Tonight, the Atlanta Hawks will have the chance to advance to the second round of the NBA playoffs. The eighth-seeded Hawks are in a position to defeat the top-seeded Indiana Pacers. And all this could potentially take place at home, in Atlanta’s Philips Arena.
Just one week ago, none of this seemed likely. The Hawks were seemingly trying to miss the playoffs on purpose, but they tripped into the postseason (the Knicks were just too good at that game) — the only team in the playoffs with a sub-.500 regular-season record (38-44). Despite Indy’s late-season issues, nobody thought Atlanta had a shot in this series. Because #NTTH (Never Trust The Hawks). The working narrative was a team of no-names, playing in a dispassionate town that does not come out to the games — playoffs or not — against a team that was solely concerned with beating the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.
What a difference a week can make. How did we get here?
Thursday, April 24, On My Way Home
I’m getting on a plane to Atlanta. To see my Hawks. I’m nervous, because this could go badly for us. After six quarters, the Pacers seemed to remember they were the 1-seed and destroyed us in the second half of Game 2. So that is part of it, but also there’s the idea of the Atlanta home game. Sure, who knows what Hawks team is going to show up tonight? But also, who knows what type of crowd will show up?
Is this going to be one of those times when the road team’s shouts and jerseys outnumber Atlanta’s? Will the stadium be full? Half full? If we get down early, will people stay? Is it better to lose in front of a lot of people, or no one? Either way, this could go very poorly.
Or we could win.
Thursday, April 24, Game 3
And then we did win. And in front of Jesse Jackson.
We did it in front of everyone. “Everyone” meaning there were no empty seats. I genuinely didn’t know it was possible — for this place to get that live. When Jeff Teague hit that Jeff Teague–y 3 and then did the Jordan shrug, you would have thought this was the Outkast reunion in Philips Arena.
It was weird. Because it felt right. Almost like we were supposed to win that game. Words were coming out of the mouths of people I’ve known for years: “We might win this series” and “We’re going to win this series.” There has never been anything to lose by being flagrantly, outwardly confident about the Hawks. But after Game 3, I think we all started to believe in the checks our mouths had long pretended to cash.
Saturday, April 26, Game 4
We just lost Game 4. We were supposed to win, but we lost. Well, we’re not really supposed to be winning any of these games, but we had more points than the Pacers for a lot of minutes. But then we lost.
Philips Arena, even in a losing effort, was live.
It felt like a party. The organist, Sir Foster, was behaving the only way he knows how.
People stood up for the last five minutes of the game. There were towels, and those towels were on full Petey Pablo. It was like one of those arenas you see on television, like the Chesapeake in Oklahoma City or the Oracle in Oakland. It was nice to feel like we were in one of those TV games.
But we lost. And it’s 2-2 back in Indiana. The fairy tale might be over. But maybe not? Probably not?
After the game, I briefly sat with new Hawks CEO Steve Koonin, who was still optimistic (about the team and the crowd), despite the loss:
I’ve seen the future. I’ve seen what it can be and what it’s going to be. The best crowd I’ve seen in that building. This is a very good team, and this city showed that it’ll come out and support. It’s a beautiful day today and there’s 1,000 other things to do, but we created a bond. And I think Game 6 back in Atlanta will be three times better.
Monday, April 28, Game 5
The Hawks just beat the Indiana Pacers. For a third time. For the second time on the road in this series. Wait, the Hawks are up 3-2 on the Indiana Pacers? Which means the series is going back to Atlanta. And — holy pélotas — that’s not going to be a liability. Because it’s going to be sold out. Sold out by Hawks fans. And it’s going to be an arena full of people who aren’t used to success, which means the behavior will be at an all-time ignorant. The Hawks game just became the coolest thing to do in Atlanta. This is the dream scenario. Because that means everyone’s going to be there: your cousin, your coworker, your favorite rapper, and Jesse Jackson. This is perfect.
Thursday, May 1
The Hawks just announced they’re reintroducing the iconic team logo (seen from the late ’70s to mid-’90s), affectionately known as the “Pac-Man,” because your eyes typically see the hungry video-game character eating a dot years before you realize it’s a rightward-facing hawk. The timing is highly purposeful, capitalizing on peak Hawks excitement within the city and afar. Everyone at Game 6 will get a shirt featuring the logo, the first step in it being slowly incorporated back into the team’s uniforms for the 2014-15 season.
The move is smart, because this is a franchise with very few pieces of nostalgia. There’s just not a lot about the team’s past to brag about. Which is sad, because we’re a proud city, one that can find a way to brag about anything. Loudly.
Four division title banners (most recent: 1993-94), three more for retired players, and one for Ted Turner, almost just to make it symmetrical. On the other side, a few for the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream and — to really drive home the sadness — one for jam band Widespread Panic. It’s enough to almost make you never look up.
All of this to say the idea of bringing back the retro logo is a great piece of marketing. And a sign that the team might actually know how to tap into what the city cares about. Pretty great timing, considering this might be the biggest Hawks moment in a decade.
If the Hawks do win, the team will maintain its grasp on Atlanta’s imagination. Whether that’ll last in the long term likely falls on Koonin (who is also CEO of Philips Arena). Coming from Turner Entertainment Networks, where he served as president, the Atlanta-bred Koonin is thought of as someone who can turn things around. He’s not scared to try anything. When he was at Coca-Cola, he tried to advertise on the moon — you know, moonvertising. On paper, leaving Turner for a troubled franchise like the Hawks seems dumb. Or cocky. Either way, before he even had an office — before he was technically even gone from Turner — he was sitting across from me in Philips Arena, preparing for his first home playoff game. So we chatted, 30 minutes before tipoff of Game 3, on the eve of the Hawks’ potential surge. Here’s an excerpt from that conversation.
