Atlanta a favored spot for athletes to call home

In late 2008, Julius “Dr. J” Erving purchased the Heritage Golf Course in Norcross and is reportedly looking for a home in the area.

When Jerome “The Bus” Bettis decided to retire, the native of Detroit made a decision to park the Bus in north Fulton.

“I was attracted to Atlanta, even when I was in college,” said Tyrone Hill, a former NBA player who lived here before joining the Atlanta Hawks staff as an assistant coach. “We [Xavier] played Michigan in the NCAA tournament [in 1989]. We lost and went out to dinner, and we got a chance to hang out a little bit. I fell in love with the city then.”

Former and current NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB players call the metro area home, some at least for part of the year.

From current Denver Broncos wide receiver Brandon Marshall to former NBA star Ralph Sampson.

The real estate market is a major attraction.

“You can buy a good $800,000 house, compared to living in California or L.A., and get a nice piece of property,” said Hill, a native of Cincinnati and a former All-Star who played 14 years in the NBA. “Instead of paying $3 [million] or $4 million, you can pay $800,000 and get a real nice house here. That’s the most important thing that guys look at, the real estate, the weather, and we’ve got some great restaurants.”

There is also a group of athletes — such as Buffalo’s Terrell Owens — who have secondary homes in the area. Owens, who drops by Hawks and Georgia Tech basketball games, has a house off Panola Road. He’s spending more time this offseason, however, at his residence in Miami.

“Atlanta tends to be a spot where a lot of athletes like to have a second home in, like South Beach [Miami],” said Lisa Robinson, the founder and principal broker of the Robinson Realty Group, who has sold homes to several current and former pro athletes. “So they may have a condo or a smaller place here because they frequent this area.”

Just about every sector of the metro area — from Alpharetta to Jonesboro — has some current or retired pro athlete residing there.

“The Falcons like to stay closer to the facility where they have to go and work out,” Robinson said. “The Hawks like to stay more intown because they have to get in and out of Philips for practice regularly. I know a few of the new Braves have purchased intown units in the W downtown.

“The new, sexy, intown living with full amenities is appealing to guys who travel a lot because they get the benefit of full hotel and concierge services and a great intown place. That’s probably the newest appealing thing that we have in the marketplace.”

The Atlanta chapter of the NFL Players Association currently has about 425 dues-paying members, said chapter President Dewey McClain, who played for the Falcons from 1976-80 and never left.

“When we have a meeting, 20 to 25 teams are represented,” McClain said. “When they have a meeting in Green Bay, I’m sure 98 percent of them played for Green Bay.”

The NFL Players Association doesn’t keep close tabs on where many players retire because many do not become members of the NFLPA Retired Players Association. But some of its larger chapters include Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami and Phoenix.

“We average 120-plus members in each of those chapters, so I would imagine that many more players are there,” Qiana Thomas, of the NFLPA Retired Players Association, wrote in an e-mail to the AJC.

Several players, such as Bettis, are transplanted Northerners who enjoy the climate.

“If you want to live 20 to 30 minutes outside of the city, then that’s not too far to drive on it,” McClain said. “Our young guys say the nightlife is great. Hartsfield-Jackson is one of the best airports in the world. If you have to fly out of town for business, it’s not a major hassle.”

Bettis had to fly to Lake Tahoe to play in a celebrity golf outing in July.

Erving, who changed Heritage’s name to Julius Erving’s Celebrity Golf Club International, is usually at the course three or four times a week and attends Cascade United Methodist Church in southwest Atlanta.

Tim Ecclestone, who played for the Atlanta Flames, turned down the chance to be an NHL coach to stay in the metro area. The native of Toronto has called Atlanta home since 1974.

“Atlanta is a great city even today, but back in those days there was no traffic to speak of,” said Ecclestone, who has owned T.J.’s Sports Bar and Grill in Alpharetta since 1990. “You could get around anywhere you wanted to go. The climate is great. Our kids loved it here. You’ve got everything to offer here.”

The golf courses in the area were also an attraction for him.

“I just fell in love with the climate down here, the lifestyle and everything else,” Ecclestone said. “I enjoy golf, so I’ve been able to play golf all over the place. Evel Knievel was a great friend of mine, and Evel and I used to play all the time.”

A native of Washington, Jarrett Jack moved to Atlanta to play basketball at Georgia Tech. He made a promise to his mother that if he left school to turn pro he would return to Tech to finish his business degree, which he’s working on this summer.

He lives here in the offseason. He just signed a multi-year deal with the Toronto Raptors but played last season with Indiana after spending three seasons with Portland.

“I love everything about the city,” said Jack, who helped guide the Yellow Jackets to the 2004 NCAA title game. “It isn’t too fast or too slow, but most of all it has its own identity.”

Former major league baseball player and Atlanta native Marquis Grissom has worked as an ambassador for the metro area. He persuaded former major-leaguer Delino DeShields to move to the area during their playing days.

The two, who are now coaches, are still neighbors in Fayette County.

Dorsey Levens, a native of Syracuse, N.Y., started his collegiate career with Bettis at Notre Dame. He ended up transferring to Georgia Tech before going on to an 11-year NFL career with the Green Bay Packers, New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles.

“When I played in Green Bay ... it just made since to have an offseason spot,” Levens said.

Levens’ old offseason spot was a mini-mansion in southwest Atlanta with a basketball halfcourt in the backyard.

Now, he resides in Buckhead and works as an NFL and ACC football expert for Comcast. He’s also set to start doing some play-by-play for Georgia Tech games on Comcast.

“For me, Atlanta is just a nice city,” Levens said. “The weather is good. There are a million restaurants. There is always something coming through here, whether it is a concert, a play or a live band at a jazz club. It’s the best of both worlds.

Some of Levens’ favorite spots are Prime restaurant at Lenox Square, Twists, Houston’s in Buckhead and the Cheesecake Factory.

“You can go out every night if you want to, or you can stay home and go out occasionally,” he said. “Either way, Atlanta is perfect for that.”

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