A lot has been made about the attendance in Atlanta in recent years, and the lack of fan support. So without trolling, without looking for an argument, let me try to explain to those of you who don’t know any better (not saying that in a bad way, just that you simply don’t know) what the Hawks are up against and why in this regard.
In the 80s sports in Atlanta were absolutely God-awful. Except for the Hawks. The Braves and Falcons sucked, and the Flames left and went on to immediate success in Calgary. What we had, was the Hawks. And Dominique. Unfortunately, we were good in an era in the East that included the dominance of Bird’s Celtics, Jordan’s rise, and the Bad Boys. That’s a really hard trio to break through against, though we were damn close in 1988.
In any event, the Hawks were the primary attraction in Atlanta from a pro sports standpoint, no question. But as the 80s turned into the 90s a couple of things happened. One, Georgia Tech basketball became a consistent winner, making the Final Four. The Georgia Tech football team won a national championship. Deion Sanders kinda surpassed Dominique as the star athlete in the city, though, probably still not as loved and embraced, and the Atlanta Braves suddenly became a very relevant, world championship contending baseball team.
These things alone took some shine off the Hawks but it was the 1991-1992 season in particular where things began unraveling. Georgia Tech spent the spring in Denver in the Final Four. The Braves were fresh off their trip to the World Series, the Falcons had gone 10-6 and beaten the Saints on the road in a playoff game and had M.C. Hammer on the sidelines and Deion on the team grabbing headlines. The Hawks were losing their grip on the Atlanta sports scene.
It was January, 28th, 1992 and the Hawks were playing the Philadelphia 76ers. They won that game by a point to move to 22-20. But more important than the single win, in the very big picture, they lost. They lost Dominique Wilkins to a torn achilles tendon and he was out for the year. It turns out, in addition to what this did to the 1992 season, it set the stage for something far worse just two years later. In 1992, they went just 16-24 the rest of the way and suffered their first losing season since 1985. Really, the Hawks haven’t recovered from that until now.
That’s because in February of 1994 they made a decision that forever tainted them to many Atlanta fans and natives. They made a decision that to this day, some still deem unforgivable.
On February 23, the Hawks beat the then 37-13 (tied for the best record in basketball with eventual champion Houston) Seattle Supersonics 99-92, to move to 36-16, which tied them with New York (eventual loser in 7 games to Houston in the NBA Finals) for the best record in the eastern conference.
Dominque Wilkins scored 24 points that day, right at his season average. He never scored another point in a Hawk uniform. The next day he was traded to the Clippers. For Danny friggin Manning. The greatest Atlanta Hawk, and the leader of perhaps the greatest Atlanta Hawk team in history, a guy who had played in college just up the road in Athens and had been THE only bright spot in Atlanta sports for so long, was traded. No, he didn’t sign elsewhere, he didn’t get in legal trouble, he was TRADED.
The Hawks went on to win 57 games and win the division and capture the number one overall seed. But the team wasn’t the same. The fans weren’t the same. The city wasn’t the same.
Keep in mind, at this point, the city of Atlanta was still without a championship, and was still starving for one. The 1994 Atlanta Hawks had a legitimate chance to bring that championship to Atlanta, and management destroyed it. To many, they stole our chance at a championship, and that’s not something that is easily forgiven.
Wilkins had averaged 24.4 pts and 6.2 reb per game during the 93-94 season. His replacement, Manning only put up 15.7 and 6.5 rebounds. Predictably, the Hawks were a shell of themselves on offense against the 5th seeded Pacers in the 2nd round. A team who had averaged over 101 a game in the regular season was held to 88 or fewer in 5 of their six games, as they bowed out in six.
The Hawks haven’t won a division title since. Nor have they been any closer to reaching the eastern conference finals.
Within six years of this boneheaded front office decision the Hawks were losing 54 games. Meanwhile, the Braves had won a World Series by then and the Falcons had played in a Super Bowl. The Hawks had lost the city. Not only had they lost it, they’d made the city their enemy. There was distrust, on top of a lack of entertainment value due to ineptitude that seeped in as the 21st century began. And of course, there was betrayal.
So even when the team got back to mediocre, and ascended even above that to again above average, the fans weren’t flocking back. Would they show up for the playoffs? Of course, ask KG about the 2008 series against the Celtics. But they weren’t going to buy in emotionally, or financially.
The hurt ran too deep, and hurt too much. The dysfunction of the Atlanta Spirit group on top of the betrayal and hurt from 1994 made the Atlanta Hawks, arguably, the most difficult sell in American sports.
But they’ve finally found a way to do it. They put a good team on the floor, one with likable players, and a style that’s fun to watch. In fact, the on court product is so good, it has even been enough to overshadow to a good extent the issues behind closed doors with management and the team being for sale.
The Hawks were worse than a dumpster fire in the 2000s. They were a dumpster fire that NOBODY was paying any attention to, and as a result, nobody was attempting to put it out, and nobody cared if it did get put out.
That’s not to say there weren’t fans. There were countless fans like myself who watched constantly on TV, and if they didn’t watch every game, they knew every night whether they’d won or lost. They wouldn’t spend money on tickets, but they’d take up the offer of a free one. They loved their team, but they weren’t lining the pockets of backstabbing and bickering owners who excelled far more in dysfunction than putting a good basketball team on the floor.
Not only that, there just wasn’t anything to cheer about, or talk about. So it should be no surprise Hawks fans have been silent for 20 plus years. So sure, there are absolutely some new ones who have jumped on board, but they’re also a lot who are returning back to the franchise that they feel let them down and deserted them. There are also those who have been here from the days of the Pac-Man logo…. all the way through to its re-integration.
21 years later, maybe it’s come full circle. The old logo is back, and once again Dominique is part of the story as he serves on the television booth with Bob Rathbun, and nowhere will you find a more passionate duo covering their teams games. Not only that, the Braves and Falcons seem bent on returning to the basement of anonymity and irrelevance. The city is there for the taking, and the Hawks are doing just that.
So call the Hawks fans you see a bandwagoner if you must, but do so knowing the real story of fan apathy in Atlanta. Don’t do so just because ESPN tells you so, or because you saw a lot of empty seats in the building.
You can call me a bandwagoner all you want, in no way is that going to detract from the pure joy I get in watching this team excel, after years of being a joke, of being the laughing-stock of your jokes. The fact that now, the worst thing you can say about the Hawks is that they have too many bandwagon fans means we’re doing something right, FINALLY. And nothing you say is going to take away the enjoyment we Hawks fans are going to feel experiencing that.
Will this carry over into May and June? Who knows. We’ll find out in May and June. But we’re not going to not enjoy what’s happening now thinking about what may or may not happen in the future. We’ve waited too long for this, and been put through too much for this.
Who knows, maybe this is our time.
This organization owes us that much, and they’re finally giving it to us.