The Atlanta Hawks are involved with two kinds of day camps at the Marcus Jewish Community Center this summer: a basketball camp, available for second- through eighth-graders for three one-week sessions, and a sports broadcasting camp, offered to third- through eighth-graders for two one-week sessions.
But those camps aren’t just about branding or additional revenue. Hawks CEO Steve Koonin explained during an appearance at a luncheon session of the Jewish Breakfast Club on Wednesday, Feb. 8, that those camps, as well as the Hawks dance camp, youth league programs and other initiatives, are part of the NBA team’s effort to cultivate and connect with a sense of community in metro Atlanta.
“Building Bridges Through Basketball is one of the things that gets me most excited and I’m extremely proud of,” Koonin said.
He said new majority owner Tony Ressler sees the Hawks as a community asset, which is why he has invested heavily in the Hawks Foundation for big, audacious projects.
One of those projects is an initiative to build 25 community basketball courts by 2018 in areas ranging from the Marcus JCC to some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Nine courts have been completed, and Koonin said six more will be done this year, leaving 10 for 2018.
Most of the people served by those courts not only will never buy a season ticket, but probably will never go to a Hawks game, Koonin said. “But we look at these courts as building a town square.”
Truancy and crime are down in every neighborhood where the Hawks have installed a court, and the team has followed up with other services, such as vision van that offers free eye exams and provides free glasses to those who need them.
“Everything we’re doing is through the lens of basketball,” Koonin said.
“Touching kids at the Marcus Jewish Community Center playing basketball, kids playing basketball, youth leagues playing basketball, that’s the best way,” he added.
With Koonin as CEO and Ressler’s ownership group in place, the Hawks have made dramatic gains in social media, television ratings, ticket sales and attendance. The Hawks have risen from 29th to first in popularity for video game players. Hawks merchandise “has become incredibly popular,” Koonin said.
But the Hawks item that typifies the team’s approach in contrast to the rest of the league actually takes away from the bottom line: shoelaces.
“The shoelaces symbolize another piece: inclusion,” Koonin said.
The team sells 16 versions of bolt-green, Hawks-branded shoelaces for $2. No other team does that, Koonin said, and the laces cost more than $2 to manufacture. But, recognizing that Atlanta has the greatest economic disparity of any big city in the country, team management was determined to offer officially licensed merchandise for $2 and not force fans to spend $150 on a jersey or $200 on shoes to show their Hawks pride.
“We want every kid in Atlanta growing up to be part of the Hawks brand, to touch it, to wear it, to display it and to be able to feel included by” it, he said.
That inclusion rises above kids’ feet. The Hawks are the only team among 122 in North American major-league sports with a chief diversity and inclusion officer, and the team creates merchandise to fit specific communities, such as a rainbow-colored line for Pride.
“I’m not supporting Jewish causes and doing Jewish dinners and doing Jewish fundraisers,” Koonin said. “But one of the biggest programs we have is with the MJCC, where we run a Hawks camp and Hawks dance camp.”
The most audacious program is still to come: The Hawks, led by Ressler’s brother, Richard, want to rebuild downtown, using the revival of Los Angeles as the model. The plan includes buying the Gulch and bringing in residents and retail so that downtown has a heart.
Koonin said the team doesn’t need any public money, just a commitment for police substations and traffic management. “We’re raring to go.”