Levenson had reportedly told the league about the email himself, and after a meeting with NBA officials he agreed to sell. Whether the email was actually offensive or the byproduct of an issue NBA owners have been dealing with forever -- how to market a majority black league to a majority white ticket-buying audience -- is a matter of perspective. It seemed like a strange story at the time, and on cue, it turned out there was far more to it.
- Next came the revelation that the investigation that led to the discovery of the email started after Hawks GM Danny Ferry was caught using racial stereotypes to describe the relative shortcomings of a potential free agent. That free agent was Luol Deng, the long tenured Bulls forward who Chicago traded to Cleveland in the middle of last season. Ferry said Deng "has a little African in him", used as a pejorative, on the recordings, though he insisted the words weren't his, and instead belonged to a scouting report he was reading him.
- It appears this all came to light because Hawks minority owner Michael Gearon had long wanted Ferry fired. Ferry walked into this trap himself, and Gearon demanded he be axed for remarks ownership on the recording immediately compared to something Donald Sterling would say.
- It turns out that Ferry really was reading from a scouting report, a document that surfaced today. It didn't matter; the damage had already been done and Ferry took a voluntary leave of absence this afternoon.
It goes over a lot of things we already know. Deng wasn't happy about the spinal tap the Bulls mandated he get when the whole team came down with a similar illness in the 2013 playoffs against the Heat. Deng was the only one to receive the spinal tap (out of fear of meningitis, which, to be fair, can kill you) and his body had an awful reaction to it, keeping him in the hospital for several days and causing substantial weight loss.
It also references the ordeal surrounding Deng's torn wrist ligaments -- the Bulls wanted him to have the operation during the offseason heading into the 2012-2013 season, but Deng insisted on playing for the Great Britain national team in the Olympics.
Also included: Deng's dissatisfaction with the Bulls 'take it or leave it' contract extension offer (which ended up being $10 million more and one year longer than he got from Miami) and Deng's frustration with a bad locker room situation in Cleveland. For the most part, we knew this.
The problem here is the painting of Luol Deng as something less than a good soldier. If that is the case, it's only because Deng was standing up for himself. The phrase Ferry uttered which will eventually get him fired, "has a little African in him", is a weird and awful stereotype characterizing Deng as a sort of con man. In reality, Deng is, of course, one of the most charitable people in the NBA, but someone who wasn't going to put up with what he perceived as bullshit from the Bulls front office.
We know it's a business, but it's pretty clear here that Deng thought he deserved better than to simply be treated as an unemotive asset in the mind of the front office. He had been here since 2004 and help turned around what was, for more than a few seasons, the worst team in the NBA. Thibodeau loved him and over-worked him but Deng always did what was for the best of the team. We know about enough clashes between Deng and the Bulls (the broken leg fiasco from earlier in his career, for example) that the question becomes relatively simple: can you really blame him?
The answer, at least to me, is hell no. I'm not saying the Bulls terribly overstepped their boundaries here (it is a business), but it's tough to fault Deng after so many years of good service. Luol Deng is the man, and never forget it.
It is what it is, I suppose, which is, from an outsider's perspective, just another bummer in sports that makes us forget why we actually like this shit. Ferry's leave of absence seems likely to be the precursor for an official outster, while Deng finds himself at the center of a controversy in Atlanta after merely fielding a couple of contract offers he turned down.
It's unfortunate that stuff like this and Paul George's airheaded tweets is what we're talking about during the dead of the offseason, but that's what happens when the only games being played (in FIBA) can't draw an audience in America. We love gossip, and so we get gossip. The games can't start soon enough.P