Atlanta has long garnered a reputation for being a bad sports town – and for good reason.
While having made the playoffs three times since 2010, the Braves have not finished in the top 13 in MLB attendance during that span. The consensus of the Braves as “team of the south” can often be misleading to the level of actual interest; the lukewarm, fair-weather indifference locally to the Braves has long existed. In general, people go to Braves games to enjoy a summer day with some cold beer, not to sweat out the dog days of a wild card race while digesting the intricacies of the pitcher’s advanced stats. And when things go bad? Those so-called “fans” scatter from the park at the sign of struggle. Though just eight games into this rebuilding season, the Braves rank 23rd in MLB attendance.
The Falcons have long toiled in mediocrity with notoriously consistent weaknesses. A porous defense has long let opposing quarterbacks carve it up for nearly a decade now. Its been a process of new season, same Falcons, and the fans have been equitably frustrated. A relatively small fan base is littered with cynicism at the first sign of trouble. And, quite frankly, there is a sizeable facet of Falcon fans that have never gotten over the departure of Michael Vick. Nothing in sports has ever been more embarrassing for me than attending the last game of the season at the Georgia Dome against the Panthers. Cam Newton ran all over the scant-tackling Falcons and “the Dome” was infested with a passionate and large group of Panthers fans. Where is our passion?
The Thrashers never really grabbed hold of the sports fans in this town, before leaving Atlanta in 2011. And the Hawks have consistently been the most neglected of all of them.
Call me crazy; call me naïve; call me desperate, but this Hawks team feels different.
It might be the aesthetically pleasing system that Coach Mike Budenholzer has imported from San Antonio. Or maybe it’s that every player on this team can shoot from range and makes solid fundamental passes. Or maybe it’s because the Hawks have completely rebranded this year, changing the logo, the court and becoming more appealing to the masses. Or maybe it’s because they have become the smart team that makes the smart moved (getting actual assets for Joe Johnson, signing DeMarre Carroll and Paul Millsap on the cheap, etc.) instead of being preyed on as the team with no plan. Or maybe it’s because they project cool things onto their court.
Regardless, the Atlanta Hawks won a franchise-record 60 games this season and finished atop the Eastern Conference, ahead of LeBron and the Cavs. No player on the entire team scored 30+ points in a game this season, and no team had ever had that happen and still win 50+ games. Until now. Hawks games are becoming events on top of the games. This is the best hope for a parade down Peachtree Street since the ’95 Braves. The best part: there’s no reason to believe that this is only a one-season fluke.
So why has that cynical nervousness stuck around? Why does it feel like this is just the Atlanta sports god playing an elaborate joke on our hopes?
Game one – though a win – only exacerbated those concerns. With the media practically begging the Hawks to choke so that the real stars can help get views, the recipe for the death of the greatest regular season Atlanta team in my lifetime nearly came to fruition. A serious injury – like Al Horford nearly suffered – could be the death blow. A bad shooting game against a good team could be enough to tilt a series and end this magical run. What if they really do need a superstar to be successful in the playoffs?
As an Atlanta sports fan, I have been trained to expect the worst, despite how bright things may seem. I have been traumatized enough to expect Matt Ryan to dislocate his shoulder on the final drive with a Super Bowl berth on the line; or anticipate the umpire calling the “infield-fly” rule despite the ball sitting 20 feet deep in the outfield grass. There is always darkness at the end of the light.
But maybe, just maybe, this Hawks team can finally break through. And if they do? A long-comatose sports town may be lurking, ready to be released from the doldrums of mediocrity. It only takes one team to change the complexion of a sports city, and it could be these Hawks.