How Joe Johnson (unwittingly) ran the Thrashers out of town

Here's where it all began: In August 2005, Billy Knight snubs Steve Belkin. (AP photo)

Here's where it all began: On Aug. 9, 2005, Billy Knight snubs Steve Belkin. (AP photo)

If I can return to the Thrashers, who as we know won’t be returning …

I don’t blame Atlanta as a city. I don’t blame hockey as a sport. I don’t blame Gary Bettman as a commissioner. I blame the Atlanta Spirit for buying a product that none among their membership really wanted and neglecting it.

In a weird way, I also blame Joe Johnson.

The Spirit took ownership of the Thrashers, the Hawks and Philips Arena in March 2004. In the summer of 2005 Billy Knight, then the Hawks’ general manager, sought to work a sign-and-trade with Phoenix for the restricted free agent Joe Johnson. Knight offered Boris Diaw, who’d been the Hawks’ No. 1 draftee in 2003, and two future No. 1 pick. Steve Belkin, whom the Spirit had installed as the team’s NBA governor, thought the price was too high.

The many other Spirit members moved to overthrow Belkin as governor so that the trade — described by one of the Spirit’s lawyers as “critical to the future of the the Atlanta Hawks” — could be made. Belkin sought a restraining order against his partners, and a Boston judge granted it. (It was in that courtroom that the famous photo of Knight refusing to shake Belkin’s hand was taken.)

Ultimately NBA commissioner David  Stern intervened and allowed the other eight Spirit members to buy out Belkin, prompting a triumphant press conference at Philips Arena in which Johnson was introduced as a Hawk and Knight hailed as a conquering hero. But Belkin took his case to a Maryland court, where he found a judge who ruled in 2006 that he could buy out the others.

If you’re charting the Thrashers’ first step toward Winnipeg, start right there. The resulting litigation would last five years and essentially freeze the Spirit’s assets. This became clear when the Spirit — having finally bought out Belkin on Dec. 23, 2010 — filed a lawsuit this January against the law firm King & Spalding for malpractice. In the lawsuit, the Spirit claimed the five-year fight against Belkin had kept the Thrashers from being sold.

Joe Johnson is introduced as a Hawk. (AJC file photo)

Joe Johnson is introduced as a Hawk. (AJC file photo)

There was never a great feeling for hockey among the Spirit. Belkin wanted a basketball team, having tried to buy the expansion Charlotte Bobcats. The Gearons were Hawks fans from way back. (Michael Gearon Sr. had been the Hawks’ president when Ted Turner owned the team.)

If not for the fight against Belkin, the Spirit might well have sold the Thrashers in 2006 or 2008. Instead these owners were forced to keep the team. The Hawks’ payroll kept rising. (With last summer’s $120 million re-upping of Johnson — yep, him again — it became the NBA’s seventh-highest.) The Thrashers’ payroll was consistently among the NHL’s lowest. (It ranked 28th in the 30-team league this past season.)

If you wondered why the Spirit kept Don Waddell as GM as long as it did, the answer was monetary: He didn’t go over his meager budget. With the Spirit spending to fight off Belkin in court and making the attempt — give the owners credit here — to better the Hawks, costs had to cut somewhere. These are wealthy men, yes, but they’re not Arthur Blank.

To no one’s surprise, the two best players in Thrashers history — Marian Hossa and Ilya Kovalchuk — were traded ahead of impending free agency. (Neither would take what Waddell was offering to stay.) The Thrashers made the playoffs in 2007 but never again. Attendance cratered, and no wonder.

Timeline: Belkin is bought out in December 2010, which means his 30 percent ownership stake goes away, which means the remaining Spirit members have to shoulder an even greater burden. In January the Spirit files its lawsuit against King & Spalding, a fairly embarrassing tactic — who wants to take on lawyers to court? — that was made necessary because the Spirit was low on money. (The lawsuit identifies $194 million in damages caused by King & Spalding’s mistakes in drawing up an ownership contract that favored Belkin.)

