I was 20 minutes late.
One of the byproducts of moving away from the city you were raised in is that with each visit, things become less and less familiar. New buildings are constantly being erected at an alarming rate. Familiar streets are now named after civil rights leaders' cousins' hairdressers. And that autopilot feeling of always ending up at your destination vanishes, with westbound wrong turns down one-way eastbound streets, and the constant embarrassment of relying on the already confusing iPhone Apple Maps feature in your own city.
This was the case as I wove through downtown Atlanta, chugging coffee, searching for the side street media entrance of Philips Arena, home of the Atlanta Hawks, by 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning in October. Upon finally finding my way and convincing an attendant to let me park, lacking a single credential, I walked right into a team shootaround, open only to players, coaches, staffers, and now, me.
Of the 50 people in the gym, I was one of three or four not wearing Hawks gear. My outermost attire: a Braves jacket. An hour earlier, pre-coffee, this decision seemed like a great idea — a Hawks T-shirt might be a bit much, but after a few awkward glances from those in Philips, maybe the city's "other other" team wasn't the smartest way to go. Bad form or not, I wanted my first impression to be that of a hometown kid arriving from New York City in peace. Even if they hated me, that much was clear.
The team, dressed in an assortment of early-morning, non-scrimmage-worthy outfits — from the sweatshirt-under-the-jersey look donned by Ivan Johnson to the popular cut-off-below-the-knee sweatpants look of Anthony Morrow, Lou Williams, DeShawn Stevenson, and Devin Harris — robotically walked through an assortment of set plays, a common practice for a morning shootaround on game day. As the sight reminded me of early-morning high school basketball practice, my eyes couldn't help but wander around the empty arena that I had been in so many times, and eventually toward the lonely rafters.
The Hawks came to Atlanta in 1968, some 45 years ago, and the franchise has managed to raise just three jerseys to the ceiling: Bob Pettit, Lou Hudson, and Dominique Wilkins. That's it. An optimist might attribute that to retirement selectivity within the organization. But a pessimistic, cynical realist like myself looks up and immediately questions the history of one of the most struggle-filled franchises in professional sports.
The "Dominique Era," in Hawks terms, was the brightest spot. Yes, the Hawks were a contender then, posting four consecutive 50-plus-win seasons between '85-'86 and '88-'89. But arguably as important was the reality that the city had a true basketball superstar, one people from other places envied. Wilkins was a true rival of Jordan, competed in five Dunk Contests, and is the recipient of one of the greatest basketball nicknames, the Human Highlight Film.
When you look up at the rafters, they suggest Dominique is the end of the Hawks' happy story. Interestingly enough, however, even with a legendarily bad eight-year stretch last decade, ever since Dominique's exit in 1994, the Hawks have actually been to the playoffs more often (11) than not (8). So why is the franchise so heavily associated with misery? And why haven't people been coming to the games if the team's doing more winning than losing? Why has the franchise dropped from 20th to 24th place league-wide in home attendance (89.4 percent to 81.2 percent) from 2009 to 2012, even though the team has posted similar middle-of-the-road playoff numbers?
That is the greatest mystery when it comes to the Atlanta Hawks. What is it about them that has been so uncaptivating to outsiders and residents alike? It's clear that it's not simply winning or losing, so it must be something else. While it remains to be seen, after spending four days with the new team, one that barely resembles the 40-26, top-20 player-led playoff team from a year earlier, how could this be the Hawks lineup that captivates a city in a way it hasn't since the days of 'Nique? A combination of leadership, talent, fantastic timing, and a suddenly shockingly self-aware franchise helps to tell the story.
In less than a month on the job, Danny Ferry, the Hawks' new general manager, quickly became one of the most popular men in Atlanta. In one day, July 11, 2012, he spearheaded trades sending Marvin Williams and Joe Johnson out of Atlanta. In just six hours, he transformed the Hawks' identity. Ding-dong, the witches are dead. As a suffering Atlanta sports fan first, journalist second, this was all I could think about as I followed the very tall and bald Ferry through the tunnels of Philips Arena.
Trailing close behind, I watched as he signed a kid's cast, took pictures with a family, and chatted up everyone we walked by. All told, it added four minutes to our journey, but eventually we made it to his office, a large, rectangular white room with a table, chairs, and a whiteboard wall filled with information that I wasn't sure if I was supposed to see.
"How can I ever repay you for this, God Danny?" I wanted to ask him. But I resisted the urge to congratulate him on shipping out Johnson and Williams. So I simply asked him why he took the job in the first place.
