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On rescue dogs, the Hawks’ young core and The Last Dance: Catching up with Bob Rathbun during hiatus

ajc.com

Fox Sports Southeast announcer Bob Rathbun has stayed busy during the NBA hiatus.

He's still chatting about the Hawks via video conference alongside broadcasters Dominique Wilkins and Andre Aldridge, discussing would-be season awards with fellow Fox Sports play-by-play announcers and helping his wife, Marybeth, with her dog-rescue initiative, helping 35 dogs finding their forever homes in April.

This marked Rathbun’s 24th season calling Hawks games on TV.

During some downtime caused by the coronavirus pandemic, he gave the AJC his thoughts on where the league is headed after this hiatus, the Hawks’ young core, “The Last Dance” documentary about Michael Jordan and one of his favorite games he ever called, Hawks-Warriors in February 2015, which will be re-aired at 8 p.m. Friday on FSSE.

Can you think of any ways the regular season would be able to come back? 

I don't think we'll see fans, no matter what happens. I don't think we're close to that happening in any sport, even with the restart of NASCAR and PGA, etc., they're going forward without any fans. I just think that as the weeks unfold, there's more confidence that we could do something. This is our industry. Sports means a great deal to our economy, and I'm talking about the totality of sports, whether it's the pros, college, youth sports, little league baseball, T-ball, youth soccer, this is a huge part of our economy and a big part of the restart.

So I think, and this is all couched on when it’s safe and when they deem it safe for us to go back out and play, I think it’s going to happen. I don’t know how, and I don’t know when or where, I just think it would be such a great thing for the country to have sort of a distraction, if you will, even in an empty gym. The pressure to come back and save what’s left of the season and put some playoff structure together is key, and I think it’s true for hockey, and to get baseball going again would really be great medicine for the country.

From Day 1, I have felt like we’re coming back, somehow, some way. I just think we’re coming back. I’m not privy to any information, obviously, but I think that’s still the goal, is to try to find a way to get this done. Does that mean you play out all 82? Probably not. Certainly there are considerations for television, with original sports networks across the country that need to have games to meet minimums in their contracts is a part of it. But you can tell by what “The Last Dance” is doing ... the NFL draft ... that if you put a sporting event on television, and I’m sure NASCAR and golf will be like this in a couple weeks, you’re going to have astronomical ratings. It’s not lost on the teams, the leagues or the TV executives. If you could find a way to put a game on, oh my goodness, it would be great.

I think those are all things that are being considered, and I’m one to hold out hope until the last possible second. I think it can be done. I think one thing we have to do, all leagues, is throw the calendar out the window. The fact that it’s the first week of May, just forget it, it doesn’t matter. We’ll get back together when it’s time. And if it’s July, then it’s July, but we’ve got to get off this calendar thing, like, ‘This should be happening now.’ No, that does not apply in a pandemic.

Hawks CEO Steve Koonin has previously advocated for the NBA season starting in December, after college football season is mostly out of the way. What are your thoughts on that, with the schedule already thrown off due to the coronavirus? 

You know, it’s very interesting, and I’ve talked to Steve about this, and I do think it’s got legs. This maybe advanced the discussion a little bit quicker than we all thought it would, but I do think that there’s something to this, particularly in the South with college football and of course the NFL so dominant, that maybe it’s a pretty good idea that we start a little bit later. I think we may have the chance to see how it plays out. In years past, when we’ve had work stoppages, I think ’99 comes to mind, we had a pretty late start (the 1998-99 season began Feb. 5, 1999 after a lockout), and it didn’t really seem to affect us a great deal in terms of picking up at that time of year. The circumstances are different, of course, but I do think it’s got some momentum.

