Posted May 12 2010 8:50AM
I moved to Atlanta about a month before this season began. And, although I was well aware of Atlanta's rep as one of the worst sports cities in America, the apathy was a little startling.
"Why is Philips Arena half empty with Carmelo and Denver in town?"
"D-Wade, maybe the most exciting player in the league, is here and Atlantans won't show up."
Atlanta -- like a lot of places -- is a Kobe-LeBron city: The fans pack the house for the Lakers and Cavs -- maybe the Celtics -- and that's it. And that's cool ... for some cellar-dweller like New Jersey or a new, ill-conjured franchise like Memphis.
This, however, is a franchise that has been in Atlanta for 40 years and one that is pretty freaking good. Two straight seasons in the playoffs, multiple All Stars, playground-slick crowd-pleasers like Jamal Crawford and high-flying monsters like Josh Smith. Why aren't these cats the talk of the town?
I talked to Atlanta journalists, fans and residents and got a variety of reasons for the indifference. I heard 'em all.
"Atlanta is in SEC country, we only really care about Georgia football." I can dig one team engendering the most allegiance, but this area is far too big to have room for only one team.
"There's too much to do in Atlanta." Word? But not, NYC, right?
"The traffic is horrible, it's too hard to get to and from the game." And folks just breeze through Southern California to Staples Center, right?
"They'll only come out for a winner." OK. Cool. Fair-weather fans aren't new. But even the perennial pennant-winning Braves had trouble filling Turner Field in the '90s, too.
"It all started when they traded Dominique for Danny Manning. Hawks fans haven't forgiven the organization for that." That was 20 years ago, though -- get over that garbage.
And there's this one: "Atlanta is star driven. Look at how hot the Falcons were when they had Vick. The Hawks need a superstar, like D-Wade or LeBron." Whatever. That's just a bunch of bull. If it's true, it's the mark of a cornball sports town. In New York, Denver, Philly, Oakland and other respectable cities, it wouldn't take Kobe and LeBron's visits to pack the arena.
The sad thing is that folks have been missing some compelling basketball from a team becoming a contender before our eyes. No arena hosted more game-winners than Philips' -- four of them. In January, down 101-99 to Phoenix, Crawford pulled up from about 25 feet and splashed a trey in Jared Dudley's grill. The place went wild. A couple months later, in late March, Joe Johnson drove left and threw up an off-balance leaner for the win. The shot bounced off the back rim. But before the crowd could groan and prepare for overtime, Josh swooped in from the right wing and thundered in a buzzer-beating put-back dunk for the W. The Hawks were 46-25 and lurking around the league's elite like some stickup kids.
That game, between two of the four best teams in the conference, couldn't budge 18,000 Atlantans to drop some cash. Attendance was reported to be about 16,800, but I doubt there were more than 13,000 in the house.
Right around then I started thinking that maybe Atlanta didn't deserve the Hawks. If one of the biggest metro areas in the country couldn't sell out Philips for a young, burgeoning contender, then move the squad to Seattle. Ya know?
And then the 2010 playoffs happened.
The Hawks just turned in the worst playoff performance I can remember. I'd describe the seven-game series against an undermanned, newbie Bucks squad as "an unnecessary faisco." I'd describe the four-game sweep they took at the hands of Orlando as a "lay down."
After getting absolutely handled in Orlando by 43 and 14, the Hawks came back to Atlanta and chose to treat its paying patrons to a performance too lethargic and careless to imagine. The Hawks made their ways to the lockerroom with hung heads. Fans, at the top of their lungs, were spewing bile and invective not fit for print. The crowd wasn't only angry, it was resentful -- as in, "How dare you play like that with your backs against the wall?"
The Hawks were clicking on all cylinders when it came to underachieving. Johnson shot 30 percent against the Magic. Crawford, the newcomer X-Factor, averaged less of everything in the playoffs -- except turnovers. The team sulked to timeouts with the most disinterested posture you could imagine. Josh wasn't waving his towel. Joe Smith wasn't cheerleading. The fight and fire from the regular season was gone.
And the offense ... good lawd, the offense. There was literally no movement. They'd come down, pass to Joe or Jamal and the four other players would stand on the opposite side. Rare was an Atlanta possession with more than five passes. They'd come out of timeouts -- usually a time to run a set play -- and run more isolation. It wasn't just ugly, it was puzzling. How could a team of skilled players, with a breathing coach, play this devoid of fluidity or invention?
Fans don't boo teams that put up fights. Fans boo teams that don't show any pride. That, more than anything, seemed to be what ailed this squad the most -- a lack of pride. After getting gaffled in Orlando, you'd think pride wouldn't let a 53-win, playoff-tested squad shoulder-shrug its way to a 30-point home loss in a pivotal Game 3. You'd think.
After Game 3, the Hawks squad emptied the lockerroom quick. By the time Mike Woodson finished his post-game presser, only a few players were left. Marvin Williams sat in a towel, facing his locker, silent, dejected. Josh, tying his shoes, let out a long sigh and few self-reproving expletives under his breath. Maybe they had gotten the point.
Three minutes into the fourth quarter of Game 4, Orlando was up 18 and the boos started. When Woody took free-agent-to-be Johnson out of the game toward the end of the game, the crowd booed with zeal. They were sending him a message. They were sending the Hawks in general a message. This...this laying down stuff -- we don't dig it. We won't dig it.
Atlanta was swept in last season's Eastern Conference semis and this year they were swept again. This year, however, the sweep is much more of an indictment. Last season Al Horford and Marvin Williams were gimpy. This season, everyone was in relative health, they added the Sixth Man of the Year and the squad, as a whole, was supposed to be a year wiser. Yet, they were run out of the gym for four straight games. That says plateau to me.
You can say the Bucks showed extreme valor and Orlando might be the best team in the league, so Atlanta couldn't help but go seven against Milwaukee and get swept by the Magic. But I can't escape this feeling that the Hawks didn't try hard enough. That has to stick in Atlantans' craws.
The Hawks may have deserved better from Atlanta. But Atlanta definitely deserves better from the Hawks.
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