Atlanta Hawks

How the Hawks deal was done

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Grant Hill, a seven-time NBA all-star, took the shot that led to the Hawks' new ownership group buying the team.

Hill and three basketball-loving friends had pursued a purchase of the Hawks since the franchise was put up for sale in January, but by early April they had gotten nowhere.

"I thought I was out," Hill said.

Then, on April 9, one day before final bids were due, he took a shot at a comeback by placing a call to a Los Angeles billionaire who hadn't previously shown interest in buying the Atlanta team.

"I'm on the phone saying, 'There's a chance here, Tony, there's an opportunity,'" Hill recalled.

Tony Ressler, who made his fortune in the investment business, asked a few questions and was immediately intrigued.

"We jumped right in," Ressler said.

Hill's phone call triggered a series of events that culminated last week with a Ressler-led group, which includes Hill and about a dozen others, taking over as owner of the Hawks.

Within 24 hours of Hill's call, Ressler agreed to lead the group, which at that point included Hill, wealthy Hawks fan Jesse Itzler and New York private-equity executives Rick Schnall and Steve Starker -- four friends with keen interest in the business and sport of basketball. All are part of the group that now owns the team and Philips Arena operating rights.

"We needed someone who had the vision, had the leadership and had the wherewithal to really make this happen," Hill said.

"We needed a Tony," Itzler said. "We explored other options, but nothing was really the right fit until Tony came in. Just philosophically, we shared the same vision and the same wants. ... We were involved in another bid early on, then the four of us just broke away and kind of were an independent group looking to connect with the right fit."

Teaming with Ressler happened "lightning fast" after Hill's call, Itzler said.

Ressler and his new partners apparently missed the loose April 10 deadline for final bids, but they made it known then that a comprehensive offer was imminent. Days earlier, two other bid groups -- one led by Lions Gate Entertainment chairman Mark Rachesky and the other by Oaktree Capital Management principal Steve Kaplan -- were said to be the finalists. Ressler's group had to move fast.

"Tony has looked at business deals that are a lot bigger and more complicated than this," Hill said. "It was cut and dry, pretty easy. Look at the expenses; look at how you determine the value. We got to a number very easily."

"We put forward, collectively, the most attractive bid," Schnall said.

Ressler long had sought to own a professional sports franchise. He, Hill and others partnered last year on an unsuccessful bid for the Los Angeles Clippers. They offered $1.2 billion, but fell far far short of former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's winning bid of $2 billion.

Hill's phone call about the Hawks didn't catch Ressler by surprise. Hill had mentioned his interest in the team to Ressler months earlier, "but nothing materialized from that," Hill said. "I didn't get the impression (he was interested)."

"I know I came to the party late," Ressler said.

He was able to make up for lost time, he said, because he knew the Atlanta market from other business dealings and had studied the Hawks "a little bit."

"When Grant gave me a call and said it just seems to be in the area of very expensive but not beyond insanity -- not Clippers money, maybe, but something we might get our arms around -- I did real work quickly," Ressler said.

At his regular Sunday pick-up basketball game in Los Angeles on April 19, Ressler told a friend to expect some big news in the week ahead.

On April 22, the Hawks announced a "definitive agreement" for Ressler's group to buy the team and the arena rights. As the NBA approval process unfolded over the next two months, other investors joined the group.

The deal, valued at $730 million, closed Wednesday after the NBA Board of Governors unanimously approved the transaction. Ressler, who prefers email over text messages, was informed of the approval in a text from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. And thus the Hawks changed hands after 11 years under the turbulent ownership of the group originally known as Atlanta Spirit.

The new ownership group includes about 15 members, not all of whom have been named publicly.

Ressler said he owns "pretty close" to 50 percent, but he wouldn't be more specific about his or any other investor's stake. One person involved in the deal put Ressler's stake at 47 percent, while another said 51 percent.

In any case, the group has committed that Ressler alone will have final say on ownership decisions -- a departure from the fractured governance structure of the Spirit era.

"A set of rules that the NBA has put in over the last several years to make it very clear how teams should be governed, I think, helped set up governance around teams so that those problems should not happen again," Schnall said. "The governance is clearer than it has ever been."

In addition to Ressler, the new ownership group includes a second member of Forbes magazine's billionaires list: Sara Blakely, who is the founder of Atlanta-based shapewear company Spanx and is married to Itzler.

"It's very much through my husband's interest in basketball (that she got involved in the deal)," Blakely said. "He's the biggest fan, has been playing his whole life, so I was excited.

"Of course, I'm a huge fan of Atlanta. This city has been amazing to me and is where I started my business. So to have an opportunity to be involved in something that could further support the community was great. And now I have three sons, too. I'm completely outnumbered. It's all men in my house now, and they're all about basketball."

Blakely said she also evaluated the deal from a business perspective.

"The more I talked to people in the group, the more comfortable I got with what a great actual investment it is -- not only a fun thing to do for the community and for our family," she said.

Schnall traced his involvement in the deal to a 20-year friendship with Itzler.

The ownership group also includes several other investors from New York, including radio executive Steven Price and investment executives Bob Goodman and Ted Virtue. Several Atlanta-based members of the previous ownership group, including Michael Gearon Jr., have retained a 1-percent stake.

Ressler will be chairman of the Hawks' board of directors, and Hill will be vice chairman.

At mid-afternoon Thursday, as he scarfed a late lunch on a hectic day, Hill reflected on how a phone call allowed him to achieve his dream of owning a piece of an NBA team.

"This is something that I've been thinking about for a long time," the former Duke and NBA star said. "This is not, like, 'OK, I've retired from playing; what am I going to do now?' I was thinking about ownership in 1995."

That was his rookie year with the Detroit Pistons.

Hill admitted, though, that ownership came sooner than he realistically might have expected, just two years after the end of his playing career.

"The stars and the moon and everything aligned perfectly, I guess, for this particular deal," he said.