Partners to buy out Belkin this year

Updated: August 19, 2005, 9:26 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Hawks have a new point guard in Joe Johnson, and are losing Steve Belkin as co-owner -- just as the team's general manager and other owners wanted.

"This is a great day," said co-owner Michael Gearon Jr., who will succeed Belkin as the team's NBA Governor.

There was a party atmosphere at Friday's news conference on the Philips Arena floor, as Atlanta Spirit LLC employees applauded the team's new player and the winners of a power struggle for control of the team.

Johnson, who will earn about $20 million next season in the first year of a five-year deal worth about $70 million, become's the team's highest-paid player.

The Hawks sent guard Boris Diaw and two first-round picks to the Suns for Johnson. The Suns also create a trade exception worth $6 million by virtue of this deal. The Hawks don't actually send the trade exception; it is a byproduct of the trade.

The deal was held up when Belkin wouldn't give his approval, promoting the other owners in the nine-man Atlanta Spirit LLC group to remove him as the team's governor.

Belkin went to court in Massachusetts to stop them. Finally, NBA commissioner David Stern ruled the Atlanta- and Washington-based owners, who control 70 percent of Atlanta Spirit, could remove Belkin.

The Hawks and the NBA announced Friday that Belkin has agreed to sell his 30 percent share of the team to the other owners for an undisclosed sum. That deal is expected to become final by the end of the year.

While waiting on the trade to become official, Johnson stayed in contact with general manager Billy Knight and shopped for a new home in Atlanta.

"It goes without saying how much we appreciate his patience in this situation," Knight said.

The 6-foot-8 Johnson, a combo guard with Phoenix, will have the opportunity to play point guard in Atlanta, giving the young Hawks an unusually big backcourt. Josh Childress, also 6-8, likely will open the season at shooting guard, joined by forwards Josh Smith and Al Harrington. The team has signed free agent center Zaza Pachulia.

The team added another versatile 6-foot-8 player with its first-round pick, North Carolina's Marvin Williams.

The Hawks had the worst record in the league last year, 13-69, also the worst mark in team history.

While Knight noted Johnson can play other positions, coach Mike Woodson said "He's going to run our point, which I think is great for this franchise."

Said Johnson: "I think it's going to be a lot of fun."

In a statement released Friday, Stern said he hopes the Boston-based Belkin "will consider returning to the NBA as an owner of another franchise in the near future."

Stern said the dispute over the Johnson deal "made it clear that philosophical differences exist over how best to build the Hawks into a winning franchise."

Atlanta Spirit also owns the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers and operating rights to Philips Arena.

Gearon and co-owner Bruce Levenson affirmed their confidence in Knight.

"I think it's foolish when owners start making personnel decisions," Gearon said.

Johnson, 24, was a crucial part of a Suns team that won an NBA-best 62 games last season, and team president Bryan Colangelo had insisted re-signing him was a top priority.

But Johnson was irritated about new owner Robert Sarver's failure to sign him before last season, then was further upset when the team made a low initial offer this offseason.

Johnson eventually called Sarver and told him he didn't want to play for Phoenix. He said he wanted to go to Atlanta.

"I had a great time and met a lot of new people," said Johnson of his three and one-half years with the Suns. "It's an experience I will cherish. I'm just coming to a fresh start and I'm looking forward to the opportunity."

Johnson, who makes his offseason home in Little Rock, Ark., said he wanted to return to the South.

"Joe Johnson made us aware of his personal desires, which just didn't fit our model of building a team," Colangelo said in a statement. "We're sorry to see Joe leave and wish him nothing but the best in Atlanta."

Phoenix gets the Hawks' first-round pick, which is lottery-protected in 2006, has protection through the No. 3 pick in 2007 and has no protection in 2008. The other pick is a conditional first-round selection via either the Los Angeles Lakers or Boston Celtics.

Knight said terms of the deal did not change during efforts to have Belkin support the trade.

"No matter where the pick was in the draft, we didn't think we can get a pick like Joe Johnson," Knight said. "That's why the picks were expendable to us. We know what he's going to bring to our lineup and be able to contribute right from the start."

Johnson averaged 17.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists for the Suns last season.

Atlanta Spirit paid $250 million last year to buy the Hawks, Thrashers and operating rights to Philips Arena from Time Warner.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

ALSO SEE