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Judge: Belkin can buy out Hawks, Thrashers

ATLANTA -- Steve Belkin has the right to take over the
Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta Thrashers from his former co-owners, a
Maryland judge ruled Friday.

The Boston-based Belkin is entitled to buy out the Atlanta
Spirit LLC group for the Hawks, Thrashers and operating rights to
Philips Arena, Montgomery County (Md.) Circuit Court Judge Eric
Johnson ruled.

But in a statement to The Associated Press released late Friday
by Atlanta Spirit spokesman Tom Hughes on behalf of the owners,
Johnson's ruling will be appealed.

"We have just received the court's 23-page decision,'' said the
statement, attributed to the group but no individual owner. "The
decision is wrong, both on the law and on the fact. We will review
our options with our legal counsel but we expect that the decision
will be overturned on appeal.''

Belkin was forced out of the ownership group following a bitter
and public dispute over the Hawks' decision to trade Boris Diaw and
two first-round draft picks to the Phoenix Suns for Joe Johnson.

Eric Johnson ruled the teams' seven other owners didn't abide by
the terms of an agreement to buy out Belkin. Johnson said the
group's actions triggered Belkin's right to buy them out.

The Atlanta Spirit ownership group was preparing to release a
memo to staff members Friday night, saying business would continue
as usual while the ruling is appealed.

The ownership group had the support of NBA commissioner David
Stern in forcing Belkin out. One of the Atlanta-based owners,
Michael Gearon Jr., replaced Belkin as the NBA governor in the
group.

Gearon couldn't be reached for comment Friday night.

Belkin was the only owner who didn't support Hawks general
manager Billy Knight in the deal for Joe Johnson. Belkin contented
the Hawks were giving up too much for the guard, who signed a
five-year deal with Atlanta worth about $70 million.

Diaw, a neglected backup in Atlanta, became a productive starter
for the Suns. Johnson led Atlanta with 20.2 points and 6.5 assists
per game.