Jami Gertz’s young tenure as an owner of the Atlanta Hawks came full circle on Feb. 16.
It was the end of the first half of the 2020 NBA All-Star Game as Rudy Gobert grabbed a rebound and threw an outlet pass to Hawks star Trae Young as the clock ran down. Young took one dribble, a gather step and let it fly from halfcourt as time expired.
One of the first people to jump up with both arms in the air after the shot, dawning Young’s all-star jersey, was Gertz.
Thursday marks the third-consecutive year Gertz will represent the Hawks at the NBA Draft Lottery. Her first year, she wore a red ribbon on her bra strap, and Atlanta moved up to the No. 3 overall pick, which eventually turned into both Young and Cam Reddish.
Her earliest memories of Young begin in July 2018 when the then 19-year-olds Young and Kevin Huerter went to dinner with their new owners in Utah around the time of Summer League.
“They were like babies,” Gertz said. “So you see, it’s like the lamb to the lions that first year. To see Trae last year, to see him in the All-Star Game and to see him pull up with that shot at the end of the first half, he has learned so much. He has come so far. There is so much more for him to do. He is so extraordinary.”
Gertz is proud of the entire 22-and-under core five.
“We were just getting our mojo going March 11,” Gertz said. “We were starting to get going, and it was like ‘huh. Look at John and Trae and Kevin’s feeling good and Cam Reddish. Like, Cam Reddish is just all of a sudden like ‘hello. I’m in the NBA. Here I am. Let’s go.’ I think the sky’s the limit for us. I’m so excited.”
The next key asset to be added to the franchise, along with veteran center Clint Capela, is this year’s top-8 pick. The Hawks have a 12.5 percent chance to get the first pick, 12.23 percent to pick second, 11.89 percent to go third, 11.46 percent to be fourth, 7.24 percent at five, the greatest chance at 25.74 percent to land sixth, 16.74 percent to be seventh and a 2.19 percent chance to pick eighth.
This year, Gertz will be “attending” the virtual lottery from the comfort of her home with her dog. Her husband, Tony Ressler, won’t be with her during the live airing, she said. Despite keeping the tradition of eating chocolate cake and wearing the red ribbon alive on lottery day, Gertz acknowledged the odds are still the odds.
“I’d love to go in the top five, I’d love to get the No. 1 pick,” she said. “There’s no one who doesn’t want the No. 1 pick, but the odds are the odds and the ping pong ball is the ping pong ball. I’m hopeful as always but I have so much strength in [Atlanta Hawks general manager] Travis [Schlenk] in what he does and how his team puts things together that no matter what I do, he will take it and make it something special.”
Gertz’s ribbon tradition came from early-career auditions as an actress. In the span of her 34-year career, she appeared in many notable films and TV shows like “Diff’rent Strokes,” “The Lost Boys,” “Twister,” “Seinfeld,” “ER,” “Entourage” and “Modern Family.” One of her more longstanding TV starring roles was on the early 2000’s sitcom “Still Standing.” The sitcom garnered an average of over 10 million viewers a week on CBS and it’s a show Tim Hardaway, Jr.’s mom, Yolanda Hardaway, referenced to Gertz upon meeting her in one of her first seasons owning the Hawks.
“She looked at me and she goes ‘how’s your little Bri-Bri [Gertz’s fictional son, Brian, on the show]? I’m like ‘oh my God! You’re a ‘Still Standing’ fan!’ I get a lot of love from a lot of players who grew up watching ‘Still Standing,’” Gertz said. “It’s something I’m extremely proud of.”
Having a three-decade-plus career in a high-profile field plus being married to a billionaire can put your life under a magnifying glass. With that added attention, Gertz and Ressler decided to keep their political affiliations private, according to a 2018 interview with the Hollywood Reporter. The closest Ressler has publicly gone in the political realm as the Hawks’ owner is in his pursuit to turn “The Gulch” parking lot near State Farm Arena into a residential and shopping area. Think Atlantic Station, or even a better comparison for the sake of Atlanta professional sport venues — The Battery.
This past offseason, the couple hasn’t remained mute.
First, they released a public statement in the heat of the Black Lives Matter protests in late May and early June. In the opening paragraph, Ressler’s statement read that “Black lives matter. There is no in-between.”
“Jami and I believe that as the owners of a professional sports franchise in the great city of Atlanta, we have a responsibility to take a stand and devote our resources to supporting programming and causes that bring about the most impactful changes possible,” Ressler’s statement read. “The continuing effects of centuries of racism and prejudice are massive. The inequities are plain to see in how certain communities are unjustly policed, the staggering incarceration rate and the financial disparities among different races. We are keenly aware that these are longstanding, complex issues that have no instant cures.”