"I felt like, first of all, I was working for a guy I liked in [Hawks co-owner] Bruce [Levenson]," Ferry said while leaning in. "I've gotten to know him over the past six months pretty well, and I like him. And you want to work with people that you like. The other owners, as well, seemed like a good group of people. I think that they felt like they had first set out in what they wanted to do in terms of being competitive and starting to get some fans to games, but I think they want to raise the bar and standards for how they do things, and that was intriguing to me."
OK, now it was time to talk about Trader Joe and Starvin Marvin. It was clear as I was rambling about the two ex-Hawks that Ferry wasn't as attuned to how divisive they were, which initially surprised me. On one end, there's Johnson, who (fairly or unfairly) reminded every fan of the six-year, $119 million contract he was absorbing with every missed shot, blank stare, dribble-spree, and first-round playoff loss. And then there's Williams, who, through no fault of his own, was picked by the Hawks over Chris Paul, making fans weep over what could have been, while also further fueling the theory that when General William Tecumseh Sherman burned down Atlanta in 1864, he also cursed Atlanta sports teams for the next 600 years.
In so many words, I articulated these thoughts to Ferry. He insisted that it wasn't why they were dealt. "I wasn't aware of how our fans would react," he said. "They were two separate deals that gave us an opportunity to restructure our team and start to look at how we can play and do things differently going forward. When I took the job, I didn't know what those opportunities would be. For us, looking realistically, this has been a good team, a competitive team, but there was an opportunity, and it was necessary to get better. Again, past teams had done well, but it wasn't necessarily a team anyone feared."
Selfishly, I was disappointed that it wasn't a vengeful decision. But then I quickly recognized that I was sitting across from a smart guy who understood the NBA, the Hawks franchise, and basketball in Atlanta, despite having moved into a local home just 10 days prior. As our talk progressed and we discussed more trade-related issues, it was clear he was more eager to talk about the players that he brought in.
Through the Marvin trade, the Hawks got veteran point guard Devin Harris, and by way of Joe, 3-point specialist (and Georgia Tech alumnus) Anthony Morrow, NBA champion (and Abraham Lincoln Adam's apple tattoo club member) DeShawn Stevenson, and a very tall Frenchman called Johan Petro. In addition, there's the significant acquisition of Bulls sharpshooter Kyle Korver and Atlanta high school basketball legend turned ex-Sixers guard Lou Williams, along with the ex-Timberwolf forward Anthony Tolliver, a first-round draft pick in Vanderbilt's John Jenkins, and a second-round draft pick in Virginia's Mike Scott. And then, to round it all out, there's Josh Smith, a healthy Al Horford, a slightly less healthy Jeff Teague, and an exactly-the-same Ivan Johnson. Oh, and Zaza. Mr. Pachulia can't leave. Ever.
That's your 2012-13 Atlanta Hawks.
It may sound insane, but I couldn't be more excited to cheer for a basketball team. Seriously. Read that last paragraph again and internalize those names. On paper, it looks like a fantasy basketball autodraft gone wrong, but there's a sense of mystery surrounding this collection of talent that has yet to be utilized properly. And after watching them practice, play, and interact with one another, it's clear that they could actually be good. There's a sense throughout the organization that, if they play a certain style of basketball, the Atlanta Hawks will be not only a dangerous team, but one people will want to watch.
Josh Smith, forward: "I think there's a lot of balance on this team. Of course, you're going to lose a lot when you lose a guy that brought a lot to this team, but I think you become better on the perimeter as a team. We have a lot more shooters, and we're going to be a faster team. And so that's going to be exciting."
Dominique Wilkins, vice-president of basketball: "I just think it's a new look and new responsibilities that are going to be delegated to certain areas. Again, it's a more well-rounded team, because you have more shooters, you have more guys that can do different things, be it on the defensive end or offensive end."
Larry Drew, head coach: "We brought in players that, I think, really complement what we already have here, and you can kind of see our players really embrace that. So kind of the newness of bringing in other veteran guys, guys that fit what we do, and you see our players a little excited about it. So when we go into games, especially when we're healthy, you can kinda sense our really champing at the bit. They're excited about the mix that we have, the blend that we have. And with that, that kind of newness of bringing in a different group of guys in, it kind of rejuvenates you."
Danny Ferry, general manager: "We want to play fast, smart, and solid. We don't want to just be fast and fun. We want to be fast, fun, and solid. And if we can do these things, the casual fan will enjoy us because we can get up and down the court well, the serious fan will enjoy us because there's going to be smarts and skill on the court, and then ultimately [with] those things we'll be competitive."
