By Kevin Cott
Page 2

If following sports was a drug, then being an Atlanta Hawks fan for the past twenty years would be an after-school special on the dangers of addiction.

Granted, supporting the Hawks hasn't led to my financial ruin or career suicide, has yet to result in an emergency intervention from family and friends, and has never caused me to break into an impromptu and altered rendition of "I'm So Excited." But the storyline is surprisingly similar: an innocent and exciting introduction of seeming invincibility, the inevitable dramatic turning point that spells the beginning of the end, and finally a disastrous downward spiral that doesn't stop until rock bottom.

Before you proceed, I should warn you that this tale is not for the faint of heart. But the story must be told, and I shall be its messenger ...

The Courtship
You may not believe this, but the Hawks weren't always characterized by an NBDL roster, overwhelmed coach, and tiny crowds that resemble an episode of "Hang Time." My formative basketball-viewing years took place in the late 1980's, back when the NBA was bursting at the seams with superstars and Mike Fratello still rocked the man-perm. I watched Fratello's Hawks nearly topple Larry Bird's Celtics in '88, taking them to seven games on the back of Dominique Wilkins (who heroically matched Bird shot for shot in the most captivating fourth quarter shootout of my lifetime). I watched them battle valiantly against the Pistons right as they were transforming into the two-time champion Bad Boys. I watched 'Nique push Michael Jordan to the limit in the Slam Dunk Contest, to the point that they had to fix the outcome in '87. Hell, I watched Spud Webb do a three-sixty. Maybe the Hawks weren't a championship organization, but they were a formidable player during the most competitive era in league history and were always entertaining.

So when MJ first retired to pursue a baseball career and the Eastern Conference was finally up for grabs, you can imagine my excitement watching the '93-94 Hawks roll through the regular season with the best record in the East. With a healthy 'Nique at the tail-end of his prime, a lockdown defensive backcourt of Mookie Blaylock and Stacey Augmon, Kevin Willis in just his early fifties, and coach Lenny Wilkens before he went on auto-pilot, the Hawks seemed primed to make a title run. Like any true fan, I dove in head first and waved goodbye to sanity.

Then the unthinkable happened ...

The Trade
February 4th, 1994 was a momentous day in history: Merlene Ottey set the women's fifty meter indoor world record, "Days of Our Lives" cleaned house at the 10th Annual Soap Opera Digest Awards, Dutch painter Han Jansen died at 62, and&.oh that's right, the Hawks committed franchise suicide for no reason whatsoever.

Yup, on February 4th, 1994, He Who Shall Not Be Named traded 'Nique, the most important player in franchise history, to the lowly Clippers in return for Danny Manning and some knee braces. Since a future hall-of-famer for an overrated collegiate wonder wasn't quite one-sided enough, the Hawks also threw in the following year's first round pick after apparently falling for the classic "yes/no, yes/no ... no/yes, AHA! DEAL!" negotiating trick. Not only that, but they were duped by Elgin Baylor, leading to the rarely seen "insult to insult to injury." Sure enough, the revamped Hawks squeaked past the first round and went out with a whimper in the second, as Manning (a free agent to be) left skidmarks leaving Atlanta after the final game. Eventually the Knicks lost to the Rockets in the most boring Finals ever, and I ended up spending an entire summer reenacting the pool scene from "The Graduate."

The Torturous Downfall
Deservedly so, the Hawks (and their dwindling fan base) have been hovering in NBA purgatory ever since. When you backstab the face of your franchise for phantom reasons, under the worst timing possible, and in return for what turns out to be essentially nothing, the writing is on the wall for years to come. Don't be fooled by the minor successes of the Blaylock/Smith/Mutombo era. Those teams were undeniably competitive, but always in that non-threatening type of way. In fact, the real highlights of that period were Dikembe Mutombo's interviews, where he constantly sounded as if on the verge of breathing fire. In reality, that team was a mirage; nothing but a failed stint in rehab. But if you want to see hard evidence of the Hawks' downfall, look no further than the draft. If the Hawks brain-trust over the past two decades belonged in any reasonable fantasy league, they would have been kicked out years ago – maybe it would have been fun to take their money for a few years, but eventually the league's dignity would have mandated action.

It's not like the Hawks had a stellar draft record pre-February 4th, 1994. In the loaded 1985 Draft, we used the fifth pick on the immortal Jon Koncak, passing over scrubs such as Karl Malone, Chris Mullin, Detlef Schrempf, Charles Oakley, Joe Dumars, and Terry Porter. From that point on, we botched drafts in 1986 (Billy Thompson six spots ahead of local hero Mark Price); 1987 (Dallas Comegys one spot ahead of Reggie Lewis); 1989 (Roy Marble over Vlade Divac); 1990 (Rumeal Robinson at No. 10); 1992 (Adam Keefe at No. 10, one spot ahead of Big Shot Rob); and 1993 (Doug Edwards). But these drafts were only a warm-up. Check out how the last decade of Hawks drafts brought me into adulthood:

1994 – No pick. See "not one-sided enough" explanation from above.

