Atlanta’s team: The soaring Hawks and their shining star

Hawks guard Trae Young waves goodbye to booing Philadelphia 76ers fans after winning Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Sunday, June 20, 2021, in Philadelphia. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Caption
Hawks guard Trae Young waves goodbye to booing Philadelphia 76ers fans after winning Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Sunday, June 20, 2021, in Philadelphia. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

There has long been a disconnect between the Hawks, who moved here from St. Louis in 1968, and their home city. Atlantans like basketball. TV ratings during the NBA playoffs invariably show that this market is among the top 10 watching, even if the Hawks weren’t involved. (Or maybe, a cynic might say, because the Hawks weren’t involved.) This state has produced a slew of big-time players, from Walt Frazier to Dwight Howard to Anthony Edwards. Many professional athletes – Shaquille O’Neal is one – made their homes here even though they were based elsewhere.

The problem wasn’t that we as a city didn’t like the sport. We just weren’t crazy about the Hawks.

There have been exceptions. Pete Maravich created a stir when he joined a Hawks team that included Lou Hudson and Walt Bellamy. (Two of the three are in the Hall of Fame.) The mid-’80s band of Dominique Wilkins and Doc Rivers became, albeit briefly, the hottest team in town, though we note that the Hawks’ rise came at a time when the Braves and Falcons were especially awful and the Georgia Bulldogs were coming off their Herschel-driven high.

The Hawks were rarely as bad as we made them out to be. From 1968 through 1999, they made the playoffs 23 times. But a youngish writer who’d grown up around basketball drew strange glances when he informed his editor he planned to write a column – Furman Bisher was on vacation – off the Hawks’ game of Dec. 18, 1984.

Editor: “Why would you do that?”

Me: “Well, they’re playing the Lakers.”

The editor shrugged and said, “OK, I guess.”

It was a fabulous game. Rivers scored 25 points. Magic Johnson had 25 points, 20 assists and 14 rebounds. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hit the winning sky hook over Tree Rollins. The Lakers won 117-116. Attendance at the Omni – this was the point my editor sought to make – was announced as 9,844, barely half-capacity.

Even when those Hawks started to get good – they went 209-119 over their next four seasons – attendance lagged reality. Said Stan Kasten, then the Hawks’ general manager: “It always takes a little longer in Atlanta.”

Finally, though, it happened. The famous playoff series of 1988 – the Hawks lost in seven games to Boston – whetted the city’s appetite for more and better, and the Hawks accommodated by signing Moses Malone and trading for Reggie Theus, two All-Stars to supplement Wilkins and Rivers. There was, alas, no mesh. They lost in Round 1 to undermanned Milwaukee. The city’s response was that of a jilted suitor. Put another way, Atlanta ghosted the Hawks.

There have been times when the magic almost returned, but the ’90s Hawks of Steve Smith and Dikembe Mutombo were blocked in the NBA East by the Pacers and especially the Bulls. (Michael Jordan scored the last basket in the Omni in Game 4 of a 1997 playoff series.) Come the 21st Century, the Joe Johnson/Josh Smith team could never get past Round 2. When the Hawks – as coached by Mike Budenholzer, who’ll be working against them in this Eastern Conference final series – finally reached this stage in 2015, they were swept by LeBron James and Cleveland. Not long thereafter, the Hawks were again rebuilding.

But look now. General manager Travis Schlenk, hired from Golden State, has assembled a team capable of winning and, equally important, making you jump out of your seat. Trae Young is the most exciting Hawk since the great Dominique, though Young is closer in stature to the miniature Spud Webb. Schlenk drafted well enough to build the skeleton of a roster, and through trades and signings he fleshed out the roster. Young has the help he didn’t have in his first two NBA seasons and, in interim coach Nate McMillan, he has the guidance.

This has happened so fast – when the Hawks fired coach Lloyd Pierce on March 1, they were 14-20 – as to defy belief. The Hawks have won two playoff series for the second time since they came south from St. Louis. They beat Philadelphia, the East’s No. 1 seed, in a Game 7 on the road, which this franchise had never done.

The post-lockdown crowds at State Farm Arena have been loud and sassy, and the 22-year-old Young plays off audiences, friendly and otherwise, as if he’s Marlon Brando in “Streetcar” on Broadway. Sure enough, at the end of the Knicks series in Madison Square Garden, which isn’t far from Broadway, Young gave a deep bow at center court. “I know there’s a bunch of shows around this city” Young said, “and I know what they do when the show is over.”

The Hawks’ postseason show isn’t over. The Eastern finals are at hand. They’re again an underdog, but the Hawks are so new to winning that nobody knows how high their ceiling is. They’re coming off an epic series, and they’re flying on, to borrow from Jackson Browne, the brave and crazy wings of youth. For the first time in a very long while, they’re Atlanta’s Team.

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