It’s interesting because there are some markets in the NBA where you could play any time of the year, and it’s not going to affect you, like Portland. They don’t have the NFL to worry about. The Seahawks are, of course, up the road, but in their market, they’re going to pack that place if they played at 10 a.m. on Sunday morning. They would pack the place, so you have those markets saying it really doesn’t impact us, and you have others that say maybe this is a pretty significant change to their business model. So I do think it’s a conversation worth having, and we may, by the time this is all said and done, have the opportunity to see it play out at the end of this year. I think one of the big things going forward is how can we make this thing safe for our fans? How do we do this? Will there be a point in the winter where we can allow fans to come to games? Do we social distance? How do you sell seats? … How do you do this is, I think, one of the big questions going forward, if it even comes to that.

Maybe we can't have fans at all, I don't know. I'm no expert on this at all, but it's something to consider because the only reason that any of this exists is for the fans, whether it's college sports, high school, you name it, when we turn the lights on and fire up the scoreboard, it's obviously for the athletes, but it's for the fans' benefit and enjoyment, and if we can't do that, then boy, it really puts the damper on the whole thing. I can't imagine calling a basketball game and nobody being in the stands. They had a game in New York, it was at (Madison Square Garden), a Knicks game, where they had no music, no PA, no scoreboard, other than the score itself, no nothing, and it was spooky. The fans didn't like it, the players sure didn't like it. I said to (game producer Jil Gossard-Cook), 'If we do this, and we play a game without fans, I think they've got to pipe in something.' Maybe some low-key crowd noise, or maybe Sir Foster banging on the organ, or whatever it is just to give the players a familiar sound.

What stood out the most to you about this season’s Hawks team? 

For this particular group, it’s watching these young guys grow and learn and understand what professional basketball is all about. They’re so young, they’re 22, 21, 20 years old and as you have seen, the NBA is very hard on young guys. This is a very punishing sport when you don’t have the experience, the wherewithal to navigate 82 games and win, but that said, they’re learning. They’re getting better. We started to win a few more at the end. The growth that we saw, (Trae Young’s) year this year over last, his numbers are amazing, how they’ve increased so. To see the ascension of Cam Reddish the last couple of months of the season. I’m so desperate to get back. I want to see (Clint) Capela, I want to see what can happen. John Collins is having a season for the ages, certainly in Hawks history, but really in NBA history. Nobody’s putting up numbers like this where you’re 21 (points) and 10 (rebounds), shooting 58% from the field, 41% from 3 and 80% at the line, I mean that is amazing.

Now, it’s 41 games, but still, it’s significant. And just to see De’Andre (Hunter), and Kevin Huerter overcoming his injuries, the whole storyline about the young guys I think is fascinating because you can see the promise of the future, I think. As well as they came together toward the end of the season. Obviously, we’ve got a ways to go, obviously defensively we’ve got to get better, and we’ve got to reboot that second unit, and these are all things that (general manager Travis Schlenk) and (coach Lloyd Pierce) have told you that have to happen. But I think for this group, this has been amazing to have this kind of young talent kind of grow up together, and this is going to be the bunch that kinds of leads us back to the playoffs, back into contention. And I think it’ll happen sooner rather than later.

I know there are some Hawks classic games that are going to be airing coming up. Are there any you’re excited to rewatch, or are any of them favorites that you’ve called? 

We're going to replay the Golden State game from the 60-win season. … That was as fun a game as I have ever called.. .. But that Golden State game, they were obviously the best team in the West, and we were trying to measure ourselves and gosh, that was an exciting night. It was the No. 1-rated show in Atlanta that night, not cable, not sports, No. 1 period. The whole town was caught up in it. I remember Kyle (Korver) was incredible; I think he hit five 3's in that game. That was the Hawks at their finest that night. That night was as good as it gets for that team. I will say to my dying day, had we stayed healthy, we would have played those guys in the finals. I think we would have beaten Cleveland. I don't know if we would have beaten Golden State, but we would have beaten Cleveland and gone to the finals, and what that would have meant to this city and this franchise, but we all know we didn't stay healthy. ...

