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Tuesday, August 9, 2005
Hawks ownership at odds over Joe Johnson trade

Associated Press

BOSTON -- A judge stepped into the feud among Atlanta Hawks owners Tuesday, blocking the removal of Boston businessman Steve Belkin as managing partner.

Judge Allan van Gestel granted Belkin's request for a temporary injunction, saying a contract signed by all the owners last year prevents the group from voting him out.

The dispute stems from Belkin's refusal to approve a sign-and-trade deal for the Hawks to acquire guard Joe Johnson from the Phoenix Suns. As the team's NBA governor, he must sign off on all trades.

As part of the nine-member Atlanta Spirit LLC group, which also owns the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers and the operating rights to Philips Arena, Belkin owns 30 percent of the team.

The other members had planned to vote Tuesday to replace Belkin with co-owner Michael Gearon Jr. Instead, they asked NBA commissioner David Stern for permission to remove Belkin.

The ruling extends indefinitely a temporary restraining order obtained by Belkin last week and can be appealed to a higher court. The judge said Belkin's refusal to approve the Johnson deal was not grounds for his removal.

"It is hardly apparent on the present record that the deal for Johnson, however talented he may be ... is in the economic best interest of the franchise," the judge wrote. "Sometimes the cost is just too great."

The five-year contract the Hawks offered Johnson -- worth about $70 million, including $20 million for the first year -- would have made him the team's highest-paid player. Atlanta would also give Phoenix two first-round picks, second-year guard Boris Diaw and a $4.9 million trade exception.

"Steve Belkin simply thinks that's too much to pay for Joe Johnson," Belkin's lawyer, John Fabiano, told the judge.

The feud has overshadowed attempts in the offseason to improve the team with the fewest wins in the NBA last season.

James W. Quinn, a lawyer representing the other owners, compared the Johnson deal to the Celtics' acquisition of Larry Bird, a move that led to three NBA titles for Boston in the 1980s.

"This transaction -- the Joe Johnson transaction -- is one that is critical to the future of the Atlanta Hawks," he said.

Johnson, a five-year veteran who has played for Boston and Phoenix, averaged 17.1 points for the Suns last season.