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Hawks - Dream team?

This season could bring relief for long-suffering Hawks fans. But is it wise to get greedy?

They don't make it easy on us. They assign us the colors of a fast-food chain, and they hand us a taxidermed aviary trophy for a logo, which they honestly expect us to cling to and rally around. They play in a flashy downtown arena that hasn't yet had time to develop a soul and is generally so empty it holds little advantage.
Bill Campbell, the Olympics and great players have come and gone. But for the Atlanta Hawks, the wins never come when it counts. While the Braves developed into a stunning model of excellence and even the Falcons provided one thrilling sprint to the finish line, the city's NBA franchise has been in a holding pattern of general mediocrity for almost two decades.

Sure, the Hawks have won games. But they've lost them, too — lots of 'em. Since the 1994-'95 season, the first full season in the post-Dominique Wilkins era, the Hawks have gone a combined 311-256, good for Central Division finishes of fifth, fourth, second, fourth, second, seventh, seventh and sixth. The last year the team won a championship, 1958, the franchise was based in St. Louis. Since then, it's been 45 consecutive years and no ring to show for it. Forty-five years.

This season, the Hawks have the most athletically promising, psychologically sound team they've assembled since trading Wilkins (perhaps their greatest player) almost a decade ago. The franchise PR machine has even gone so far as to guarantee a playoff berth this season.

These are our Atlanta Hawks. Your Atlanta Hawks. My Atlanta Hawks.

Forty-five friggin' years.

As online editor of Slam magazine, I spend the entire NBA season in locker rooms and arenas around the country trying to build relationships with players that will benefit the publication. In the off-season, as players often shift into product-pitchman mode, other opportunities present themselves. Recently I had the chance to play NBA Live 2003 against New Jersey Nets point guard (and NBA MVP runner-up) Jason Kidd. Naturally, Kidd decided to play the videogame using his own Nets. I scrolled over to select the Hawks.

"Are you from Atlanta?" Kidd asked.

"Yeah," I said.

"Figured." Kidd responded. "Why else would anyone play with the Hawks?"

That's because the Atlanta Hawks are the Atlanta Hawks, and we — the few, the proud — are screwed. It has been a spectacularly sublime descent into professional sports fan purgatory, as the Hawks have managed to erase themselves from prominence on sports talk radio, window placement at local malls, game-watching parties at Buckhead bars, and any semblance of the excessive local television coverage of the sort in which Bill Hartman flubs players' names.

And until the Hawks prove themselves winners, even diehard fans will remain skeptical.

"I think Atlanta is a basketball-friendly town," says Hawks head coach Lon Kruger. "But people like to follow teams that win, and we haven't done that. The fans are waiting and seeing."

Hawks General Manager Pete Babcock agrees. "People have debated this for decades. I've heard this for years and years: Is it a basketball city?" he asks rhetorically, alluding to the obvious — that the reason people have argued about it for decades is because Atlanta fans haven't fully embraced the Hawks in decades.

It's something Atlanta fans are notorious for doing — and not just with the Hawks. While many franchises in other cities have waiting lists for season tickets, our city has generally treated its teams like recent parolees, watching and waiting to make sure they're what they claim to be before getting involved. Even the Braves, with their 11 division championships, couldn't sell out Turner Field for this season's pivotal Game Five against the Giants.

The most painful thing for a fan is not that the Hawks haven't taken a few risks along the way, it's that they've never really appeared to be giving it their all. The team hasn't come close to winning a championship, which is really all any self-respecting fan cares about. And right now, there's another a problem no one has been able to crack. These days, the road to any NBA Championship is a road to perdition, a one-way street through downtown Los Angeles with officers Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant standing watch and handing out tickets.

"We have to be realistic," says Babcock. "There's a window of opportunity right now in the Eastern Conference where it's more wide open. We've got to do everything we can to get better as quickly as possible."

