Fans attending the Hawks’ home opener Saturday night encountered something unusual: pregame traffic clogging the streets surrounding Philips Arena.
It was a welcome sight for the embattled franchise following a tumultuous offseason of their own making. First came the discovery of a 2012 email from co-owner Bruce Levenson in which he expressed concern over the team’s predominantly African-American crowds. Less than a week later, an audiotape surfaced of general manager Danny Ferry discussing free-agent forward Luol Deng’s African heritage in a negative light.
Aware the team needed to make amends, management pulled out all the stops Saturday, giving away T-shirts, a $10 voucher for future tickets and a performance by rapper T.I., who kicked off the night with his hit “No Mediocre,” a bit ironic, considering the Hawks generally middling record since the glory days of the 1980s.
Backup forward Elton Brand, appearing with starting shooting guard Kyle Korver, told the sellout crowd, “We’re going to make you proud on and off the court.”
Most fans said they are willing to forgive, but added it will take a lot more than promotions and giveaways to win over a city that’s largely been indifferent toward the Hawks, who finished 28th of 30 teams in attendance last season.
“This might be the only game I come to,” said Deondre Phillips, 37, of Atlanta, who felt “insulted” by Levenson’s email and Ferry’s comments. “A lot of people were wondering why I’d come out to support the team after all that went down.”
Phillips said if not for the free T.I. concert, he probably would’ve stayed home.
“Kind of a coincidence after what the owner said that they have (a black artist) performing a concert,” said Brandon Heath, 27.
Heath, an Atlanta native, said he was glad to see Philips Arena filled to capacity, but doubts there will be many more sellouts this season.
“Let’s face it, T.I. has a lot to do with it,” he said.
Eric Clark, a recent transplant to Atlanta, said he’s tried to embrace the Hawks, but the team’s performance on the court, along with the recent developments off it, have made it difficult.
“I think it hurt the whole city,” said Clark, 37. “I don’t want to support management that thinks that way.”
Jihad Bratt, 24, said he wasn’t offended by Levenson’s email, but knows he’s in the minority.
‘It was said in a bad way,” said Bratt, of Atlanta. “In the right context, he’s got a point.”
Bratt said fans will turn out if the product on the floor is compelling. He, for one, is optimistic.
“I see us as a top-4 seed (in the Eastern Conference),” he said.
Season ticket-holder Walter Kelly said winning will help, but believes a change in ownership is desperately needed. Levenson agreed to sell his stake in the team after his controversial email became public. Ferry, meanwhile, was placed on indefinite leave.
“They all need to go, not just Levenson,” said Kelly, of Tucker. “This ownership has been a disaster since Day 1. They need one voice, one vision.”
“It shouldn’t be too hard,” he said. “A lot of players live in Atlanta. They just don’t want to play here.”
A lot of basketball fans live here, too; Atlanta routinely ranks near the top when TV ratings for the NBA Finals and All-Star game are broken down by city.
But many, such as Lance Miller, save their passion for teams other than the Hawks.
“Usually if you see me here it’s because the Knicks are playing,” said Lance Miller, 55. “It’s surprising how many people you’ll see rooting for the other team here. That’s unusual.”
Fortunately for the Hawks, Saturday’s opponent, the Indiana Pacers, doesn’t have a large national fan base. The enthusiastic crowd was squarely in the home team’s corner, cheering loudly whenever former players such as Spud Webb, Kevin Willis and Dominique Wilkins were introduced.
Still, the loudest cheers were for T.I.
At least he’s from Atlanta.
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