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5 career moments: A tearful Arnold Palmer, Thrashers’ finale and 60-win Hawks

: Hawks center Al Horford reacts after hitting the game winning shot to beat the Wizards 82-81 in their Eastern Conference Semifinals game 5 on Tuesday, May 13, 2015, in Atlanta.     Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com
: Hawks center Al Horford reacts after hitting the game winning shot to beat the Wizards 82-81 in their Eastern Conference Semifinals game 5 on Tuesday, May 13, 2015, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Editor’s note: Over the next two weeks, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will present of series of columns from our staff detailing the five most memorable games they have covered in their careers.

I made Arnold Palmer cry.

Well, at least pause and tear up while answering my question.

Jack Nicklaus, I once made his eyes get moist, too. Tiger Woods, not even close.

Since I asked the sports staff to write a column detailing their five most memorable games or events they have covered – which will appear over the next two weeks – I offer my contribution. It does not have the depth of the esteemed Mark Bradley. But there have been moments over my years at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Bob Hartley once sat in my family room. I had a near-death experience on a treacherous bus ride from Washington, D.C., to Richmond, Virginia, in a blinding snowstorm with the Thrashers. Stories for another day perhaps.

The ground rules: I had to be there in person, and they all couldn’t be from the covering the 2014-15 60-win Hawks. We begin.

No. 5: April 5, 2007: Palmer hits ceremonial tee shot at the Masters

It had been five years since Sam Snead started the 2002 Masters with a ceremonial drive off the first tee. The long-standing tradition was on hiatus, almost as if it were holding a spot for Palmer to joins golf legends of the past. He finally did. As part of the AJC coverage team, I got to the tee box early enough that Thursday morning for a spot right behind the ropes to watch a little history.

After Palmer rekindled the tradition, there was a news conference where he first joked about having to get up so early. I wanted to know his thoughts about the enormous show of fan support he received that morning. He got choked up as he answered.

He said, in part: “The emotion and feeling about being here and doing this, I waited to do this and think about it for a couple of years. And I felt like this was an appropriate time. I didn’t want to get up and die before I did it; getting to my age at some point, you’ve got to think about that. But certainly there’s a lot of emotion and a lot of feeling for Augusta. …

“And in the last, I guess, 24 hours, a lot of those things came to my mind. I just was reminiscing and thinking about how much Augusta has meant in my life, right up to today.”

No. 4: April 10, 2011: Penguins 5, Thrashers 2

It was the final game in the brief history of the Thrashers in Atlanta. The 11-season tenure of the NHL team in our city was coming to an end even before they skated on a Sunday afternoon for the final time at Philips Arena. It wasn’t official, but the wheels were in motion. The NHL had a willing buyer in Winnipeg and a willing seller in the Atlanta Spirit.

I previewed the game in the Sunday paper with a story that began: “Is this really it? When the Thrashers play today, it could be more than the last game of the season; it could be the final one for the franchise.” It was.

There would be no mystery man nor knight in shining armor to save the franchise. By the summer, they would be officially sold and relocated.

The Thrashers got off to an encouraging start that final season, holding a 19-11-5 record Dec. 20 and leading the Southeast Division. Then came the stretch that cost the team a realistic chance at the postseason. Over the next 30 games they went 7-17-6, with only three regulation wins. They would miss the playoffs for the 10th time in 11 seasons.

The Thrashers led 1-0 after the first period on a goal by captain Andrew Ladd. The Penguins scored four second-period goals to ice the victory. The game story appeared on Page C9 of the sports section as Charl Schwartzel won the Masters the same day.

I remember leaving the arena that day knowing there were months of uncertainty ahead but that I had likely covered my last hockey game. I had.