That window was closed during most of the '90s, when Michael Jordan and his Bulls were dominating the NBA. That period coincided with the arrival of Babcock, who has held his position since 1990. He is responsible for bringing current Hawks All-Star power forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim back home to Atlanta, and he was responsible for the acquisition of several outstanding players, including Mookie Blaylock, Steve Smith and Dikembe Mutombo. He's also the guy behind several personnel moves that didn't work out so well (see Rider, J.R.; Manning, Danny).

But why not go all the way? Isn't making the playoffs a team's only goal tantamount to a politician coming out and announcing he hopes to make it only to the primary? To any real fan, the phrase "playoff-bound Atlanta Hawks" should be a heartbreaker, ruining any pre-season expectations — no matter how grounded in fantasy — that the team may be the "championship-bound Atlanta Hawks."

Then again, maybe it's wise to start small.

The closest the Hawks came to winning a championship in my lifetime came during the 1987-'88 season, in the heyday of the Dominique Wilkins era. 'Nique came to the Hawks out of the University of Georgia in 1982 with a 47-inch vertical leap. It was the start of the NBA's Golden Age, when the league would begin to box out baseball and become the commerce-driven global force it is today. The league introduced the world to Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. In Atlanta, we got 'Nique. He was our superstar.

In a stretch that defined both Wilkins and the Hawks franchise, the team made it to the Eastern Conference Semifinals in '86-'87 and '87-'88. But in the end, they didn't have enough to go all the way. The Hawks briefly assigned blame to coach Mike Fratello, who left town in 1990. Then Bob Weiss was brought in to run the show. And though he compiled a winning record over three seasons (124 wins, 122 losses), Weiss was jettisoned in 1993 in favor of Lenny Wilkens.

Wilkens was going to change everything. He'd won a championship back in the '70s. Fans were repeatedly reminded that he was about to become the winningest coach in league history. He was also one of the losingest coaches in league history. (Because Wilkens has coached so many games, the misconception is that he has the highest winning percentage of all time. But he's actually lost almost as many games as he's won.)

Nonetheless, Wilkens developed a reputation — an aura — that wouldn't allow people to see him as anything but a winner. So, with the Hawks in first place in the Eastern Conference with a 37-16 record at the halfway mark of the 1993-'94 season, 'Nique was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers for Danny Manning, a versatile forward with a reconstructed knee, who was booed at the Omni in his first game as a Hawk.

"I think the public reaction at the time was split about 50-50," Babcock recalls. "Dominique wanted a long-term contract, and we were only offering a one-year deal. People forget that we won more games that season after the trade than before."

Manning's Hawks would go on to lose in the second round of the playoffs, and Manning used free agency to immediately leave town, essentially kicking the organization and its fans in the crotch and running off to Phoenix. The Hawks were still a quality team after Manning left, stringing together six consecutive, if unremarkable, seasons of at least 50 wins. They treaded water until 1996, when Babcock signed 7-foot-2 center Dikembe Mutombo to anchor the Hawks' defense.

By 1999, with Mutombo's patience running out, the organization rolled the proverbial dice and traded for Portland guard Isaiah "J.R. for the Ladies" Rider, less than five months after the NBA handed him a one-game suspension for going into the stands during a game against Golden State. Rider, whose considerable rap sheet was longer than his impressive stat sheet, showed his love for his new hometown by promptly skipping his introductory press conference in Atlanta. To further boost his rep, Rider missed the first day of Hawks practice, and was late to training camp in Chattanooga after refusing to board the small jet he was to fly on, announcing, "I don't ride no crop dusters."

"Up front, we knew what we were getting into," Babcock says of the Rider fiasco. "It was my responsibility. The effort was to create salary cap room, which it did. But it was too painful a move."

Babcock has made as many personnel moves as any NBA general manager, but the Hawks haven't been able to put it all together. Does he feel any of them have come back haunt him?

"I can't really focus too much on that," he says. "I just try and do the best I can do each day."

