Cover Story: Q&A with Steve Koonin

Atlanta Hawks CEO talks winning in the shadow of controversy

Five months after Steve Koonin became CEO of the Atlanta Hawks last year, he was thrust into the spotlight. As chief apologist and cheerleader, Koonin strikes a difficult balance. I met with him in the Philips Arena pressroom near the court entrance as the crowd’s cheers echoed in the background. When I told him I was working on a photo essay, he encouraged me to take pictures of the fans’ eyes — but not until the second half because he was worried about showing too many empty seats due to late arrivals. We spoke before the Hawks’ recent home victory over the Indiana Pacers.

Last year the Atlanta Hawks finished the season 38-44, and the team was pretty much nothing in Atlanta. This team is without a superstar. When you think of basketball, you think of superstars. I’m from Chicago. Michael Jordan, I grew up on that.

You’re spoiled. Look at who’s been winning championships lately — the Boston Red Sox, a bunch of scruffy guys with beards. San Francisco Giants, a bunch of scruffy guys. You know, San Antonio Spurs. So the team concept is very in vogue. And, yes, stars are great. We believe we have stars, and hopefully the All-Star Game rewards that, but I think people are enjoying the selfless way that we play.

I’m studying the box scores every night to write this story, and what strikes me is there’s a new high scorer every game. And the coach, I still can’t say the coach’s name —

Trust me, I have butchered it twice in public.

That kind of speaks to the spirit of it, you know, that his name is kind of a difficult name to say and the players are somewhat, not totally unknown, but somewhat unknown.

It’s a great collection of guys with an eye on a certain way of playing, fitting a system, space, pace, selflessness, passing up good shots to make great shots, and, you know, a lot of trust in defense number one. Defense, defense, defense.

And how much of the Hawks’ success do you trace to your T.I. video?

You know what, if you can’t have a little bit of fun, why wake up in the morning? That’s funny. That was good. You caught me off-guard with that one.

I just watched it for the first time. It seems to resonate with people because, when I mention you, they talk about that. Was that scripted at all?

No, not at all. He’s one of the best guys I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. I have an entertainment background and work with a lot of stars, and T.I. embraced us at a time we needed embracing. He came down here in the middle of shooting a movie. He drove from a studio south of here, did 20 minutes with us, and when he was walking out I said, “Let’s have some fun together.” He said, “‘I’m following you man, go.’” So it was a combination furniture store-wrestling commercial, where I might be a little clueless but we had a really good time.

Have you heard anyone say it was over the top at all?

Of course there were some critics. I think, for the most part, 99.9 percent got that it was a joke. I was trying to be cool with one of the coolest guys in the world. Worked out fine.

In terms of the season, what do you attribute the success to?

I give most of the credit to Coach Bud and the players. They tuned out the noise. They’ve gone out and done a brilliant job.... They have a mission and they have values, and they are reflecting what we want our team and our city to be.

Do you think that any of the success could be attributed to Danny Ferry? GM Danny Ferry is currently on voluntary indefinite leave.

Of course! Danny has contributed a huge amount to the organization. Absolutely.

Were you offended at all by what he said?

My point of view isn’t important. What was important was that it was a time to reflect, to take a step back. Danny wanted to do some self-examination. He asked for the time, and I granted it.

But your perspective does matter, as the CEO.

My perspective does matter but, again, I don’t think it’s relevant. ... I think we’re unanimous in agreeing that there were hurtful remarks that were made. ... I think the people of Atlanta have embraced the team. I think they have forgiven. I think we’ve been rewarded in being transparent and honest. We’ve followed through on our promises that we’ve made. Every night in this building, this is a melting pot of Atlanta. You’re seeing black and white, old and young, they’re sitting next to each other having a good time. I think our values are resonating, and I think we fixed what was the problem in the past.

How did you react to Levenson’s comments?

Well obviously I didn’t agree because our target audience in the city of Atlanta is African-Americans. I don’t think Bruce Levenson really understood the market. I know the man and he’s a very good guy, but I don’t think he understood the marketplace and the opportunity. That’s something that we’ve moved from.

Do you think that Danny Ferry will rejoin the team?

I don’t know that. I’ve learned never to speculate.

What would you say to people who say the diversity and inclusion officer position is just window dressing?

It’s not window dressing. That’s such a ridiculous comment. It’s hard to respond. Nzinga Shaw is part of our organization, part of our DNA. One of the things that I’m looking at is how do we do outreach to the gay community. Atlanta has the third biggest gay population among U.S. cities. How do we outreach to the Asian community? We’ve started with Spanish language radio. How do we connect to communities? This building, Philips Arena, is literally town hall for Atlanta. It has things from kids shows to religious shows to country shows to metal bands and on and on and on. We are all about audiences, so I think hiring a chief diversity inclusion officer has turned out to be one of the better things that we’ve done.

Well, it’s the first time it’s been done and it seems to be done a little bit in reaction—

It was done in reaction. We did a self-examination. There were mistakes made for a long time, and so you’ve gotta break habits with force ... by bringing somebody in. Nzinga has been incredibly helpful to me and the executive committee and to our whole organization. It’s something that I like to be ahead of the curve on. And I think we’re far enough ahead of the curve where we can sit down a few years from now and she won’t be the only one. I love being the first.

Do you think if there’s new ownership, they’ll keep her on?

I have no way to guess. New ownership buys the team because they believe in what we’re doing. It’s not buying chairs and baskets and balls. It’s buying a team, and the team’s being managed and run in a way we think reflects the city that we’re in, and reflects the opportunity that exists here in Atlanta to connect with all the different communities. And I think we’re doing a very good job of being inclusionary.

What would you photograph if you were taking the pictures tonight?

I would photograph people’s eyes. I think that if we do this right, it’s really an entertainment bonanza and there’s so much to see. Did you see Monday’s MLK projection? Before the start of the MLK Day game, images of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were projected onto the court.

Yes. I was here.

That was amazing. ... I’m so proud of that. That wasn’t done with “Oh, how do we honor Dr. King in this year that we had a racial incident?” It’s like, “How do we bring our heritage of Atlanta to the Hawks?” And the choir singing the player intros was brilliant. That was planned by some guys who are not the senior executives. We build an environment where people can bring their best selves to work and be successful. ... I think we’re doing things that build a brand. My background has been building brands, whether it’s been at Coca-Cola or Sprite or TBS or TNT or Turner Classic Movies. The Hawks need to stand for something and mean something to the people of Atlanta. I think we’re planting the seeds to do that. We are far from done, but I think the seeds are taking root.

How far do you think they can go, honestly?

I don’t know. You learn when you move from being not “in sports” to “in sports” that whatever you ... predict is usually wrong. I thought we’d be very good. This is insane. I mean, we’re playing at an incredible, record-setting level.

Do you feel motivated at all as an organization by what happened in September?

Motivated? I mean, my God, it’s the reason we wake up every day, to make it right.

This interview has been edited and condensed.