No. 3: Feb. 6, 2015: Hawks 124, Warriors 116

Warriors coach Steve Kerr walked into Philips Arena for the team’s morning shootaround, saw the large media contingent and said, “Welcome to the NBA Finals.” The Hawks entered with the best record in the Eastern Conference at 41-9, and the Warriors were the best of the Western Conference at 39-8. The Hawks, on the way to a 60-win season, matched up well with the Warriors and the game went a back-and-forth. It was a prime example of that Hawks team, led by starters Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Paul Millsap and Al Horford, who all scored in double figures. It was the bench contributions of Kent Bazemore, Mike Scott and Dennis Schroder, who combined to go 7-for-7 from 3-point range, that put them over the top.

One play epitomized those Hawks in that game. In the second quarter, Schroder scored on a layup and fell out of bounds. As the Warriors were inbounded the ball, Horford deflected it. Schroder corralled the loose ball as he re-entered the court and dropped a pass to Korver, for him to make a straight-away 3-pointer.

The Warriors went on to win the NBA championship that season, beating the Cavaliers in six games. You wonder what would have been had the Hawks got past the Cavaliers in the conference finals (see below).

No. 2: May 24, 2015: Cavaliers 114, Hawks 111 (OT)

After the Hawks lost the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals at home, commentator Charles Barkley stuck his head in the media room of Philips Arena and said “The last one to leave, turn out the lights because we’re not coming back.”

The Hawks were injured in the playoffs of their dream season. Carroll hurt his leg in the second-round matchup with the Wizards and wasn’t the same. Korver was lost for the season with a leg injury suffered in Game 2 against the Cavaliers.

In Game 3, the Hawks weren’t going away as they led for most of the first half. And then the Cavaliers’ Matthew Dellavedova struck again. It was Dellavedova who ended Korver’s season by diving into his legs for a loose ball. He did it again to Horford with 36 seconds remaining in the second quarter. Horford was ejected after coming down with a forearm.

Still, the Hawks were in the game. Teague missed a potential game-winning shot with the scored tied 104-104 at the end of regulation. The game wasn’t decided until LeBron James made a corner 3-pointer with 36.7 seconds left to give the Cavaliers a 112-111 lead.

The Hawks lost Game 4 and were swept in the series. I’ve always wondered what if Korver hadn’t gotten hurt and Horford hadn’t been ejected.

Hawks center Al Horford hits the game winning shot to beat the Wizards 82-81 in their Eastern Conference Semifinals game 5 on Tuesday, May 13, 2015, in Atlanta.     Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com
Hawks center Al Horford hits the game winning shot to beat the Wizards 82-81 in their Eastern Conference Semifinals game 5 on Tuesday, May 13, 2015, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

No. 1: May 13, 2015: Hawks 82, Wizards 81

The Eastern Conference semifinals series between the Hawks and Wizards was a drama-filled classic. The Wizards won Game 1 in Atlanta. They won Game 3 in Washington on a fadeaway bank shot by Paul Pierce with 0.8 seconds left after Hawks had erased a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit on a Mike Muscala 3-pointer with 14 seconds left that tied the score at 101-101.

Still, the Hawks won the series, 4-2. The clincher came in Game 6 in Washington, but only after Pierce’s 3-pointer at the buzzer appeared to tie the score at 94-94. After a lengthy review, it was ruled that the shot came after time expired. Game over. Series over.

There was even more drama in the Hawks’ 82-81 Game 5 victory, my most memorable.

Pierce made a corner 3-pointer with 8.3 seconds remaining to give the Wizards an 81-80 victory with 8.3 seconds left. I later learned and reported that after Pierce hit the shot, he turned to the Hawks bench and said ‘Series.’ Oops.

On the Hawks’ ensuing possession, Schroder drove to the basket but had his shot blocked. Horford got the loose ball and put it back for a score with 1.8 seconds left. The Hawks won in a game they trailed by 10 points in the third quarter and seven points in the fourth quarter, setting up more dramatics two days later.

“I wasn’t supposed to be involved in the play at all,” Horford said. “When I saw the ball go up, I just ran in there.”