Sunday, May 22, 2011

In Defense Of Who We Have Been

I live in Boston these days. For a lifelong basketball junkie, it's kind of like residing in Hoops Valhalla. The mere act of walking into The Garden and raising your eyes to those seventeen banners is awe-inspiring. As an added bonus, Springfield and the Basketball Hall Of Fame are a relatively short drive away. Bigger than the contents of the HOF and even those titles, however, is the beautiful lore and mythology of the characters who have defined the Celtics. The sheer hardwood lineage of this town is staggering. Auerbach, Russell, Cousy, Hondo, Cowens, Heinsohn, Bird, McHale, Chief, Walton. And more recently: Pierce, Garnett, Allen, Rondo. The list is virtually endless. And the fans here are incredible. They understand how fortunate they are to to be in this town, connected to this team. Moreover, they understand basketball. There is a genuine appreciation and love for the game here that transcends anything outside of perhaps fanatical Knicks fans. Which led to the following exchange I had the other night:

Boston Fan: "We had a tough end to the season, man."

Me: "Yeah, you guys did. So did we."

BF: "Who's 'we'?"

Me: "I'm a Hawks fan."

BF: "Oh, man. I'm sorry."

Me (indignant): "You're sorry?"

What ensued was basically good-natured ribbing. The guy gave me guff about a variety of things. Drafting Marvin Williams over CP3 and D-Will. The absurdity of the Joe Johnson contract. The fact that with this much talent, we really ought to be a better basketball team. He wasn't mean about it, you understand. Before the Allen and Garnett trades sparked that phenomenal 2008 championship run, Celtics fans suffered their fair share of indignities, poor front-office decisions, and sundry frustrations. Look at the shameful tanking during the Durant/Oden lottery season. As a fan, that had to be brutal to witness. The point is, this guy wasn't mocking me, he was commiserating. He understands. Nonetheless, at the end of the conversation, I found myself genuinely angry.

It's the endless litany of insults that the Hawks have to endure that really bothers me. I'm having trouble mentally dredging up who wrote it, but a little while back, someone voiced their thoughts about the special breed of contempt reserved for fringe contenders like Atlanta. Where the T-Wolves and Kings receive pity, teams like ours are subject to derision. Truth. And it doesn't end there.

A million little things add up that can make a guy downright bummed.

It's the running "Don't trust he Hawks" joke on Daily Dime Live. It's the laughter over the leveraging of the team's immediate future against that Johnson contract. It's the fact that it cost us far more than it should've to finally divest ourselves of Mike Bibby. It's the limbo of playoff berths with no real hope for a ring. To the rest of the league, this team has somehow metamorphosed into a joke. And that's not right. Maybe we deserve some flak for the questionable decisions and the failure to play cohesive, disciplined ball, but we don't deserve the reputation we're being saddled with. Not this team. Granted, we'll never be the Celtics or the Lakers, but we have our own proud history. To see it dismissed so cavalierly, to see our utter lack of cachet with hoops fans, kills me.

Fair warning: the following will be little more than an impassioned, itemized rant. Call it a feudal desire to defend my team's honor, but I had to get this off my chest. While we don't have claim to a single banner, we still have much to celebrate, and an impressive pedigree to remember. Despite what may be your perceptions, the Hawks are a franchise of immense dignity and prestige. Here's a quick reminder of the important figures who have ties to the Hawks organization. Mock us if you will, but show some respect for our significance in the storied history of this league.

1. Lenny Wilkens was an incredible basketball player, and went on to become the second-ever African American head coach in NBA history. He played, and later coached, for the Hawks. The man placed second to Wilt in the '67-'68 MVP ballot. He was a nine-time All-star. Behind Don Nelson, he's the second-winning-est coach in NBA history. And oh yeah, he's the only person to be listed on both the NBA's 50 Greatest Players and 10 Greatest Coaches rosters. And he earned his way onto both of those lists, at least in part, because of the Hawks.

2. Hubie Brown is one of the greatest and most beloved NBA commentators of all time. If you don't like listening to Hubie, there is something fundamentally wrong with how you choose to appreciated the game in its televised form. He won Coach of the Year honors with the Hawks in the 1977-1978 season, bringing a formerly lackluster franchise to a (then) miraculous .500 record.

3. To tie it back into the Celtics fan who instigated this, Doc Rivers, now regarded as one of the finest coaches in the league, played for the Hawks during the Dominique Wilkins heyday. I loved watching Doc as a floor general. He had such great court vision, such understated aplomb and unselfishness with the rock. He averaged a double-double in the 86-87 season, and generally made things gloriously fun for Hawks fans during his tenure there. Long before Doc became the leader of this most recent Celtics incarnation, he rocked the Omni with 'Nique. He was ours. Never forget it.

4. And speaking of 'Nique, how in the name of Dr. James Naismith was he left off the NBA's 50-at-50 team? The man was the greatest dunker in history. You can keep LBJ, Kobe, MJ, Dr. J, Blake Griffin, whoever. No one ignited a crowd or demoralized opponents like 'Nique when he threw one down. Sadly, he was saddled with the historical albatross of Magic Johnson. The great 'Nique-Bird playoff duels are forever eclipsed by what transpired between the Lakers and Celtics in all those '80s Finals. If Bird was Batman, then Magic was The Joker, the ultimate nemesis. 'Nique was always relegated to role of The Riddler. Still, he was a transcendent force in the league. A machine. Our very own potent scoring machine. How often is a fanbase gifted with that kind of talent? It's really not his fault that the Hawks couldn't put enough pieces around him. 'Nique. My man!!!

5. Old-Schoolers and transients. A quick rundown of other great men who wore the jersey or paced the sideline for the Hawks, no matter how briefly. (And yes, I realize, quite a few of these guys logged their minutes before the team settled in Atlanta, but they're part of the lineage nonetheless.): "Sweet Lou" Hudson, Bob Petit, Pistol Pete, Red Holzman, Cliff Hagan, Cotton Fitzsimmons, Spud Webb, Moses Malone (in his twilight, but still), Dikembe Mutombo and his finger wag, Stacey Augmon, Mookie Blaylock, Steve Smith, Jason Terry. I know, I know, these guys are not, or were not during their Hawks tenures, "A List", but that's a lot of notable names and figures whose stories you care about if you love the NBA.

I recognize that we don't own and don't necessarily deserve the accolades and lofty reverence accorded the Lakers or Celtics, but I just wanted to make the point that this franchise has much to be proud of. Sorry for the rant, but aside from the occasional snide Walsh or Thomas comment, no one talks the kind of smack about the Knicks that they do about Atlanta, despite the fact that we've made they playoffs every year in recent memory, while NYC finally clawed their way back in after a decade-plus drought only to get swept by the C's. Just saying.

Show the Hawks a little respect. Is that so much to ask?

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