One thing the team certainly has going for them: They fully understand their situation. They know they're weird, they know there are some things working against them, but there's not the slightest sense, be it in practices, games, or in locker room chats, that they're somehow going to underachieve. Not even close. As for the ghost of Joe, to whom everyone refers in a Voldermortian "he who shall not be named" sort of way? It's too early to tell if their offensive attack truly benefits from him not being around, but they sure seem pleased with what they've gotten in exchange for his departure.
"I remember reminiscing in the kitchen like
I wonder when the Braves gon' win it
I wonder when the Falcons gon' get here
Pyrex vison, made more than I ever made with DTP this year"
—2 Chainz, "My Moment"
Ignore the fourth line, if you will, and focus on the first three. There's a lot packaged in these lines, real emotions from Tauheed Epps, a true Atlanta native and sports fan. Every year I, too, wonder when the Braves are going to win it, even though in the back of my mind I expect something to go wrong at the last possible moment. And then there's the Falcons, another team that has shown promise of late, but still hasn't won a playoff game with Michael Vick's replacement, Matt Ryan. The Braves coming up short and the Falcons folding under pressure. That's my entire life.
But where are the Hawks? It's not surprising that Mr. Chainz left out the Hawks. They've become the third team in Atlanta (now out of three since the Thrashers left America for Canada), not an enviable position for a team in a city that already has a rap for having dispassionate, fair-weather fans, even in playoff scenarios. Coach Larry Drew seemed to echo those sentiments when asked to discuss the most difficult part of being the Atlanta Hawks coach. After a noticeable "should I say this" pause, he said, "I hate to say it, but, in playing games, to go out in that arena and hear that there are more people cheering for them than for us — you know, I've never been associated with a team that has ever done that, and this is something that exists here." He continued, "It's something that I try to get my players mentally psyched up to deal with. Because winning on the road is tough. It's real tough. And when you're able to win on the road, you expect to be able to come back home and play in front of your home crowd. And there are just games where it doesn't feel like a home crowd."
A wave of shame attacked my body as he finished his statement, because I have definitely been a culprit. Everything Drew said is true. But why? It's not just winning and losing. I believe there are still lingering post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms from the eight-year stretch where there was nothing more embarrassing than being an Atlanta Hawks fan. To quote legendary football coach Howard Schnellenberger on the worst of times for the University of Miami, "Like any city in America, if your teams are embarrassing you, and your teams are not living up to their own expectations, it's going to be hard to rally fans around it." Here's Josh Smith on the bad old days: "I know that you know that in the past we weren't the team to watch, especially during the stretch when it was kind of embarrassing for the city of Atlanta."
From 2000 to 2007, the Hawks finished 14th, 13th, 12th, 11th, 12th, 15th, 14th, and 13th in the Eastern Conference, with the '04-'05 season serving as the absolute low point, finishing 13-69. Yes, the '90s filled our hearts with playoff seasons, great characters, and good players (Mookie Blaylock, Dikembe Mutombo, Steve Smith), but almost a decade of misery afterward all but erased the joy. Then came the Joe Johnson era — the only player big enough to warrant a namesake since Dominique. He Who Shall Not Be Named was here for the final two sad seasons. He also led the team to five straight playoff appearances after that. Joe was good, but Joe wasn't Nique. He was the anti-Nique. Instead of rivalries, spectacles, and nicknames, we got a guy named Joe. There was never a sense that he genuinely wanted to be in Atlanta, something residents almost irrationally demand from their public figures. And that personality, coupled with all that money and the good-but-not-good-enough success, created an atmosphere in which we quietly wanted him to fail, to miss shots, to not earn his money, just to prove that he was the cancer we'd always suspected.
Now we enter a fourth era, the Danny Ferry era, if you will. Now, fans can start over. We have a new crew to invest in. It's a chance to escape the history that haunts not just the players, but also us, the fans. Luckily for us, and the Hawks, there couldn't be a better time in Atlanta.
A tlanta doesn't really have that unruly sports story. We never booed Santa Claus like Philadephia. We haven't flipped cars after a big loss or started fires after a big win. We're civil. We shrug our shoulders and move on.
But then, in October, the Atlanta Braves trashed the field in the playoffs.
Rarely have I been more proud of my city, and this is coming from a rule follower. But I was pleased to see that. I never wanted it to end. It was like the moment when the kid who gets picked on finally stands up to the bully and, somehow, wins the playground brawl. Or like an entire season of Made. It was fans finally getting their aggressive sea legs and showing their team that they've got their back (in the name of the worst call ever), even if it costs them a slice of their own dignity. It was easily one of my proudest moments as an Atlanta fan.
