Seven Hawks banners hang in the rafters of Philips Arena. Three retired numbers, three division championships and one for the team’s second and longest-serving owner, Ted Turner. Bob Pettit’s No. 9 is retired. (Pettit never played in Atlanta.) Lou Hudson’s No. 23 is retired. (Hudson played his last game in Atlanta on April 2, 1977.) Dominique Wilkins’ No. 21 is retired. ('Nique’s Hawks playing career ended a little more than 20 years ago with a bold, misguided and unsuccessful midseason trade for free-agent-to-be Danny Manning, which managed to turn a 57-win season into another second-round playoff loss.)
There are some on the opposite end of the arena too. Two for the Atlanta Dream (heads nod in approval of anything expanding the city’s basketball culture), one commemorating the designation as the world’s first LEED-certified NBA arena, another commemorating 20 sold-out shows played there by Widespread Panic.
Anything resembling a Hawks heyday is long gone. Those fans that grew up on 'Nique, some have children now. They can tell their kids about 'Nique, point him out on the sideline as he fulfills his duties as VP of basketball and TV color commentator, pull up YouTube clips to demonstrate his greatness. But it's harder to appreciate the past with every year away from the old Omni.
The Hawks are a fairly successful NBA franchise. This is their 46th season in Atlanta, 15th since moving into Philips Arena. They've made the playoffs 29 times. (That’s not bad.) They've won two or more playoff series in a season exactly zero times. (That’s not good.) And therein lies the problem.
Atlanta is a sports town, just not one that resembles other major league cities. To understand Atlanta’s relationship with the Hawks, it’s necessary to understand that the common cultural heritage of the metropolitan area tends toward living in the suburbs and the tribalism of college football. To believe Atlanta is not a good sports town, it’s necessary to believe college football is not a sport.
Above all else, Atlanta celebrates success to such a degree that the legacy of the empty boosterism of “The City Too Busy To Hate” can co-exist with the contemporary hustle of “Black Hollywood.” In recent years, the Atlanta Falcons, building trust through consistent demonstrations of competence, have leveraged the local passion for college football into strong support for the professional version. Having a franchise that has participated in a Super Bowl in living memory doesn't hurt.
The Hawks don’t have a similar local or regional passion for the college game to work with. They don’t have relatively recent success on which to trade. In the mid-'80s, you might have had your own personal beer vendor at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium while you watched the Braves lose. The Braves needed a decade-plus run of excellence to change the atmosphere at home games.
Atlanta’s sprawl is a factor in, well, everything, and it certainly doesn't help at Hawks games. It’s easy to get to Philips Arena. MARTA trains stop on-site. There are plentiful opportunities to demonstrate one's urban ingenuity by finding a particularly hidden, cheap or free parking spot. Dining (and drinking) options, within walking distance, increase every year. Once you’re at the game, Philips Arena is a perfectly nice place to watch a basketball game. It’s only 14 years old, by all accounts successful and trying to remain so through reinvestment in amenities.
The mood inside could be changing, though. The organization is making a concerted effort to enliven Philips Arena. The wider NBA world came to appreciate Sir Foster’s organ playing during All-Star Weekend. Big Tigger signed up as the in-arena DJ for Hawks home games this season. The team subsidizes a cheering section that resides in the upper corner of the 100 level closest to the Hawks bench. One hopes for a day when crowd noise at a Hawks game transcends an organized minority vocalizing “Seven Nation Army,” but there was a time, not so long ago, when Philips Arena lacked even that.
More importantly, the organization is making a concerted effort to enliven its basketball operations.
Glimpsed from the outside, another Hawks season that culminates in a first- or second-round playoff exit seems like more of the same. Watched intently from within the perimeter, the different path taken to those wins is stark: ball movement, player movement, individual overachievement, short contracts, cheap contracts, cap space, opportunity.
Anecdotal evidence exists of local sports fans, the potential Hawks fans necessary to convert to reach critical mass, even members of Atlanta’s corporate, ticket-buying base -- the very people whose companies pay for those unused tickets -- starting conversations with Hawks die-hards about this season’s injury-riddled team. Some start with “I don’t usually like NBA basketball, but ..." Some end with “I like watching this team. If Horford was healthy ...” There’s growing notice in the general consciousness that, though results might not be strikingly different this season, something new is going on with the team.
There’s no changing the past, but the past is never just the past. It accumulates. Hope for a glorious future can’t erase it. Among Hawks fans, there most certainly is internal debate as to when exactly the last time the franchise had a general manager and head coach on the same page, the last time the franchise had stable, long-term goals, the last time management engendered trust, but there’s also consensus that those fine and necessary qualities exist now. The common hope is that those qualities will reveal themselves more fully, more clearly in time.
If they do, Marietta Street will get busier on game nights, the Taco Mac at CNN Center will run low on beer, Philips Arena will fill with loud, proud Hawks fans, native Atlantans and transplants alike. Maybe they'll even begin to look like those of any other successful NBA franchise, rather than an outlier that must be explained.