May 31, 2011: Closed for business. (AJC photo by Jason Getz)

May 31, 2011: Closed for business. (AJC photo by Jason Getz)

In February Michael Gearon Jr. tells esteemed colleague Chris Vivlamore that the Thrashers are in dire need of outside investors and that if none can be found, the team will be sold even if it means Atlanta loses hockey. “I don’t think there is an ability to stomach another $20 million in losses,” Gearon says, which told us how thinly the Belkin-less Spirit was stretched and brought us, not incidentally, back to Joe Johnson.

Owing to his new contract, he makes $20 million a year. The sale of the Thrashers will bank a net $110 million for the Spirit, which is $10 million less than they paid to keep Johnson through 2016. As simplistic as it may be to say that one basketball player had a direct effect on a hockey team … well, check those numbers.

Both the perception and the reality of the Atlanta Spirit changed in the summer of 2005. Until then, we’d viewed the group as a well-meaning bunch of guys who’d kept two of our teams from falling into the hands of a Texas car dealer. After Knight-versus-Belkin-regarding-Johnson, we saw them as a bunch of squabbling amateurs who couldn’t stay out of court. And those five years of entangling litigation are the reason we’re again without an NHL franchise.

By Mark Bradley

95 comments Add your comment

GTT

June 9th, 2011
12:06 pm

GTT

June 9th, 2011
12:08 pm

How appropriate that Joe is now the anchor that will sink the franchise.

KeepDreaming

June 9th, 2011
12:16 pm

Good article Mark. But hockey doesnt belong in the south. It was all inevitable if you ask me.

Mark Bradley

June 9th, 2011
12:16 pm

Kudo-ish, GTT.

GA HEEL

June 9th, 2011
12:16 pm

Mark, do you know what players were picked from those draft picks the Hawks gave away? At the time I also thought they gave up too much for JJ.

Benjamin

June 9th, 2011
12:18 pm

Poor Joe Johnson.

That guy gets blamed for EVERYTHING.

Wish I could count his money for him, though…

Bob in SF

June 9th, 2011
12:20 pm

Belkin was right about Joe.

elroy

June 9th, 2011
12:22 pm

somebody should run bradley (& most of the other columnists on the ajc) out of town. they suck!

ATL Observer

June 9th, 2011
12:25 pm

When Mark “blames” Joe Johnson, he only does so peripherally. You can’t blame JJ for taking that kind of dough. I know I’d have done it.

Texas car-dealer’s looking pretty good right about now… :-p

mike

June 9th, 2011
12:27 pm

Mark,

I usually like your work but to “blame” Joe is ridiculous. He has a job, his company offered him a deal, he took it. Bad business decisions all the way around.

If Cox offered you a gigantic salary and you took it and then they couldn’t afford Terrence Moore anymore I would’t blame you for Terrence Moore leaving.

Mr. Obvious

June 9th, 2011
12:27 pm

Joe Johnson is not Bruce Levenson.

Bruce Levenson is lying, condescending fecal matter and cannot hit a jump shot.

Mr. Obvious

June 9th, 2011
12:28 pm

What did Bruce Levenson care about pro hockey in Atlanta?

Bruce Levenson can still go watch the Capitals play in DC anytime he wants (except for Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs & Beyond, of course).

Chuck

June 9th, 2011
12:28 pm

The “$20 million” in losses are an accounting trick – it was just the rent they weren’t collecting from the Thrashers, which was pointless because they WERE the Thrashers.

They take the same “loss” on the Hawks, but they don’t complain, because they WANTED to own the Hawks and weren’t looking to sell them.

It’s a loss of potential revenue, not actual $20 million in cash they were having to dispense to ANYBODY. If that had actually been the case, none of them would have a dime right now.

Mr. Obvious

June 9th, 2011
12:30 pm

As a devoted Thrashers season ticket holder who poured his heart into that franchise, I say each and every member of the [so-called] “Atlanta Spirit Group” should get the business end of a broken, splintered hockey stick along with a complimentary can of Crisco.

The “Atlanta Spirit Group” will eventually be a case study of in Business 101 courses in colleges and universities across this country of what NOT to do to be successful (or even average) in business.

