Stern's affidavit attempts to unblock Johnson trade

Updated: August 12, 2005, 3:21 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

ATLANTA -- NBA commissioner David Stern submitted an affidavit Thursday supporting a vote by the majority of the Atlanta Hawks' ownership board to remove Steve Belkin as the team's representative on the NBA Board of Governors.

The owners sought intervention from Stern after Boston judge Allan van Gestel on Tuesday granted Belkin's request for a temporary injunction against his ouster.

Stern's affidavit, along with a subsequent motion from the Hawks for van Gestel to withdraw the injuction, could lead to the formal removal of Belkin as team governor as early as Friday.

If van Gestel upholds Stern's recommendation to replace Belkin with Michael Gearon Jr. as Hawks governor, Atlanta would then be able to complete its sign-and-trade with the Phoenix Suns for coveted guard Joe Johnson.

The Suns and Hawks reached agreement in late July on a deal that involves Johnson signing a five-year, $70 million contract with Phoenix -- with a $20 million balloon payment up front -- and then moving to Atlanta in exchange for Boris Diaw and two future first-round picks.

Two-thirds of the Hawks' three-headed ownership structure backed the trade from the start. But Belkin, a part-owner who possesses a 30-percent stake in the franchise, refused to approve the trade, saying the Hawks were giving up too much for Johnson.

NBA rules dictate that every team, no matter how many owners it has, must designate one representative to notify the league on player transactions. That representative is typically the team governor. Belkin's partners, however, have maintained that his refusal to sign off was an action taken against the majority's wishes and thus grounds for removal.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported earlier this week that van Gestel, at Tuesday's hearing, urged Belkin's partners to take their case to the commissioner, saying: "Why can't you simply contact the NBA and say, 'We've got a problem. Mr. Belkin is doing terrible things. Can we remove him?'"

As part of Tuesday's ruling, van Gestel said Stern's approval was a precondition for ousting Belkin. The Journal-Constitution reported on its website Thursday night that Stern, in his affidavit, questioned whether such approval was necessary. But Stern went on to back the Hawks' request and provided his views on the case "in the interest of assisting the court in reaching an ultimate determination."

The newspaper reports that Stern's affidavit read in part: "My conclusion is that, under [the Hawks owners' partnership agreement], if the Governor knows or reasonably should know that he is acting contrary to the wishes of a majority of the [owners'] Board of Managers, and he nevertheless proceeds to take an action in connection with a material matter that legally binds the team, such as consummating a player trade or preventing the consummation of a player trade, the requirements for removal have been met."

Stern, according to the newspaper, also disputes Belkin's claim that blocking a trade does not constitute an "action" and therefore does not provide grounds for removal as governor.

"I do not believe there is a meaningful distinction between acting to consummate a trade or acting to prevent the consummation of a trade," Stern's affidavit said. "There appears to be no dispute that if Mr. Belkin had proceeded to consummate the trade for Joe Johnson against the wishes of the majority of the Board of Managers, he would have acted to 'legally bind' the team and faced removal. ... Directing the NBA not to proceed with the trade ... was also an 'action' that ... was no less 'legally binding' on the team, in that it compelled the NBA to bar the trade." The "Board of Managers" cited by Stern is the ownership committee that governs the Hawks and the NHL's Thrashers. There are separate groups from Atlanta, Washington and Boston (Belkin) and each holds one vote.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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