Judge: Atlanta contracts limited during owners feud

Updated: July 7, 2006, 12:18 AM ET
Associated Press

ATLANTA -- The Maryland judge who last month ruled Steve Belkin is entitled to buy the Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta Thrashers from his former co-owners added a new twist to the ongoing feud Thursday.

Montgomery County (Md.) Circuit Court Judge Eric Johnson ruled the current ownership and management team should retain control while the appeals are heard. But the good news for the Atlanta Spirit group also included the judge's stipulation that will prevent the Hawks or Thrashers from signing a free agent to a contract longer than one year.

The stipulation doesn't relate to negotiations with draft picks for either team.

The ruling also doesn't affect any negotiations already under way, including the Hawks' agreement to sign free agent point guard Speedy Claxton. The deal, believed to be for four years, cannot be officially announced before Wednesday.

Atlanta-based Michael Gearon Jr. of the Atlanta Spirit ownership group applauded the ruling.

"This is exactly what we always expected," Gearon told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "It's hard for people who are looking at it from outside to understand all that has happened, but we expected to get a stay and are more confident than ever we will win on appeal."

The judge ordered that the other owners can't "initiate the purchase, sale, trade or negotiation of any NBA or NHL player contract ... excluding contracts involving present or future draft picks and contracts for any other player with a contract duration of one year or less."

The ruling would appear to put the Hawks and Thrashers at a significant competitive disadvantage in their ability to attract free agents.

Belkin, however, said he was "extremely confident in our ability to get the players we need."

The judge also ordered the owners to post an appeal bond of $11.4 million to protect Belkin against any decrease in the value of the franchises during the appeal. Belkin requested a much larger bond of up to $450 million.

Johnson ruled last month the ownership group did not abide by the terms of an agreement to buy out Belkin. The judge said the group's actions triggered Belkin's right to buy them out.

With Thursday's stay by the judge, his ruling last month is on hold until the appeal is heard by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.


Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press