If you ever wanted to know how fans in Atlanta feel about their sports teams, your best bet is to listen to any one of the sports radio stations in the city.
Everyday, local callers dial up to vent about whatever local team is letting them down today and why. Normally the talk is centered around the Atlanta Falcons, and occasionally, the Atlanta Braves. Lately, if you tune in, you’ll get fans talking more than ever about the Atlanta Hawks. To think, just last year callers would be complaining about the same mediocre product they’ve been served up for far too many times before.
There have been a lot of winless nights at Philips Arena the last few seasons. Yet, despite a lack of success, fans still came to watch the team. Despite how the past owners felt about their fans, they are a loyal bunch.
In a city that glorifies anything that’s glitz and glamour, Hawks fans remember a time when being a Hawks fan was the cool thing. Dominique Wilkins and the 80’s version of the Hawks were a direct representation of the city. Flashy plays and dunks are the reason Philips Arena was dubbed “The Highlight Factory”, and it still lives on in the minds of fans today.
“I’m a native of ATL so I’ve been a lifelong fan,” said Stephen Philms. The photographer by trade has followed the Hawks since the highlight factory days.
“I have childhood memories of Dominique Wilkens but my most vivid memories come from watching Lenny Wilkens coach the Hawks in the mid to late 90s with Mookie Blaylock, Steve Smith, Christian Laettner, Alan Henderson and Dikembe Mutombo.”
He’s not the only fan who remembers when the Hawks were must-see TV. Chenario Abrams has been a fan of the team since 1993.
Abrams says that he fell in love with the Hawks because they were the closest thing to his “Airness” (Michael Jordan) that were going to see.
“I still remember going to the games seeing Dominique Wilkins play. That was almost like seeing Jordan play.”
While those teams created memorable moments, one of them wasn’t a championship. The Hawks couldn’t get past the Boston Celtics in order to reach the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference.
The teams that followed Nique had some star power. Both Steve Smith and Dikembe Mutombo headlined the highlight factory in the 90’s and early 2000’s. Like their predecessors, getting past the second round of the playoffs seemed like a fairy tale.
“I always thought that they would go deeper in the playoffs back in the day.” Said Abrams
Some bad to mediocre teams would litter the arena for most of the 2000’s. Failed lottery picks and missed opportunities made the Hawks hard to watch. For all their trying, they couldn’t produce wins in regular season or playoffs.
As the team sunk more into mediocrity, it would take the arrival of Danny Ferry to ultimately change things. Ferry helped turn the Cavs into a winning franchise. He had his hands full when he came to the Hawks as the new general manager, and he didn’t have Lebron James to help speed up the process.
What Ferry was able to pull off in a short time was a miracle.
First, he let Josh Smith walk, a move that fans praised. He ignored the theory that he needed to rebuild by signing high profile free-agents. Instead, pulling from the San Antonio Spurs’ notebook, he built a team of solid players who played together.
That first year brought some good moments. Another middle of the road season complete with a first-round exit in the playoffs did nothing to gain back the confidence of once proud fan base.
The offseason brought more uncertainty for fans. A scandal similar to the one that brought Donald Sterling down, forced Ferry to take an indefinite suspension. Couple that with star players bypassing the Hawks in free-agency, and the feeling in the city was that the Hawks was going to give fans more of the same.
Then the season started.
While most media outlets were consumed with LeBron James and Cleveland Cavaliers, the Hawks were able to fly under the radar and carve out a pretty good first half of the season. Matter of fact, they carved out a helluva good first half of the season. National media didn’t really speak about the Hawks until their winning 17-game winning streak. By then, the old-time fans were back in style.
With an astounding 43-7 record, the Atlanta Hawks have become not just the surprise of the league, but the city as well.
“It’s super exciting to see. We’ve been wanting to see the Hawks succeed and bring a championship here. It looks like they’re on the path right now, and that makes a fan like me excited. I want to devote more of my time into them just because of that,” said Watts.
Many fans feel most of the praise should be heaped on second-year head coach Mike Budenholzer. The former Spurs’ assistant was brought in by Ferry to guide the team and mold it into San Antonio South.
So far, so good. A strong first season has blossomed into a year where the team looks like legitimate contenders.
Philms credits the reason for the turnaround to Coach Budenholzer.
“It’s simple. The players are buying in to Coach Bud’s system. We have skilled players at every position and with them putting team first, it’s resulted in the wins.”
Coach Budz has manned a ship through murky waters that was on the brink of capsizing.
With the knowledge of ownership criticism regarding the lack of fans in the arena recently coming to light, it seems like Hawks might’ve done better if they just asked the fans what the organization needed to do to put butts back in seats.
“I was disappointed by the statements in the email and what Danny said on the conference call because it was all stereotypical generalization,” said Stephen Philms. “I was way more disappointed in the ownership than in Danny Ferry because instead of embracing your fan base you disrespect them when the truth of the matter is if you focus on putting a consistent winning product on the floor fans of all races and backgrounds will support it.”
Bringing T.I. in to cut promos didn’t bring the fans back to the game, it was the wins. As the team won, fans began to flock back to the highlight factory.
Late January, the Hawks issued a statement about their surge in viewership and attendance since the start of the season.
Attendance at Philips Arena is up by over 2,200 fans per game from last season, while viewership of Hawks contests is up 61% through 39 broadcasts on SportSouth in the Atlanta market.
Through 20 home games, the Hawks are drawing 16,328 fans per contest, marking one of the largest attendance percentage increases in the NBA when compared to the 2013-14 campaign. The team has sold out five-of-the-last-six games at Philips Arena and has won 12-of-the-last-13 home contests, leading the Eastern Conference with an .850 home winning percentage (17-3) this season.
That’s massive for a team whose fans openly wondered last season why they were not losing more games on purpose ala the Philadelphia 76ers.
As we near the tail end of the season, the Hawks have a lot to be proud of. The team placed four out of their five starters to the Eastern Conference All-Star team, held the league’s second-longest winning streak of the year and most important, the franchise began to restore faith with their fans.
But you have to look at the current explosion of popularity for the Hawks as a balloon that was inflated with helium at a quicker rate than expected. If you’re not careful, pumping too much air in too quickly can result in one, big, pop!
That pop could come in the form of the dreaded first-round exit.
When asked if another first-round loss would kill the positive momentum made this season, the answers were mixed.
“I think so. Sad to say, but I think so.” Said Quan. “They can if they keep up the structure that they have started this season. To go to the next level from this season to next, they’re going to have to get a star player.”
Stephen sees a bigger prize of the Hawks this season.
“For me, the minimum expectation is the Eastern Conference Finals. We’re just past the halfway point so its too early for me say win it all, but do I believe they can if they stay healthy. It’s crazy that I actually have championship aspirations for the Hawks, I have these aspirations because finally the organization has made it clear that’s the plan.”
Right now, Hawks fans can puff out their chest’s and talk junk with the every other fan base in the game. Right now, a team that’s normally stuck in the middle is the leader of the pack and the rest of the league just has to deal with it.
“It feels great! For me it started in last year’s playoff series against Indiana. I saw the fight, the coaching and the willingness to want to win,” said Philms
“I felt that coming into this season with Al Horford coming back that we’d be really good. Nobody predicted they’d be this good this fast and I absolutely love it! I’m proud to see our coach coaching the All-Star Game and having Al Horford, Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap make the All-Star team is something I’ve been wanting to see for awhile. I love All-Star weekend but I used to hate the years when the Hawks would barely have a presence. This year we’re all over the place.”
Right now, the world is theirs. They’ll worry about next year, next year.