The retired NBA All-Star and a friend claim they were ousted from the bar of a ritzy Atlanta restaurant because they were black. The restaurant says they weren’t the victims of a discriminatory policy, but a long-standing practice rooted in Southern hospitality that allows women a seat at the bar when the place is packed.

Those arguments were made Monday at the start of the weeklong federal trial of a lawsuit filed by Joe Barry Carroll and attorney Joseph Shaw. The two say they were humiliated when a security guard escorted them from the Tavern at Phipps when they refused to give up their seats to a couple of white women, an action they say was part of a broader pattern of discrimination against blacks.

“You’re probably thinking: Two black gentlemen go to a bar — this is a joke,” Jeffrey Bramlett, an attorney for the men, told the jury during opening arguments. “But it’s no joke. The evidence will show a serious civil rights violation.”

The restaurant’s lawyers said the men were asked to give up their seats as part of a long-standing “good manners” practice that’s been in place at the restaurant for 20 years. Attorney David Long-Daniels said thousands of men have complied with those rules, from stars like Michael Jordan to the other men at the bar the night of the incident.

“Chivalry is not dead,” he said. “And it’s not a civil rights violation to give up your seat to a woman.”

The standoff over the seats took place on a Friday night in August 2006 when Carroll, who played parts of 10 seasons in the NBA starting in the 1980s, and Shaw sat and the end of a bar and ordered a few beers, a few appetizers and some liquor. As the crowd grew thicker, a bartender offered them complimentary drinks to move, but they declined.

They were soon asked several more times to give up their seats to women, but each time they refused, according to court testimony. A manager eventually threatened to call security if they didn’t relent, and an off-duty Atlanta police officer who works for the restaurant was summoned to the scene.

“That’s the way we do it here,” attorneys from both sides said the guard told the men as he ushered them out.

“They were embarrassed. They were humiliated,” said Bramlett. “And part of the reason it was painful is they had an unobstructed view of seats where white patrons were seated.”

The restaurant is attached to an upscale mall in Atlanta’s Buckhead district and on weekend nights it’s a place to see and be seen, filled with well-dressed, attractive clientele. Bartenders toss and juggle bottles, putting on a show while they mix specialty drinks.

Bramlett said interviews with current and former employees show that Greg Greenbaum, the restaurant’s head, feared that “black thugs” would follow if blacks started flocking to his business. He said the restaurant systematically encouraged managers to avoid hiring too many black staffers and limited black hostesses on peak nights.

Staffers were also told to “slow serve” black patrons during hectic times, he said. And during the February 2003 NBA All Star game, when young black basketball fans crowded the city, the restaurant hung large “Welcome Rodeo Fans” banners and played country music, according to court records.

It was all aimed at attracting “white businessmen and well-endowed women” at the expense of black patrons, Bramlett said.

Patrick Kelly, who was the bartender serving the men, testified that no other men were at the bar when Carroll and Shaw were kicked out. And attorney Long-Daniels said bartenders routinely offered free drinks, free food and new table seating to men sitting at the crowded bar to convince them to give way to women.

The restaurant’s hope, Long-Daniels said, was to become a safe haven for women so they could come for food and fun after a long day of shopping at the adjoining mall.

“If they feel comfortable, they’ll stay. And if they stay, the men will come. It’s not about race, it’s really about green,” he said.

“Everything in life is not about race and the evidence will show this has nothing to do with race,” he said. “The evidence will show it’s more to do about personality and ego. And in the end, it’s all about good manners.”

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