South ga boy in the atl

June 9th, 2011
12:33 pm

It’s somewhat convoluted logic but it does fall in the “strange but true” category. Mark, does this mean (in your opinion) the 110 mil will be invested in the Hawks future or will this “sad sack” bunch stick it back in their pockets. PS I don’t buy Michael Gearons crocodile tears he shed on the “Buck and Kincaid show” the day of the sale

article_writer_101

June 9th, 2011
12:34 pm

This article was a big waste of ink!

Mr. Obvious

June 9th, 2011
12:38 pm

If Michael “Whatever You Say, Brucie!” Gearon had any honor whatsoever, that limp-wristed combover would now find another city in which to live.

Puck Like A Porn Star

June 9th, 2011
12:38 pm

Thrashers fans have been saying this for months, but thanks for putting this in the spotlight.

Joe Johnson being a complete waste just makes this scenario ridiculous enough to meet Atlanta’s standards for sports disasters.

BrownsFan4Life

June 9th, 2011
12:41 pm

Hockey belongs where it will be supported whether its the north or south. Go Lightning!

Mike

June 9th, 2011
12:41 pm

I think that the ASG need to sell the Hawks and Phillps, get it over with. They know that they are going to be branded for the rest of their lives as the ones that let Hockey die in ATL. Mark, any news about that anyway, any new takers for the Hawks/Phillips and if the local people will get involved with Hawks if they didnt want to be with the Thrashers?

Bob in Buford

June 9th, 2011
12:43 pm

The fans weren’t apathetic, check the attendance numbers prior to 08′ and compare them to the NHL average. The point you made that the spirit members aren’t Arthur Blank is well taken. Barely millionares who want to act like billionares. I’m sure Ted Turner influenced the decision over the car dealer in favor of his son n law’s group. Ted should’ve stepped up and bought the team or it should have been offered to the car dealer at a discount.

William

June 9th, 2011
12:46 pm

They are using the thrashers sale money to pay off the debt to the NBA before they lose the hawks. I dont think Joe knows his salary sunk the thrashers, but I bet the way they did all of this will push away other NBA stars. My 3 year old could do better.

Vulture

June 9th, 2011
12:46 pm

Can we get Belkin back?

Navigator

June 9th, 2011
12:47 pm

Bad management leads to disaster. Why on earth would the Hawks spend the money for Joe Johnson who had already irritated the fans in the playoffs. He was worth half, and the dumb owners paid twice what he was worth, and by the way, who were they bidding against to get JJ?

Puck Like A Porn Star

June 9th, 2011
12:49 pm

BrownsFan4Life: are you by chance from Shaker Heights?

Nothing but the Truth

June 9th, 2011
12:55 pm

don’t blame Joe Johnson, blame billy Knight. Billy made tons of bad decisions and Belkin was right. It didn’t hurt the Hawks in giving up the 2nd pick, but Belkin’s objection was legit. If Billy Knight would have offered you that contract Bradley, you would’ve signed it too. Plus the Hawks took loses as well. Blame ownership and the fans who didn’t show up, not Joe Johnson.

Ted M

June 9th, 2011
12:58 pm

Who were the player drafted with the draft picks traded away for JJ?

chris

June 9th, 2011
1:05 pm

Funny subject line…no doubt to get more readers…

Blame Joe? Would we really be in the playoffs for the last 4 seasons without him? Playoffs means more money, revenue, etc.

cantondawg

June 9th, 2011
1:07 pm

I wish Belkin would have won the court battle.

woooooooo

June 9th, 2011
1:08 pm

SECOND!
FIRST POST EVER

Ted M

June 9th, 2011
1:10 pm

Mark did say “I also blame Joe Johnson” but I think he meant the Joe Johnson situation.

GT Alum

June 9th, 2011
1:11 pm

Nothing but the Truth -

Umm, BK didn’t give JJ the contract Bradley was talking about. Rick Sund did.

Vomax

June 9th, 2011
1:15 pm

Come on, Shultz. Your stated premise puts the responsibility on the wrong shoulders: it was the Spirit’s pursuit of Joe Johnson, NOT Joe Johnson himself, that was arguably the beginning of the end to the Thrashers. Another feat of fiscal mismanagement. Shocker.

