Before a game against the Miami Heat on Dec. 7, Atlanta Hawks general manager Wes Wilcox fielded questions from a group of about 200 season ticket holders and club members at a “Chalk Talk” event. As would be expected of any meeting of a group of diehard fans and a team executive, this one got slightly contentious, with fans offering their opinions on what the Hawks need to do.
Season ticket holder Clarenton Crawford, by his account, made his displeasure with coach Mike Budenholzer known, and offered to renew for two more seasons if the organization hired Mark Jackson instead. Another fan spoke about the need for a veteran point guard. And at one point, a member asked Wilcox why the Hawks’ best players were playing fewer minutes than they were at the start of the year. According to Crawford and another source who was present, Wilcox, who is white, tried to diffuse the tension with a joke:
“I know you guys may be angry with me, but I’m used to it because I have a black wife and three mixed kids, so I’m used to people being angry and argumentative.”
(In a statement released to Deadspin, Wilcox said, “At an early December chalk talk, I made a self-deprecating comment at my own expense regarding my family, which is multi-racial. This joke offended Mr. Crawford and his wife and for that, I apologize.”)
Crawford, who is black, said he and his wife Deborah were “livid” after the end of the meeting, particularly due to the team’s recent history. (Two years ago, Wilcox’s predecessor, Danny Ferry, make racially disparaging remarks about Luol Deng on a conference call; in the ensuing NBA investigation, then-owner Bruce Levenson was revealed to have sent an email implying that white fans were more valuable than black fans. Ferry resigned his post, and Levenson sold the team.)
On Dec. 16, Crawford decided to email Hawks CEO Steve Koonin to voice his concerns. Crawford wrote that he and his wife were offended not only by Wilcox’s remarks but by his having turned to a white team employee with whom he was holding court to ask if his joke was okay.
Koonin responded eight minutes later, but failed to address Wilcox’s joke:
Crawford was unsatisfied and pressed Koonin, asking if Wilcox would face any discipline and telling him that he planned to “be an activist in this matter.”
Koonin attempted to call Crawford on the phone after this, missing him because the Crawfords were out of town for the holiday. Eventually, they arranged for a sit-down meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 3 along with Hawks senior VP Nzinga Shaw, whom the Hawks hired as the NBA’s first diversity officer in the wake of the Ferry and Levenson scandals.
By Crawford’s account, Koonin apologized on Wilcox’s behalf, and Shaw said that she’d been counseling Wilcox.