The NBA’s franchise in the nation’s capital seemed to be moving closer to hiring a high-ranking executive who previously resigned from another team for what has been described as a racist act at worst and an implicitly biased flub at best. If Danny Ferry were to become the Washington Wizards’ next general manager — the team invited him back for a second interview last week — he would be completing one of the most improbable comebacks in sports away from the court or field.
After all, Ferry resigned from the same position with the Atlanta Hawks in 2014 after he, for some reason, repeated several racist tropes while reading a scouting report aloud about an African-born player. The reading prompted now-former Hawks co-owner Michael Gearon Jr. to demand Ferry’s resignation for what he called a “racist slur.”
Still not sure what happened? Here’s how it all went down, according to Sports Illustrated. Ferry, a former NBA player and well established NBA exec who had previously served in leading roles at two other league franchises, read a portion of a five-page scouting report about then-free agent Luol Deng during a conference call with Hawks owners at the time.
The following is the part that got Ferry to ultimately resign:
“He’s a good guy on the cover but he’s an African,” Ferry said while reading from the report.
Those words were apparently not at all uncomfortable for Ferry to say, so he continued.
“He’s a good guy overall, but he’s not perfect. He’s got some African in him. And I don’t say that in a bad way. … He has a store out front that’s beautiful and great, but he may be selling some counterfeit stuff behind you,” Ferry read.
To be completely clear, Ferry did not write those words. But since he is a college-educated longtime NBA executive who played for 12 seasons before transitioning to the work at the executive level in a professional sports league dominated by Black men, common sense would lead one to believe that Ferry should have simply known better than to utter those very racist words whether he wrote them or not. That same logic would suggest that he would have stopped reading after the first “African” comment. But Ferry kept on going, which, Gearon said, ultimately got him to step down.
“Ferry completed the racial slur by describing the player (and impliedly all persons of African descent) as a two-faced liar and cheat,” Gearon said in the letter he wrote to ownership calling for Ferry’s resignation.
Deng, in turn, responded by saying, “I’m proud to say I actually have a lot of African in me, not just ‘a little.’” NBA star Carmelo Anthony went on the record and said of the Hawks that “[There] ain’t nobody [who] would want to go there.”
The resulted in Ferry’s leave of absence and then firing, the latter of which was a move that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said he didn’t approve of. Ferry and Silver are both alumni of Duke University while Deng attended the school for one season before turning pro.
John Thompson, the former head men’s basketball coach at Georgetown University, recently defended Ferry.
“Anybody who knows me knows I am racially conscientious, and if I thought he was [a racist], I would say that, but that is the meanest thing that I have heard,” the 77-year-old basketball legend said Tuesday during an interview on The Team 980′s Rick “Doc” Walker’s radio show.
Of course, no one called Ferry an actual racist. He just happened to willingly read words without stopping regardless of their racist content. But Thompson’s impassioned defense appeared to gloss over the very question most of Ferry critics have asked to no avail: Why would he have kept reading those words?
Conspiracy theorists have pointed to Gearon’s contempt for Ferry and claimed he leaked the private report to the media to prompt the public firing. But even if that was true, Gearon never would have had the ammunition he was looking for if Ferry didn’t voluntarily arm him by continuing to read those words.
Did Ferry not notice that what he was reading was just plain wrong on a basic human level and actually had nothing to do with basketball?
Still, despite it all, Ferry was ultimately hired by the New Orleans Pelicans in 2016 to be a special adviser to its general manager. But beyond those racist words he had spoken two years earlier, Ferry hasn’t actually achieved any real success as an NBA executive.
That truth was never more apparent than the present as Pelicans superstar forward Anthony Davis was expected to leave the team this summer in favor of a franchise that prioritized winning. Davis, who could earn $87 million more with the Pelicans than without them, was reportedly planning to leave even though the team recently won the coveted first overall pick in the NBA Draft next month. But even the prospect of playing alongside the once-in-a-generation talent of Zion Williamson was seemingly not enough to keep Davis playing for a team that Ferry was helping to run.
We’ve seen the NBA, the most progressive of the four major professional sports leagues, react to racism the right way in the past. But one has to wonder if the same level of apparent racist tolerance shown by Ferry’s second chance with the Pelicans would be afforded to someone, let alone a Black executive, who was guilty of reciting anti-Semitic stereotypes in describing a prospective player, no matter what the context.
The Wizards already have real problems on their hands — an injury prone star point guard with an inflated salary and the baggage of having Dwight Howard on your team, for starters — so it may not make sense to add what could potentially be another problem of upsetting a loyal fan base that just saw its favorite team woefully underachieve this past season.
Given the recent anti-gentrification surge in D.C., exacerbated in part by a white man suggesting Howard University relocate its historic Black college campus, Ferry, who was a local high school star in nearby Maryland, may just be the last thing Chocolate City’s pro basketball team needs in its current social and economic atmosphere.