Lost in the shuffle of the Rider acquisition was the 1999 NBA Draft, in which Babcock managed to stockpile four first-round selections. With those four choices, the Hawks selected Jason Terry, Dion Glover, Cal Bowdler and Jumaine Jones (who was immediately traded to Philadelphia). Now entering their fourth year in the league, these players were expected to play a significant part in the future of the franchise. Early on, they seemed game to help resurrect the Hawks, in spirit if nothing else.

"We realized it doesn't feel good when you go into a restaurant and it's like you're ashamed of being a part of your own city's team," said Glover after his rookie year. "We want to make this where we can go out in public and people will be like, 'Yeah, he plays for the Hawks.'"

Four years later, only Terry and Jones have proven consistent, capable NBA players. (Of course, Jones has done it elsewhere.) Terry finished his third year averaging 19.3 points per game and 5.7 assists per. (By comparison, in his third year, über-point guard John Stockton averaged 7.9 and 8.2.) The amazingly unathletic Bowdler recently signed to play next season for Virtus Kinder Bologna in Italy. And while Glover remains a Hawk and plays superb ball in stretches, there is room for improvement. Last season, Charles Barkley compared Glover's defense to "shooting over a chair."

Babcock has continued to bring in talent. He swapped the aging Mutombo for Theo Ratliff, a young All-Star center; he traded to get All-Star forward Abdur-Rahim. This summer he moved the creaky Toni Kukoc to gain the much-needed perimeter shooting of Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson. And while Kruger was a neophyte to professional basketball coaching and has had his growing pains (last year, one Hawks player privately grumbled to me that playing for Kruger was, at times, "like being back in college") his creative substitutions and steadfast refusal to blame the Hawks' massive losses over the last two seasons on injuries have won serious fans over.

"Last year, with all the injuries we had — unfortunately leading NBA in that category — from Feb. 1 on, we were over .500," says Babcock. "Our players played well, but Lon kept everybody going."

Kruger admits to coming up with the "playoff-bound" mantra, noting, "The interest level was so low, I thought we needed a little bit of a buzz. If people thought we were crazy, at least they were talking about us."

It's worked. The guarantee was picked up on news wires around the world.

Which brings us to this season. For the first time since the Hawks attempted to group Dominique with Moses Malone and Reggie Theus, the team has three capable, proven scorers: Terry, Robinson and Abdur-Rahim. And the Hawks have beefed up their front office, bringing in the well-regarded Billy Knight and former Denver Nuggets scorer Alex English. The talent infusion is drawing raves around the league. A recent NBA.com survey of all the NBA general managers found that almost 48 percent of them pick the Hawks to be the most improved team in the league this season.

Up in Toronto, Vince Carter has returned from injury, but the team has no significant size and, luckily for the rest of the Eastern Conference, is coached by Lenny Wilkens. Milwaukee handed Atlanta its leading scorer, (Robinson) and is guided by George Karl, who took a team of NBA All-Stars to the World Championships and could only manage a sixth-place finish. Indiana has a deep roster, but has thus far been too young. Chicago, Cleveland, Washington, New York and Miami are still in the throes of rebuilding.

Against any one of those teams, the Hawks have a fighting chance. Though the team's bench could be deeper, its starting five is among the NBA's strongest. Also worth noting: Hawks players actually seem to like each other. When reserve guard DerMarr Johnson recently suffered a broken neck in an automobile accident, six of his teammates were at the hospital within hours, and Jason Terry even cancelled a Vegas vacation to stay close by.

So, for now, we must look forward to improvement vs. excellence. And maybe that's OK. After 45 years, what's another two or three?

And by the way, my cyber-Hawks beat Jason Kidd's virtual Nets, 110-104. I had to play tough defense, making Kidd settle for jumpers rather than pass the ball to his better-shooting teammates. But it just goes to show that it can be done.

Guaranteed.

lang@creativeloafing.com



The Hawks play their season opener Wed., Oct. 30, against the Nets in New Jersey, making it home in time to face the Utah Jazz at Philips Arena on Halloween night.



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