There’s long been the question of why the Hawks can’t get people out to Philips Arena. I’ve had my theories, but between consecutive playoff-bound teams, watching the Georgia Dome become a soldout arena for the Falcons, and seeing every promotion known to man, it’s still a mystery. I assume that must be your primary charge, figuring this out. Or just Hawks excitement in general?
You grew up here. So you’ve seen the passion for the University of Georgia. Why? It is your school, it is your ownership. This team has to be adopted by your generation. Not mine. Too old. Your generation. And has to be your team.
You have this wave of people that come into Atlanta. We call it a graveyard for regional management. People from all over the country. And they’re ready for their next promotion, and they say to the boss, “Hey, I kinda like it here. I’m pretty happy here. The housing’s affordable, the schools are good, the weather’s pretty damn great.” Those are the guys coming to games wearing the Bulls jerseys and the Celtics jerseys.
Because of this, we’ve got to get their kids. We’ve got to get your age, my son’s age. Because these are the ones born in Atlanta. This is their city. And we have to activate that passion. But it hasn’t been.
This sports team has to become part of your life, and if it’s not a part of your life, it’s a field trip. In the ’80s, when I was in my young thirties in Atlanta, this game was the place to be on a Saturday night. It was as hot as any club in the city. And we had Dominique and we had Spud and we had Doc — we had personalities. So it created passion. But now it’s ubiquitous because it’s on television. And it’s expensive. So we have to create a reason for being, one that’s engaging their hearts and engaging their minds and engaging their wallets.
And how to do that, I can’t tell you with precision today, but we need to either get more people coming, or get the people coming to come more often. Those are the only two ways you’re going to grow. It’s harder to get people who’ve never been to a game to come, than it is people who’ve come to one to come to two, people who’ve come to three to come to five. And that’s what we’re gonna try to do.
I’ve long heard the blame put on all the number of other things to do in the city, the famous (or infamous) Atlanta nightlife. But I’ve always taken that to be a gigantic cop-out.
There’s a lot to do in New York, too. Look, there’s entertainment options and then there’s primary entertainment options. We have to move from an entertainment option to a primary entertainment option. It’s got to be part of your routine. Part of your psyche.
Are there inherently “Atlanta” things that do play in your favor in terms of bringing back the Hawks?
We have to take advantage of the fact that this is a town that will experiment. And we’re going to try a lot of things. Atlanta will experiment, but you have to give people a reason. First of all, this ownership group has done some pretty amazing things. They brought in Danny Ferry, a top-notch general manager, they brought in a very strong coach, and the attendance has gone up every year since they’ve been here. So they’ve built a pretty good foundation. What they’ve lacked here is the local accountability, and that’s where I’m going to come in. To be more accountable to the locals, and to be part of the community.
How do you make Philips Arena feel like something more than a destination?
We have to make it iconic. And that’s one of the ideas I have. And I’m going to be disciplined and not share it with you, but you’ll love it if I can pull it off. You’ve got to differentiate yourself. There’s a lot of virtual consumption through video games, television — how do you know a game is being played in Atlanta? How do you differentiate? That’s something I’m keenly focused on. I’m not sure that’s something that really falls into a lot of people’s thought patterns, how you make the building iconic. But we have to. And that’s easy, that’s cosmetic.
Look at the Oregon Ducks. Look at Boise State. Look how they used iconography and differentiation to build their brands.
[I point at my shirt. It’s an ’80s Hawks shirt.]
This logo, for example. I love this logo.
Yeah, Pac-Man’s cool. Hang in there.
[He gives me this look. It’s a goofy smile. Remember, this is before the announcement. I want more, but for now I take the tease for what it is. And keep asking questions.]
A difficult thing the Hawks have going for them, in terms of bringing in fans, I’ve always thought, is the lack of nostalgia.
Our history isn’t a marketing strategy. We don’t have as rich of a history. I walked around Market Square Arena the other night and was shocked by how many players I remembered. They have a pretty rich history. We don’t have that. We have to build one now.
The transplant nature of the city, in 90 percent of scenarios, is great because the city becomes a melting pot. But with sports it becomes a weird thorn in our side.
It really is an issue. If you’re in Texas but not from Texas, you’re not shit. That’s a homegrown thing. In New York, it’s much more global in nature, people from all over the U.S. and world, but those teams are so iconic, they kind of suck you in. And then there’s the Braves, who win 14 divisions in a row — they were America’s team. Part of my past at TBS, but I don’t know if it was a reason for growth in the city or a reason for attachment to the city. So it’s very complex, this town. Very.
What’s true is that this was a suburban urban town. And it’s becoming a more urban town. And that’s a good thing. And a good thing for us. Because there’s a vibe in the city now. And whether the Hawks can lead it or ride it, I’m OK either way. They just have to be part of it.
What’s the one thing going in your favor, in terms of the future of the Hawks?
I have no fear to fail. Because when you’re worried about your job, you play safe. And when you play safe, you don’t win. I’m starting to sound like a DirecTV commercial. But what I mean is that I’m going to try everything. I’ve tried to advertise on the moon. There is nothing that we should not try that isn’t legal or immoral.
What are you nervous about going into the game tonight?
What I really want is a great experience for people. Because the people that come tonight are the people most likely to come again. I like that we’re playing Indiana. I don’t think they’re gonna travel. I don’t think we’re gonna see a sea of yellow tonight. So I hope we bring people to their feet all night. It’s hard, but you have to earn one fan at a time.