With more losing basketball on tap, Hawks sell fans on renovated arena

The Hawks billed it as a “season preview” but I didn’t hear much about the 2018-19 basketball season. Instead, the event was mostly about the newly renovated Philips Arena. 

More than once CEO Steve Koonin said the team wants fans to show up early for games and stay late to enjoy the arena’s amenities. Presumably the Hawks also want them to watch games in between, though it was hard to tell. They definitely want you to check out the barber shop that will overlook the court where, incidentally, basketball will be played.  

Koonin said the Hawks want their games to be social events “like a pool in Vegas.” Sounds like an oasis from losing basketball. 

That kind of over-the-top salesmanship is easy to mock, but I get it. When interest in the Hawks lagged their success in previous years, I always said it was up to the team to provide a product that people want. The Hawks won’t have winning basketball, so they were selling what they have at the Wednesday night event.

At one point, though, Hawks principal owner Tony Ressler paused the pomp and declared: “Until we win a championship, none of this means (expletive).” 

Maybe Ressler really believes it. But sports-franchise owners understand that’s what their customers want to hear, so it’s become performative for them to say it. Ressler might want to win a title, but he also expects the refreshed arena to generate more revenue. 

Perhaps what Ressler means is the new stream of money won’t last if the Hawks don’t field a championship-quality team. That’s probably right. Meanwhile, the Hawks will lose a lot of games in 2018-19, but I think they will at least be more entertaining than Year 1 of the tank. 

Rookie Trae Young, the most famous player in the draft, will be the main draw. His slick passing in pick-and-rolls should delight the customers. Young’s shot selection can be atrocious, but that could be entertaining in its own way. 

The two other rookie draft picks, Kevin Huerter and Omari Spellman, both can shoot. Second-year pro John Collins is a budding star with a high-flying, crowd-pleasing style. New coach Lloyd Pierce is promoting a faster pace of play. 

Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk is building the roster with “dribble, pass, shoot” prospects because that’s the current template for winning championships. It also is an aesthetically pleasing style of basketball when done right. I think the Hawks should be able to do it right often enough to make them worth watching. 

“We want people to see an exciting brand of basketball,” Schlenk said. “We want people to come out and have fun.” 

We’ll see how long the good times last in the spiffed-up arena if the Hawks don’t win more games soon. They can look to last season’s Braves to see how quickly the buzz of a new building can wear off around here. 

Ressler has been willing to take a hit to the Hawks brand with the bad basketball. It may be worth it if Schlenk finds future stars in the draft. The way the Hawks see it, the renovated arena and the practice facility opened last year will help them retain those stars and attract others. 

Ressler said that’s why he and his partners “invested a lot of capital” into both projects. (Not unmentioned: the $142.5 million in public money for the $192.5 million renovation or the net $6.5 million in tax breaks for the practice digs.) 

“A player like John Collins is not going to stay with a team if it’s a second-tier franchise,” Ressler said. 

Collins also was at the preview event, where he modeled the baby-blue throwback jerseys the Hawks will wear at times during the franchise’s 50th anniversary of their arrival in Atlanta. 

“A lot of championship talk out there,” he said following the presentation. “I like it, though.” 

It will be a while before such talk from the Hawks can be taken seriously. They could have as many as three first-round picks in the next year’s draft, so the 2019-20 season is shaping up to be Year 3 of the rebuild. Maybe the Hawks will be good again in 2020-21 if Schlenk picks the right players and Pierce and his staff develop them. 

There will be no winning basketball this season, so the Hawks are selling their building. Come for the arena and, please, stay there because of it.

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010. 

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