Nzinga Shaw sees team, fans soaring past embarrassing email

By Kevin Madigan
kmadigan@atljewishtimes.com

Nzinga Shaw

The sale of the Atlanta Hawks is “swiftly progressing,” says Nzinga Shaw, the basketball team’s new chief diversity and inclusion officer.

The discovery of an embarrassing email from the Hawks’ controlling owner, Jewish businessman Bruce Levenson, to his co-owners led to the team being put on the market and Shaw’s being hired in December.

Levenson’s email, in which he questioned the value of the team’s black fan base, was found during an investigation into General Manager Danny Ferry after he made an offensive remark about the Miami Heat’s Luol Deng during an executive conference call.

The Hawks announced this month that the entire team, not just the majority controlled by Levenson, is up for sale.

Shaw, 35, formerly with the NFL and the New York Yankees, sees her job with the Hawks as a “catalyst for healthy change within the organization through bringing people together from a variety of different backgrounds.”

Members of the Jewish Community light Hanukkah Candles Dec 23, 2014 at a Hawks game.

She said the team is overcoming the racial controversy among fans. “From what I can tell, fans are still very loyal to our brand,” Shaw said during an interview at her new office. “People were not happy with the incidents that transpired, but they’re very encouraged by the way the leadership team has recovered and has really positioned the organization for future success. We have a tremendous amount of games that have been sold out. They’re supporting the team. They’re kind to the players, and we’ve been hearing good feedback since that unfortunate event.”

The position of diversity and inclusion officer is a rarity in sports, and Shaw’s challenge is to help people understand what it means. “There are a variety of perceptions about the work that I’m doing or supposed to be accomplishing,” she said. “I am charged to create a more inclusive and holistic environment in which people can bring their differences to the table and each of their unique attributes can be not only embraced, but leveraged for the strength of the business.”

Shaw wants to restore credibility to the team through hands-on action with various groups. She plans engagement with schools, politicians, clergy, academics, “and people that come from lower socio-economic backgrounds that may be fans of the game but may not have financial access to be on site at our games.”

An inclusion event since her arrival was a halftime celebration of Chanukah during the Dec. 23 game against the L.A. Clippers, a team that former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who is Jewish, bought for $2 billion from longtime Jewish owner Donald Sterling after Sterling’s much-publicized racial comments.

“Our CEO (Steve Koonin) happens to be Jewish, and he’s one of the main reasons we did the halftime show,” Shaw said.

Koonin, who issued a public apology on behalf of the Hawks’ leadership in the fall, told the Atlanta Jewish Times that the organization will continue to build connections with the Jewish community “as we’re doing with all communities.”

He said team representatives speak regularly to youth groups and appear at synagogues. The Hawks also have hosted the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and the Marcus Institute, among others.

“There’s a place for every community at the Atlanta Hawks. That’s what we’re going to be focused on,” Shaw said. “Not just the Jewish community, but Asian, Hispanics, LGBT, the black community — bring all these groups together so we can progress towards building an inclusive culture.”

What about the players themselves, who have the best record in the Eastern Conference as the NBA season nears the halfway point? “They’re shining, and they’re thriving,” Shaw said. “They have found a way to band together as teammates to show up not only for themselves, but for the city and for the fans.”