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Basketball is back, but the Hawks are still going beyond posting a black square

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Hawks principal owners Tony Ressler, Jami Gertz and Lloyd Pierce are still pushing for social change

Early Voting Begins In Georgia Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

After nine months, which included a national broadcast from the feed of Trae Young’s iPhone playing HORSE in his backyard; four months of bubble basketball and hockey at the same time of a condensed WNBA and MLB season; a week of mini-camp; a week of pre and post-draft interviews; and a week of training camp Zooms — the Atlanta Hawks finally played a basketball game on Dec. 11.

With nine months of anticipation sitting on his shoulders as he addressed a Zoom call with local media members, Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce gave his first opening statement of the season.

“Now that basketball’s back and everyone’s focused on basketball, I want to start off by reading something,” Pierce said. “This comes from the Equal Justice Initiative. Many of you guys know I got involved with (Equal Justice Initiative founder) Bryan Stevenson over the summer and through the course of all the racial injustice issues that we’ve encountered. One of the things we’ve committed to as coaches is to read from the calendar as often as we can and share the calendar.

“Fittingly, today Dec. 11, in 1917, the U.S. Army executes 13 Black soldiers in Texas.”

Pierce used “fittingly” because it came a day after Brandon Bernard’s execution made national news.

Bernard was executed for a part he played in a 1999 murder when he was 18. Bernard didn’t shoot the murdered couple, according to his defense team, but Christopher Vialva was convicted of doing so. Vialva was executed in September. The other three teenagers involved in the murder were spared the death penalty and are currently serving long prison sentences.

In the days leading up to Bernard’s execution, his defense team asked for a pardon from President Donald Trump. The seventh circuit court of appeals denied several appeals arguing prosecutors held back important information pertaining to the case, citing racial biases against Bernard. The Trump administration decided to let the execution happen, following the law of the land.

“It’s just a strict and harsh reminder to what is still going on amongst many other things and it’s just one of those fitting things that just so happened popped on the calendar,” Pierce said.

The day before the Hawks’ first preseason game, the organization announced it was taking a $35 million loan from a host of Black banks to refinance the construction loan for the Emory Sports Medicine Complex.

“Black banks seldomly have an opportunity to meaningfully participate in large transactions of high-credit quality, due to lending limits caused by capital constraints,” Black Bank Fund financial advisor Brandon Comer, of the Comer Capital Group, said.

Comer opened Thursday’s announcement by saying the partnership was a large step in the fight against racial injustice.

“And let’s be clear,” Comer said, “financial inclusion is racial justice.”

The loan was the first time a group of Black banks has partnered with a professional sports franchise. The National Black Bank Foundation has reached out to all 29 other NBA franchises and 32 NFL franchises.

“Guys, let there be no confusion, credit to (Hawks Chief Operating Officer) Thad (Sheely),” Hawks owner Tony Ressler said. “He came to me and said we could do some great business and something great for the community. I don’t know, I can’t speak for everyone on this call, it’s as easy of a decision as you can have. He didn’t come to me and say, ‘Hey, we can take on a bad loan from a group of Black-owned banks.’ No, no, he said, ‘We could provide a great refinancing for the Atlanta Hawks and do business with a really high member of our community.’ Under the category of who had the easiest job here, I think I can put my hand up and say that was a pretty easy yes.”

Sheely is friends with Black Bank Fund founder Ashley Bell and marched with him in the wake of George Floyd’s murder this past summer.

“In the NFL, we’ve replaced symbols for systems,” Ryan Clark, NBBF board member, former NFL player and ESPN analyst, said. “The institutions and the systematic and systemic racism that affects us, we’ve just used symbols. We’ve just put ‘Black Lives Matter’ in the end zone. We do certain things to make people feel as if we’re making a move, but we really aren’t. This is why I’m so grateful to the Atlanta Hawks because this now continues a conversation.”

Clark also said the NFL’s competitive nature seeing the Hawks and the NBA make the move first should put them in a position to make a similar transaction.

While the Hawks’ offseason work off the court continues, the on-the-court offseason results were already showing this past weekend. In the team’s 116-107 win over the Orlando Magic Sunday, an exhibition where both teams played their starters through the final buzzer, Bogdan Bogdanovic scored 18 points, Solomon Hill added 10 points off the bench in place of Cam Reddish, Clint Capela gave the team a solid anchor down low with a 12-point, 12-rebound performance and Danilo Gallinari added 17 points and seven rebounds.

“We’re trying to win basketball games,” Ressler said. “We’re trying to run a first-class organization.

“Eighty percent of NBA players are African American. We’re trying to do business with our community. We’re trying to be a force of good in the community. We’re trying to help Black economic power in our community. We think that’s all good business.”

In October, the Ressler Gertz Family Foundation celebrated five years of ownership by announcing it was investing $40 million in Atlanta, bolstering economic empowerment in the Black community. The plan includes contributing $5 million to the Herman J. Russell Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, America’s largest non-profit center for Black entrepreneurs to expand its reach and provide financial support to local Black-owned businesses through increased access, opportunity and exposure.

The Russell family’s journey to Black royalty in Atlanta is rooted in real estate and construction. Russell Construction Services have worked with the Hawks in the State Farm Arena transformation and the Emory Sports Medicine Complex.

Currently, the company is involved in the Centennial Yards project downtown, formerly known as the Gulch Project. Centennial Yards could end up being only a mile away from the Russell Center. Ressler said he expects $5 billion to be invested into downtown Atlanta and 10-million square feet to be developed in the project.

“All of this, hopefully, will lead to many entrepreneurs and minority-owned companies being involved in what gets developed,” Ressler said.

As a team, whose proceeds of its MLK city edition jerseys are going to support Atlanta economic empowerment programs, heads back on the floor and grabs national attention with its roster additions, its front office has reminded the general public of its summer promise of lending a helping hand to the Black community hasn’t been forgotten, and the words have gone beyond the simple Instagram post of a black square.