Belkin still sold on being an owner
He is the man who made it possible for Antoine Walker to return to Boston. He almost owned the Celtics -- twice. He is a member of an exclusive club that could well hold the dubious honor of overseeing two professional sports franchises that are simultaneously in the midst of work stoppages.
Steve Belkin, longtime Boston entrepreneur and philanthropist, didn't bank on dealing with any of these issues on his way to realizing his dream of becoming an NBA owner. But here he is, in charge of both the Atlanta Hawks and the Atlanta Thrashers, inviting upward of 300 friends and family members to the FleetCenter to cheer on his new affiliation whenever they come to visit.
Never mind the Thrashers are currently dormant, shuttered by the NHL's inexplicable labor wars. Never mind his Hawks won just 13 games this season, giving them the worst record in the NBA. In his eyes, it's all good.
''It's exceeded my expectations," said Belkin yesterday. ''It's a lot more work than I thought. Our [basketball] team's record wasn't that good, but we have a long-term vision. We have some young rookies who are quite good. And now we have a draft pick that will significantly help us."
Before they rolled the lottery Ping-Pong balls Tuesday night, Atlanta's odds of landing the No. 1 pick in next month's NBA Draft were the highest with 250 out of 1,000 chances. New Orleans had the next-best odds with 178 out of 1,000 chances, but neither came up winners. The Milwaukee Bucks, with 63 chances out of 1,000, delightedly witnessed the balls bounce their way.
Belkin, who like the rest of the Boston sports population, held his breath when the Celtics visited lotteryland in 1997 with hopes of landing franchise centerpiece Tim Duncan, knew better than to bank on the Hawks securing the top pick. In this case, he said, he is satisfied with being No. 2.
''We don't feel there's that much difference between the first and second pick this year," Belkin said. ''It was different with Boston. If the Celtics had picked Duncan, [Rick] Pitino might still be the coach of the team today."
Utah center Andrew Bogut, everyone's college player of the year, makes sense for Milwaukee, which has no inside presence. But the Bucks are under extreme pressure to re-sign their star, Michael Redd, who said he's only interested in staying if the team plans on competing for the championship -- soon. Suppose Redd favors them drafting Marvin Williams, who, as a freshman, helped North Carolina win a national championship? Williams almost jumped directly from high school to the pros in 2004; if he had, he would have been a lottery pick. He, like Redd, is an athletic, active scorer who, at 6 feet 6 inches, probably hasn't stopped growing. He has the chance to be a superstar. He does not have a chance to be an NBA center.
The Bucks control Atlanta's destiny. Whether Milwaukee goes for the steady, solid, talented big man or the exciting, developing small forward with unlimited upside, the Hawks must wait out their future.
That future did not include Walker, who asked to be traded and was given his wish with Belkin's blessing. His departure carved out more playing time for rookie Josh Childress, who more than doubled his scoring average after Walker left. Childress, along with fellow rookie Josh Smith and former high school phenom Al Harrington, represent the core of this team. Each, said Belkin, benefited from Walker's influence.
''Antoine is a real gentleman," said Belkin. ''He gave us everything he had while he was here. We [traded him] because it was the best thing for him and the best thing for us."
Belkin charted Walker's progress after he left and was an interested observer during Boston's bizarre playoff run.
''They all just looked so emotional," Belkin noted. ''The things that happened with Paul Pierce and everything. It looked to me like the Celtics wanted to win so badly that their emotions ran so high, it impacted the results."
Belkin, the founder and chairman of TNG, a marketing corporation that remains headquartered in Boston, tried for more than 20 years to purchase an NBA franchise. He nearly succeeded in buying the Celtics in the 1980s. He joined forces with Larry Bird and attempted to purchase the Celtics from Paul Gaston, who insisted the team wasn't for sale -- until he sold it to the current ownership group spearheaded by Irv and Wyc Grousbeck.
Bird and Belkin turned their attention to the expansion Charlotte Bobcats, but the league awarded the team to Black Entertainment Television executive Bob Johnson.
Soon after, a deeply disappointed Bird accepted a long-standing offer from Indiana Pacers president Donnie Walsh to join their front office. Belkin remained undeterred, finally purchasing the Hawks and the Thrashers in March 2004.
He continues to remain friendly with Bird -- Belkin flew to Indianapolis when his team played there earlier this season -- but Belkin no longer gnashes his teeth over what it would have been like to own the Celtics with No. 33 as his head of basketball operations. That dream died hard, but he's put it in his rearview mirror.
''It seems a little too far back now to dwell on it," Belkin said. ''When I see Larry, we don't talk that much about it anymore. Things worked out well for Larry and for me and the Celtics."
Atlanta is one of four cities that boasts the same owners for its professional basketball and hockey teams. Bosses in Philadelphia, Denver, and New York also face the daunting scenario of having two revenue streams dry up at once.
''We talk about it," Belkin conceded, ''but I wouldn't say we talk about it a lot."
There has been progress in recent days regarding the NHL stalemate. There are no scheduled NBA talks before the current contract expires at midnight on June 30, and while a lockout is certainly possible, few expect a work stoppage to occur in November.
''I'm hopeful we'll get something worked out there," Belkin said.
In the meantime, Belkin's wonderland lives on, through labor impasses, losing streaks, fickle Ping-Pong balls, and dinners with Larry Legend.
''The best part has been how much my family and friends have enjoyed it," Belkin said. ''I always thought this was my personal dream. Turns out I have company."
Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.