That game took place at the end of the Braves' season, as the Falcons sat at 4-0. Four weeks have gone by since then and now they're 7-0. Undefeated, but getting little respect. I've been in Atlanta for multiple football Sundays this season, and while I've seen fans this excited about the Falcons before, I've never seen them as riled up about not getting respect. Yes, there's still a level of unease with the undefeated record, because the Falcons being the best has never happened before, but the sheer nerve to not call us the best team in football is driving people mad in a way I've never witnessed.
And now we're back to the Hawks. There's no way to pretend that they exist in a silo, completely shut off from the city's highs and lows. Last year's team wouldn't have fit in with the chip-on-both-shoulders atmosphere in Atlanta right now. That team was steeped in the known, playoff-bound but not much more. This year's team, however, is a testament to the unknown, an underdog. Josh Smith, while, again, not naming a certain ex-teammate, said "We can fly under the radar, people can not think that we're capable of doing something special and successful, because we don't have we don't have, you know, guys that that, you know you look at our roster and are like 'Wow' they're standing out."
When the leader, the closest thing to a star on this team, admits that no one is standing out, it's clear that this is an oddly egoless team. Things seem different, and it's manifesting on and off the court.
The Hawks easily defeated the Mavericks 110-94 in the preseason game I watched. The next morning, there was another practice, this time open to the public. Driving there, I was excited to see the players, especially the state Smith was in. After the game, he was clearly organizing a group in the locker room to hit Drake's birthday party at the club Compound. (Assumption: confirmed.) I loved the idea not only of Josh & Co. hanging with Aubrey, but also coordinating rides like a varsity basketball team. This team wants to hang out together off the court.
Arriving on time, this my third trip to Philips, I made my way comfortably into the arena, with a welcoming wave from the parking attendant, and found a seat near the court to observe a mic'd-up Larry Drew instructing his team through drills in front of a crowd of 2,000.
Before I could find my seat, however, I saw Ferry walking my way and I remained standing, as if he's the President or something. It was a warmer day, so a jacket wasn't needed and I decided to wear a short-sleeved shirt. "Really? A Falcons shirt?" Ferry said, staring down at my lucky mesh Falcons shirt. It was Sunday, and that's what I wear on Sundays. "It's Sunday, there's really no other option," I shot back, realizing that I was now 0-for-2 on sportswear in front of the general manager of the Hawks. "It's a bye week," he said, laughing. He mentioned that somebody needed to get me some Hawks gear, and then kept on walking.
The coach Drew–led practice was a serious one, complete with a full-speed scrimmage. Despite dealing with a team full of players still racing to learn a new system, I was amazed by the level of calm that he exhibited. Not a yeller, but not inaudible either — more like the high-expectation-having father who you never want to disappoint.
Watching the players respond to him, however, during the closed shootaround, open practice, or a preseason game, it was clear Drew has had some help in making this team come together. His name is Josh Smith, he's the clear leader of this team, and he is as important to the Atlanta Hawks as he ever has been.
Every new player who I chatted with noted that Josh and Al Horford were instrumental in bonding the team, but Josh is far and away the more vocal of the two veterans. And he seems to know and welcome the fact that while his stat line alone will not be the deciding factor in wins and losses, the burden of making sure this team comes together is solely his.
He's the emotional focal point of the team, keeping people loose but focused, monitoring emotions on and off the court. He hasn't been forced into leadership. He wants it. Before the season started, Josh told me he sought out Kevin Garnett (by way of high school teammate Rajon Rondo) to pick his brain about how to lead. "Listening to a guy that's been in that situation, in that predicament, with Minnesota," Josh said, "I think that it definitely helps me out from the mind-set of how to think the right way. He definitely told me you got to lead by example, you have to be that vocal leader, and each and every night, you have to let these guys know they have to give 150 percent. I definitely took that to heart, and I'm just trying to go out here like that for the rest of this training camp and for the rest of the season."
He seems to have applied Garnett's advice to his own team and borrowed from the Celtics' offseason bonding rituals. "Their team came out, even the guys that were trying to make the team," he said, "and they stayed in the same hotel, they worked out at UCLA for a week, and that was something very beneficial to their cohesiveness."
Based on what his teammates, old and new, have to say about the preseason atmosphere, his approach is working. New center Johan Petro noted, "The veterans make sure we have a good chemistry off the court. Movies, mall, dinner we're trying to get that bond, trying to get that chemistry," while the second-longest-tenured Hawk, Zaza Pachulia, noted that, "It feels very different compared to previous years. In a good way." Fellow Atlanta native Lou Williams, who has been vocal in his excitement to be back home, said, "This is the most close-knit team I've been on in my eight seasons. Everyone's willing to learn, to get to know each other, which is important."