Vomax

June 9th, 2011
1:15 pm

Okay, Bradley. Mea Culpa.

Lenny Wilkins

June 9th, 2011
1:27 pm

I blame Lenny Wilkins

Ted M

June 9th, 2011
1:27 pm

I blame Chris Paul…he wasn’t good enough in college for the Billy Knight to draft him.

Mark Bradley

June 9th, 2011
1:28 pm

What about Jon Koncak? He has to have had a hand in this, surely.

Ted M

June 9th, 2011
1:34 pm

another post disappears into oblivion

Mark Bradley

June 9th, 2011
1:37 pm

But is rescued by the intrepid moderator.

Ted M

June 9th, 2011
1:38 pm

Thrashers Fan

June 9th, 2011
1:46 pm

Thrasher fans should get together and go to a Hawks game(free tickets only) and wear our Thrashers gear! We should all sit together and chant, “Lets go Thrashers”, the whole game. We could also get a good goalie chant going to show our support for the Spirit! “Spirit, Spirit you suck”! Sounds good to me.

PuckedUp

June 9th, 2011
1:53 pm

Wow! The responses are proving how ineptly ignorant the readers are. Mark is not blaming Joe Johnson at all. He’s defining ASG idiotic ineptitude. For most of the responders here, idiotic ineptitude means really stupid people.

I was born in Atlanta, but sometimes the rap the south gets for being stupid is hammer hitting nail. Yeesh!

Gwinnett Fred

June 9th, 2011
1:54 pm

I do not agree with this line of thinking at all.

The ASG had a budget for the Hawks (as much as needed) and one for the Thrashers (as little as they could get away with).

I can guarantee you that if the Hawks let Johnson walk last year, the Thrashers would still be heading to Winnipeg – so this story is a complete comparison of apples and oranges or the way the ASG looked at them – Diamonds and CZ’s.

Everyman

June 9th, 2011
1:56 pm

Blame? Looking for Blame??
Blame the NBA for permitting the sale of the Hawks franchise to a “committee”!!!! Show me a successful sports franchise that is owned and managed by a committee of investors. It just doesn’t work with a bunch of cooks in the kitchen.

really???

June 9th, 2011
1:57 pm

KeepDreaming @ 12:16 -
I’m saddened every time I see the argument that hockey doesn’t belong in the south. I remember when the Thrashers first arrived and I heard a lot of people saying it didn’t belong. Well, how much excitement can you build if you write something off from day one? And if hockey doesn’t belong in the south, then why have Tampa Bay and Carolina both won the Stanley Cup in the last decade? Why does Carolina have a such a rabid fan base? How do you explain Miami, Carolina, Tampa, Nashville, Dallas, Anaheim, Phoenix, LA, and to an extent, San Jose?

hawks fan

June 9th, 2011
2:00 pm

MB, your logic defies logic, mostly because you can’t get your facts straight. You say that Belkin being bought out put a larger burden on the others to keep the teams running. Totally false, and if you ever read the articles written by your “esteemed colleagues,” you would know that Belkin hadn’t put in a penny since his original investment of 11.7 million in 2003. The settlement actually made things better financially. And ask the lawyers at King & Spalding off the record if they think the lawsuit is groundless. They will admit to you privately that one of their own committed an egregious act of malpractice that they hope they never have to defend in court. Why don’t you get off your ass and do a little legwork instead of sitting around making stuff up?

hawks fan

June 9th, 2011
2:08 pm

And you should ask the Tampa Bay ownership if they think hockey works in the south. They almost made the Cup finals, had great attendance this year, and still will lose more than $20 million. No tv money in the south means no team will survive long term.

Zombie Steve

June 9th, 2011
2:08 pm

I’m so tired of the morons that come in here and spew their ignorant opinions about hockey not working in the South.

Carolina and Tampa Bay have both won Stanley Cups in the past 10 years.

Nashville and Carolina made the playoffs this year.

Morons.

Hillbilly D

June 9th, 2011
2:10 pm

On their worst day, the Smiths never looked as bad as ASG.

UGADawg83

June 9th, 2011
2:13 pm

@Mike–If Mark is the cause of Terrence Moore leaving then kudos to Mark.