From Building to Believing Part 1: The Investment

Part 1 of a 3-Part Series On The Making Of The Hawks

By Ian Thomsen (@ianthomsen)

Russell Westbrook of the visiting Washington Wizards was meaning to put the game out of reach when his drive was blocked by Clint Capela, the Atlanta Hawks center acquired one year earlier to do just that.

The rebound found Trae Young like a short outlet pass sending him upcourt. He pushed the pace in a loping dance, dribbling to one side and then the other, fast enough to scramble the defense while enabling his teammates to sprint ahead to their favored spots around him. Watching the pieces fall into place from his seat three rows behind the scorers table was Travis Schlenk, the President of Basketball Operations and General Manager who in 2018 had settled on Young as the point guard capable of driving the Hawks further than they’d ever gone in Atlanta.

Young’s head swiveled to the right until he reached the keytop, where his intentions were revealed. He squared his shoulders left and delivered a sound two-handed pass to the chest of unguarded John Collins, who had arrived with an unproven jump shot as Schlenk’s inaugural first-round pick in the 2017 Draft.

“I knew it was going in,” said Young, having seen Collins train himself to become a 40-percent 3-point shooter over the past two seasons.

Collins’ go-ahead shot converted a 2-point deficit into an eventual 120-116 win that clinched Atlanta’s first playoff spot since 2017 and launched Principal Owner Tony Ressler up from his midcourt seat, a half-dozen seasons after he had begun redefining the infrastructure and culture as the Hawks’ new owner.

The entire sequence — Capela to Young to Collins — covered 6.5 seconds. But its roots ran deeper. It was a tip-of-the-iceberg play that was based in bold decision-making, years of planning, discouraging losses and painful reactions, and a commitment to new ideas drawn from timeless principles.

Next up for the fifth-seeded Hawks (41-31) is a first-round series against the fourth-seeded Knicks, opening this Sunday in New York.

It is a story six years in the making.

Part 1 - The Investment

Tony Ressler had suspected that owning a pro sports team would be like running any of the successful equity and investment funds he had managed. 

“I’m learning as I go,” he told Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2017, two years into his ownership of the Hawks. “I’d like to tell you I hit the ground running and I understood completely the role of an owner and the decision-making process. I don’t think I did. I think there was a part of me that hoped it would be a little more of a portfolio company with a CEO out front.”

Ressler loved basketball. He played pickup games on Sundays at his brother’s outdoor court in Los Angeles, where his competitive nature was expressed in ways that aren’t seen in offices and boardrooms. He had been a minority owner of the Milwaukee Brewers. He had tried to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012 and the Los Angeles Clippers two years later. He purchased the Hawks in 2015 as they were peaking — which, counter-intuitively, is the most difficult time to take over a team, when its only direction is down. The truth of Atlanta’s league-leading 60-win season of 2014-15 was unmasked when LeBron James’ Cavaliers swept the Hawks in successive postseason series, revealing that they lacked the singular star that every NBA champion needs (more on that later).

Ressler immediately took on the work that he could do. Within his first year of ownership he had broken ground on a $50 million practice facility. He moved aggressively on plans for a $192.5 million renovation of State Farm Arena and collaborated on downtown Atlanta improvements nearby. He invested in the business off-the-court while he was learning the business on-the-court. The latter was more complicated than the former. The win totals dropped from 60 to 48 to 43 on his watch — each step necessary to the reinvention of the franchise, but hard to swallow all the same.

He was not the type to make changes until he understood the consequences. 

By 2017 he was ready to make the big change, following an opening-round loss in six games to the Wizards. He hired Travis Schlenk, the assistant general manager of the soon-to-be-champion Golden State Warriors. Schlenk was a self-made basketball executive who had dreamed of becoming an NBA coach until he realized his own strengths as a talent evaluator. Don Nelson, the Hall of Fame coach of the Warriors, had urged him to go into front office work — the same advice he had given his son, Donnie Nelson, who would deliver Dirk Nowitzki and an ensuing 2011 NBA championship to the Dallas Mavericks.

Jerry West, the Warriors’ legendary special consultant, was another believer.  He knew that Schlenk had worked in every phase of basketball, enabling him to break down the components of winning teams like a cubist painter. Schlenk had been director of basketball operations alongside the coaching staff at the University of Georgia in 1998-99. He became a video scout for the Warriors in 2004 and moved up to director of player personnel on his way to becoming the assistant to Bob Myers, the championship GM.

Schlenk had little use for pretense. He did not take himself too seriously, a secret that enables hard choices to be made with a kind of shrugging optimism after the diligent work has been done. It was a lesson affirmed from 1999 to 2003 in his entry-level role as video coordinator for the Miami Heat and their president Pat Riley, who admitted like a character from Homer that he and everyone he knew in the NBA was at the mercy of the basketball gods. “We work in the toy department of life,” Schlenk
had heard Riley say.   

Instead of tearing things down in Atlanta, Schlenk spoke of building up. He was charged with searching for a bit of magic, the spark of joy, that self-belief that transforms fans into believers. In 2018, Schlenk cast his lot.

Part 1: The Investment is the part 1 of a 3-part series by award-winning author, Ian Thomsen. Part 2 and part 3 are coming soon.

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