This is new territory for the Hawks. "I can honestly say that we've never done anything like that as a team," Josh said, almost proudly. "In the past we were never really able to get everybody involved into buying into that. When you do certain things that the average team isn't capable of doing, you get better results, because when you hang out with guys and you get to know guys for who they really are, you're that much more willing to go that much harder for your teammates."
If anyone on this team can justify having an ego, it's Josh. But it seems as if by actively stripping away his ego, it'll have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the team. "Sometimes you come into situations where guys are upset that they got traded, they're unhappy that they're there, and it might cause some tension with them and the team, but we have guys that have come onto this basketball team and everyone is happy-go-lucky."
When asked about his role on the team, Lou Williams relayed similar feelings, a testament to the type of environment they've created in a short time: "It's not a problem to come off bench for this team. I probably wouldn't have been as thrilled to want to come off the bench in another system, but here I'm very comfortable."
This wasn't the Josh Smith I was expecting to meet, observe, and talk to. Based on his freak athleticism, tendency to jack up 3s without hesitation, and occasional tendency to let the game take over his emotions, I unfairly expected a personality mirroring a brash wide receiver or 100-meter sprinter. The team-building, smiley, introspective 26-year-old who uses the WNBA to illustrate different types of team configurations? ("They have one outstanding superstar in Tamika Catchings on the Fever, but to be honest with you, the Lynx shouldn't have lost.") Not so much. Whether his game will transform in the same way remains to be seen, but if this means he maintains his role as self-appointed, team-endorsed leader on the court, in and out of the clubhouse, then I'll accept three roof-scraping jump shots a game.
It was Tropical Tuesday at South Gwinnett High School on October 23.
I knew that, because I was in the South Gwinnett High School gymnasium on October 23, surrounded by high school girls in hula skirts, high school boys in Hawaiian shirts, and teachers wearing leis. It had been eight years since I'd been on this campus, the last time being to watch Louis Williams play a high school basketball game. And now I was here because Lou wanted to give his old high school an opportunity to watch his new team practice.
Let's just say that it was a zoo.
Yes. There's more.
Lou was home, and many people, from the security guard to teachers to the principal to Lou's mother, were grinning from ear to ear and telling stories as he practiced with his hometown team, in a gym where his jersey hung from the rafters.
The gym was packed and loud. There were "oohs" and "ahhs" at the sight of anything fancier than a layup or a bounce pass. And when the scrimmage started, the energy only increased. Towels swinging, nonstop noise, unprompted cheering — yes, half the stand's occupants were no older than 8 and the other half split time between paying attention and Tropical Tuesday flirting. But it genuinely felt as if the players were thriving off playing in this frenzied atmosphere, even if it wasn't a real game.
This is how I want Philips Arena to look and feel this year. They're the underdog story, the Joe-less Hawks, two hometown heroes reunited and proudly playing for their city, the mysterious bunch of guys who seem to really like each other, the Danny Ferry–managed, Larry Drew–coached 2012-13 Atlanta Hawks. Watching this talented group come together in a short period of time, realizing that they must lean on each other for survival, and witnessing a city rally around that — this is the miracle that I believe can happen this year. Even if this team doesn't shock the world, this is one of the few teams that I believe comes into Game 1 talented and makes the most drastic improvements en route to Game 82.
As the scrimmage wound down, it was clear Lou was going to get the final shot. He hit a few deep 3s and threw down a breakaway dunk that got the crowd going. With his team down 45-46 with 30 seconds left, he had a chance to win it. If he did, I was probably going to rush the court and then get escorted from the premises, all while Danny Ferry shook his head at me in disgust.
Here's how it all ended:
A Lou miss, into a Devin Harris–to–Mike Scott alley-oop, sealing the win for the other team. Josh Smith leaped off the bench, rapturously giving chest bumps. I loved everything about this. Every single thing.
As I walked out of South Gwinnett High School, realizing that I'd have to drive about 90 miles per hour to make my flight on the other side of town, I was flagged down by a bus driver. She asked me what was going on in the gym.
"Oh, the Hawks are having a practice in there," I said to here, shuffling for my keys.
"Oh, that's nice, what for?" she responded.
"Louis Williams, he plays for the Hawks now, he went to South Gwinnett," I said to her, realizing that 95 mph would be my minimum speed limit.
"Oh that sweet boy, I used to drive him to school. I've got to watch them this year," she said to me, and then drove off.