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Hawkish Behavior

Battling practically since they became partners, the owners in Atlanta are now in court over who's the boss

It's been a long rough patch for that elite group of diehards known as Atlanta Hawks fans, whose franchise has not delivered a winning season since 1998. Hope flickered last year, when a new ownership group took over the Hawks and the NHL Thrashers and vowed to do things differently. Who knew that meant getting in a public squabble and suing each other?

At issue are the terms of a proposed trade. Last month Steve Belkin--who owns the biggest share (30%) of the nine-man ownership group--okayed a five-year, $70 million offer to Phoenix guard Joe Johnson. Since Johnson, who averaged 17.1 points per game last season, is a restricted free agent, the Suns could match the offer. They elected to pursue a sign-and-trade and agreed to a deal in which they would match the Hawks' offer, then ship Johnson, 24, to Atlanta for guard Boris Diaw and two first-round picks.

But Belkin, perhaps the most avid hoops fan in the group, refused to sign off on the deal, saying G.M. Billy King was giving up too much. Belkin's partners feel the problem is Johnson's high salary; they say Belkin only made the offer to impress fans, knowing Phoenix would match it. "He doesn't want to spend money to build this team," said Michael Gearon Sr., a minority owner and a former Hawks G.M. But Belkin insisted to SI that the disagreement was not about the "financial impact" but about "making certain that we retain basketball assets--first-round draft picks."

The owners' feud has been simmering for months. Belkin, who lives in Boston, and his partners, who live in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., clashed over the direction of the team so often that in April commissioner David Stern summoned Belkin and two partners to New York City and told them bluntly to work out their differences. But things have only gotten worse. As the Hawks' representative on the NBA Board of Governors, Belkin has the final say in transactions. His partners made him the governor for a five-year term when they bought the team, but last week they scheduled a teleconference with the league to begin the process of attempting to oust him. Belkin responded by getting a restraining order to prevent his removal. "I have no other option," he said, "but to seek legal protection" from the partners. A court hearing was scheduled for Tuesday. --Chris Mannix




 Belkin (top, left) says partners like Michael Gearon Jr. overvalue Johnson.



 [See caption above.]