1995 – Alan Henderson (Indiana, No. 16). Or, as I like to call him, Mr. Injured Reserve. I still have panic-stricken nightmares of Alan getting fitted for a three-piece suit while flashing me a demonic smile. Strangely, the Hawks decided to reward his terrific fashion sense by granting him a gigantic contract that crippled their cap space for years.

1996 – Priest Lauderdale (Greece, No. 28). In a bold move, the Hawks decided to take on math, finding out the hard way that 7'4" x Zero Talent still equals zero.

1997 – Ed Gray (California, No. 22). Eight years later, this pick is like someone from high school that you hadn't thought about in years, prompting one of those, "Wow, I forgot he even existed" comments. Obviously, Ed turned out to be a special player.

1998 – Roshown McLeod (Duke, No. 20) – I'd call him a poor man's Ed Gray.

1999 – Jason Terry (Arizona, No. 10). Talent! Of course, the Hawks also had two other top-twenty picks in one of the deepest drafts in NBA history, and used them on Cal Bowdler and Dion Glover, so let's not hand out any awards here.

2000 – DerMarr Johnson. I'm still in therapy over my proclamation that he was the steal of the draft.

2001 – Pau Gasol (Spain, No. 3). Sensing his potential to ruin this list, the Hawks promptly traded him to the Grizzlies for Shareef Abdur-Rahim. Twenty-four picks later, they did the same thing with Jamaal Tinsley, who they traded to the Pacers for the opportunity to blow a pick in the future.

2002 – The record indicates the Hawks had no first-round pick due to a previous trade with the Clippers involving Lorenzen Wright, but the truth is that they selected Bill Russell.

2003 – Boris Diaw (France, No. 21). He was supposed to be our 6'9" point guard of the future. He's not. In fact, he's the only professional basketball player I can think of that nervously gets rid of the ball as if he's that fragile kid in P.E. being forced to play. This pick makes me cry.

2004 – Josh Childress (Stanford, No. 6). I'm actually a big fan of Childress and think that he'll make a solid role player for years to come. However, this pick is indefensible. The Hawks passed up on Luol Deng and Andre Iguodala to use the number six pick on a mid-first rounder from Stanford, the same school that gave us the high-flying Adam Keefe. There's a big difference between criticizing a pick in retrospect (as I somewhat hypocritically do above), and knowing with absolute certainty at the time of the pick that it's a mistake. For example, it's easy to point fingers at Jordan now for the Kwame Brown selection. But at the time, it was reasonable – Kwame had unlimited talent, said all the right things, and reportedly showed the kind of competitive fire that Jordan salivates over during an individual workout slaughtering of fellow high-school phenom Tyson Chandler. As it turns out, the pressure got to him and he's yet to fulfill his potential (as an aside, I'd love to see the Hawks take a flyer on him, at the right price, and see if he still can). But that's just a matter of hindsight being 20/20. With Childress, every Hawks fan I know groaned the second the pick was made. Huge difference. Thankfully, the Hawks stole Josh Smith at No. 17, making this potentially the best draft of all those listed.

Here's the bottom line: other than a few solid years from Shareef and the Childress/Smith combo, all the Hawks have to show for a decade's worth of draft picks is a decently talented and undersized two-guard who currently plays in Dallas. Despite this sad reality, I still cling to hope. For one, He Who Shall Not Be Named is no longer the Hawks' general manager. We now have Billy Knight, an emotionless cyborg who keeps alluding to a long-term plan. I want to buy into his fire sale of the team's assets in the neverending quest for cap space, want to trust his deliberate rebuilding of the franchise by assembling a long, athletic team (a la the Pistons' current model of success). But I'm far from sold. The Childress pick was all Billy and I can't quite get over it (although he did partially redeem himself with Smith). That's why this year's number two pick is so crucial. Give me Chris Paul, an all-star caliber point with court vision to burn that could stabilize the position for the next decade. Give me Marvin Williams, the guy with unlimited potential who at least has a chance of evolving into a superstar. But Andrew Bogut? As fascinating as his terrific footwork might be, there's no substitute for pure athleticism. I'll admit that he's grown on me lately with his confident and candid trash-talk during interviews. But he's still being hailed as Vlade Divac 2.0, which qualifies him as a potential lottery pick, not a top two pick. Let someone else make that mistake, for once.

I could go on and on, discuss the disastrous playoff guarantee, the fair-weather fan base accusations, our one day tour of duty with 'Sheed, Skyhawk, the $20 million Chris Crawford Experiment, etc, etc. But this article isn't about pity; it's about understanding. It's far too easy to kick a man when he's down, so I can only hope that this tale gives you a clearer insight into the plight of the Atlanta Hawks fan. We're just looking for a little encouragement that the happy ending still exists, some kind of sign that rock bottom is finally behind us. That's why no franchise has more at stake with this year's draft than the Atlanta Hawks. So if you hear David Stern approach the podium today and utter those fifteen dreaded words, "With the second pick, the Atlanta Hawks select ... from the University of Utah, Andrew Bogut," look out your window and you might witness the scene of a few thousand remaining Hawks fans running straight for the hills, leaving a trail of signed 'Nique posters, Spud Webb jerseys, and Stacey Augmon rookie cards behind. It shouldn't have to come to this though; we've been punished enough.

Show us something, Billy.

Kevin Cott is the intern for Sports Guy's World



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