Hawks truest believers finally rewarded

Eight years ago, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution sampled the attitudes and resolve of five long-time Hawks season ticket holders.

It was a sorrowful time, bleak even against this franchise’s barren landscape. Those Hawks were on their way to missing the playoffs for an eighth consecutive year, a span over which they won but an average of 27 games per season. A season ticket to that production was the equivalent of a standing reserved seat to the Jerry Springer Show.

Who better to revisit now that the team has completed its most bountiful regular season ever — 60 wins, champion of the Eastern Conference, a head above LeBron and all the rest for the time being? Who else can speak with greater authority to the long overdue rewards of one special season?

Back then, we wrote of this faithful flock: “In a fickle sports town, these Hawks die-hards are a particularly unusual bunch. While many others have lowered the life rafts and left this leaky franchise behind, they keep buying pricey outer berths. Why do they stay? To be a part of the NBA culture. And in the hope of being there up close on that unforeseen day when the Hawks are a hot ticket and Philips (Arena) is popping at the rivets.”

What do you know, that rivet-popping day is here.

What follows is the revised testimony from the four of those stout-hearted fans who could be reached.

Randy Kessler, season ticket holder since 1999.

What he said in 2007: “When I can’t go to a game, it’s actually hard to give away seats sometimes. That’s frustrating. We’ve got great seats, and people go, ‘Aw, thanks for the offer anyway.”

What he’s saying now: “It’s unbelievable, out of the woodwork people are asking me for tickets. They say, ‘Randy, you’ve been saying for years we should go to a game. Can we go to one now?’”

Kessler, an attorney by trade, can sense when he’s being fed a line. At a preseason town hall-style gathering, in the shadows of the Bruce Levenson/Danny Ferry controversies, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer was answering a fan’s question about who he saw as the favorite in the East. “Why not the Hawks?” Budenholzer answered.

“He said it with such sincerely,” Kessler remembered.

But was there any part of you that really believed it? “I thought it was the right thing for a coach to say,” Kessler said.

But then came the cascade of victories — 19 in a row at one point — and the sellouts and the runaway in the Eastern Conference. And it was as if Kessler’s prime courtside seat was transported to another arena, a place where the fans cheered themselves hoarse and the players actually executed a plan.

“The energy is unbelievable,” he said. “People are there early. The anticipation of the game is now fun for me — seeing them warm up, knowing that chances are you’re going to see something special, you’re going to see a win, you’re going to leave happy.”

Oddly, while most every other winter Kessler made a point to place a small bet in Las Vegas on the Hawks winning a championship, he didn’t get out there before this time, before an actual wise investment opportunity. He has a trip planned next week, though, and still can get close to 15-to-1 odds on that proposition. “I hope they keep underestimating them,” he said.

George Whitley, season ticket holder since 1990.

What he said in 2007: “I love the NBA. Regardless of what the Hawks do, I love coming and seeing the other athletes on the teams. It’s gravy if the Hawks do well.”

What he says now: “Now I have the gravy and mashed potatoes.”

Yes, the view has been swell from Whitley’s perch, up front, end line, near the Hawks’ bench. And the sounds around him have been more harmonious, too. “Everyone is genuinely more upbeat,” he said.

A well-travelled Sandy Springs businessman, Whitley has found himself going to great lengths to catch as much of this special home season as possible (with seats in his neighborhood valued at around $300, little wonder). Probably the most strained itinerary thus far: Taking a red-eye back from San Francisco to make a home Hawks game against Frisco’s own team, Golden State. And they say the travel for the players is taxing.

When you have been connected to a team for as long as Whitley has with the Hawks, their losses get carried over onto your personal account, and their victories become yours as well. At least that’s how friends see it.

“I do get it quite a bit: ‘Hey it’s paid off. All the pain and misery. You’re being rewarded for sticking it out,” he said.

So, does he indeed feel that this single season has balanced out all the disappointment-filled ones?

“I’ll tell you in the middle of May if I feel that way,” he said, still looking for a higher highlight and still a little anxious about the Hawks duplicating regular-season success here in the second season.

Peter Landskroener, season ticket holder since 1982.

What he said in 2007: “If this year ends up as poorly as last year and we have another year of not making any big moves, I might think about (not renewing his tickets). It’s a lot of money for a bad product. They have to upgrade the product.”

What he says now: “In fact, no, I never came close (to not renewing). That was just venting because they were so bad at the time.

“One of your first thoughts about a lot of the people showing up now is that they’re fair-weather fans. But then you say that’s OK because that helps the team. It doesn’t matter if they’ve been loyal fans for years or years. The fact of the matter is they didn’t come because the team was so bad. And now we have a bunch of guys who you gotta love.”

Among the many feelers the team sent to its season-ticket base this season was a survey asking for a favorite player. Landskroener’s answer was perfect for the tenor of this season, and certainly music to a coach’s ear.

“I don’t have a favorite, I just don’t,” he said. “I’m in love with this team.”

Before the season began, he kept telling friends that he thought this was a 50-win collection. And they kept answering, “Yeah, sure,” with a little eye-roll thrown in for emphasis. Turns out, Landskroener was being conservative.

The joy of the season,” he said, “has been taking people who maybe wouldn’t have gone in years past and watching them have fun.”

Gary and Marcia Glass, season ticket holders from 1996-2012.

What he said in 2007: “I came from Chicago, and I was going to Bulls games before Michael Jordan was there. You could walk into the stadium any night, just like you can here. One year after Michael was there, you had to have season tickets to get into the door. It will happen here. I just hope I live that long.”

What she’s saying now: “Gary died in July 2012. He would have loved to have seen the Hawks doing as well as they are this year. I think he’s smiling somewhere saying he knew all along they had it in them.”

After her husband died, Marcia let the season tickets go. The games were so much a “we” experience, that she could not picture sitting there every night without Gary.

Last in Philips Arena a season ago, when she took her granddaughter to a single game (and the girl had her picture taken with Dominique Wilkins), Marcia still watches a majority of the games on TV. During the telecast she’ll try to pick out old friends in the stands, but that got increasingly difficult as attendance ballooned.

She certainly understands why the seats are full, noting, “I think they’re finally playing as a team.”

The season tickets may be gone, but that hardly disqualifies her from declaring, “I’ll always be a Hawks fan.”

On a certain special season — a season that seemed would never come — any who can say that deserve all the satisfaction and comfort they can find.

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