There was one play where there was a missed shot on our end and the ball is going out of bounds right in front of the bench, and Dennis Schroder goes over and saves it, and he flips back to Kyle Korver and you see Dennis, he just starts running to the other end of the floor because he knew that Kyle Korver was going to hit the shot. I mean, you’ll see it. He just starts jogging over to the other end, and Korver hit the shot. The place goes crazy. I go crazy.

The Hawks are still young, but Pierce has mentioned the next step for them is the playoffs, what are your thoughts on how they get there? 

I think that rebuilding the second unit is obviously Travis’ No. 1 goal of the offseason. Obviously, he’s got money to spend, and he and Lloyd have a very good feeling of the kind of player he’d like to get to augment this young group, so I think that’s probably No. 1. And then I think one of the big things is how is Capela going to fit in? This is a big trade that we made, and we don’t have any idea of what he can bring, how best to put him out there with John and the guys, how is that all going to work, so I think those are two things that are going to be right there for them whenever we do crank up. … We’re in a position now where these guys are just starting to get into their prime years, and they’ve got the money to be able to go out and get, either by free agency, restricted free agency, trade, whatever, you can do a lot of things to get the guys around them to make this thing really sing. So I think they’re right on the doorstep of really doing something that not only will help them next year, but will help them for the foreseeable future around this young core.

What has it been like watching Trae Young develop his first two years? 

It has been so exciting, primarily because he’s the littlest guy on the court. It’s not like he’s in there and challenging people at the rim, this guy has found a different way to play. And what’s interesting to me is when you go back and look at his school footage, obviously Oklahoma, it’s the same. He’s the same guy playing the same way, and that’s probably what drew Travis to him, is Travis felt that style could translate to the NBA. I mean, guys just don’t increase their scoring average by 10 point a game from one year to the next as he has done this year. Incredible. He’s got the ball in his hands all the time, he’s going to get the line. I think he’s going to be, ultimately, a 90% free-throw shooter, so if you put him on the line, you’re giving up points.

He’s going to be a guy that I think’s going to average over 10 assists a game, when the guys around him mature and get better. We really have one of the (best) offensive talents the game has seen in quite some time.

Have you been watching “The Last Dance”? 

Every second of it.

What do you think? 

Oh, I love it. It brings it all back. For those of us who lived it, this is all coming back. … It was just a phenomenon. It was The Beatles. It was just crazy, the fandom around (Michael Jordan) and around his team. So it brings it all back. I have loved the behind-the-scenes. I know how the games happened and ended, but to see the behind-the-scenes stuff is really fascinating. Like last night, (Toni Kukoc) played for us later in his career and to talk to Toni about that time in the Olympics and joining the Bulls, I mean he’s a kid and they’re going after him like there’s no tomorrow, and it’s like what in the world is Scottie Pippen doing taking Kukoc out, but it was all to get back at Jerry Krause, it had little to do with Toni Kukoc. But to see it all, it’s like “Oh yeah, I remember that. I remember that.” It brings it all back.

It’s interesting I think for our guys, the Traes, the Johns, that didn’t experience it, to see what competition like that is all about. They hear Dominique talk about it, and I don’t think it quite registers with them. Dominique will say, guys, the Knicks, the Pistons, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, it was all the same – you go down the lane, they are trying to take your head off. And the stuff you saw last night and last week, with Detroit and New York, today that is automatic flagrant foul, automatic ejection, automatic suspension. Back then, maybe you got a whistle. And these guys, look at the numbers they put up in the face of that defense. ... It was just such a different time, and I was talking to ’Nique about it, and I was just like, the best part is, now they understand when you talk about how rough it was or how tough it was, now they get an understanding about just what it was to play in that era.

And listen, those guys had their time, and these guys are having their time. And both are wonderful. But it’s nice to see this put in context and have the younger guys maybe appreciate a little bit more, those guys that came before them.