Several Hawks, including Huerter, Damian Jones and Vince Carter, were led by head coach Lloyd Pierce in a march in downtown Atlanta with the NAACP. At the rally, Pierce publicly declared his desires to make State Farm Arena a polling location for Fulton County voters. After local Government approval, arena homes to franchises like the Washington Captials, Golden State Warriors and Milwaukee Bucks followed the Hawks’ suit and are now polling locations as well.
“I was incredibly proud of [Atlanta] Mayor [Keisha Lance] Bottoms,” Gertz said. “I was incredibly proud of Killer Mike. I was extremely proud of Coach Pierce and the leadership role he has taken. That march was something that was pretty-darn special. He had Maya, his daughter, and his wife with him. Kevin was there, and I think that’s what’s special about our country.
“I know everyone’s looking and there are such divisive thoughts. A lot of speech where we can be our ‘best selves, by ourselves. In our rooms where we can just tweet it out or write it out, and I can close it and go ‘yeah. Look at what I just wrote.’’ Well, you know what? Coach is walking the walk. Mayor Bottoms is keeping people safe in Atlanta, and trying to keep businesses open in Atlanta and trying to keep COVID under control in Atlanta.”
“COVID wasn’t something that a President makes up,” Gertz said. “It happened. Pandemics were going to happen. Whether we were prepared under this administration, the last administration or in four administrations or unprepared. Hopefully, we will learn how to be better. How do you know to be better unless, and excuse my expression, the sh-t hits the fan? And then you realize ‘ok. How do we make people more content in this country, and feel better about themselves and feel better about their fellow men?’ We have to do it together. We do not do it well divided. I was extremely proud, and continue to be extremely proud, for those who raised their voice for what they think is right and how they feel we should go forward.”
Gertz called seeing State Farm host early voters in Fulton County one of “those on-your-death-bed moments,” and credited team president Steve Koonin for helping make the idea a reality.
Then, the Gertz-Ressler Foundation became one of the partners in Dewayne Dedmon’s $65K small business grant competition to assist Black-owned small businesses in Atlanta.
“One thing I know at 54 years old is change is slow, it takes time and people want to be heard,” Gertz said. “I think that I want to be heard. Part of the thing that makes me Jami in my thought process and my feelings are that I want to talk about them. I want people to know it.
“Does that necessarily mean I’m going to sit in judgement of all? I’m not. People have religious beliefs that I don’t have, but who am I to say what is right and what is wrong? My point is: Vote. Vote. That’s how a democracy works. That’s what makes America beautiful. It is imperfect, and we have to make it better than we found it, and we have to continue that journey probably until the next ice age. Just keep refining it and making it better and trying different things because how do you know if something works if you don’t even give it a chance to try it?”
Ressler’s goal is to build a championship organization in Atlanta. Despite the Hawks not going to the bubble in Orlando, he’s still in tuned to the games with free agency in mind.
“There’s no rest for the weary,” Gertz said.
Every Hawks game Ressler watches on TV, he frantically takes notes on a yellow legal pad and hands them off to Pierce and/or Schlenk. Ressler and Gertz have built the team workout facility and oversaw the $192 million renovation of State Farm Arena. While Ressler focuses more on the personnel side of things, Gertz has her hands on the game day experience. In addition to her in-arena spots that let fans know all of the entertainment and food options available at State Farm, she does the groundwork of keeping the staff constantly aware of maintaining top-notch hospitality. She believes the key to an excellent product is attention to detail on all levels.
“It’s a party when you come to State Farm Arena,” Gertz said. “We have won the No. 1 fan experience for a reason. We really worked hard to get that. So I’m feeling like that is copacetic. I used to go in, you should ask Steve Koonin, I used to be like ‘there’s no toilet paper in stall four in the bathroom on the third level. There was a spill on aisle eight, it took people a good 25 minutes to come clean it up. He came without a mop.’
“I am that kind of crazy because I know what it’s like for people to buy a ticket. I bought tickets when I couldn’t afford them. I worked hard enough where I could eventually become a season ticket holder. So, I’m coming from that fan experience being in L.A. and seeing where there was great food and then the food wasn’t so good. All of those things. I care a ton about fan experience.
“So now, our court play has to match, I believe, what our arena is and what our practice facility is. All those pieces are in place. Now, we have to come with the goods on the court. It’s time. That’s what we’ve been doing for the past three years.”