The Hawks had ripped off a 60-win regular season playing beautiful, collective basketball. The following game, Paul Pierce's last second three to tie the game was waved off. I still remember the sick feeling in my gut while that play was under review. I lived in Boston for five years a while back and, being way too broke to afford League Pass, watched a LOT of Celtics games as a way to get my hoops fix. I knew what Paul Pierce was about. I turned to my wife during the timeout before the in-bounds and said something like "do you know how many times I've watched The Truth curl of a screen on a play like this and drain a three?" Which he did. But, mercifully, it was a not-buzzer-beater this time. The clock hit zeros before the ball left Pierce's hand. The Hawks went to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in my life. They got obliterated by LeBron and the Cavs in a four-game sweep, but that season was a hell of a ride.
From then to now, the running joke of Atlanta sports heartbreak has been going strong. The Falcons had 28-3. Angel McCoughtry got hurt mere days before the playoffs in the midst of a truly magical season for the Dream. (We win a title that year if it doesn't happen and you can't tell me otherwise.) The Braves (change the name and stop the chop, please) blew a 3-1 lead to LA in the NLCS. The Dawgs went through 4th and 26 and the next year's SEC Championship Game, both of them heart breakers. If the Five Stripes hadn't brought home that MLS Cup, we'd really have broken the curve on the misery index.
I was born in Atlanta in 1982. My formative sports memories are a horrendous Braves team (minus Dale and Phil, who were awesome), a listless, disheveled Falcons, and the Hawks. The 'Nique, Spud, Doc Hawks who put basketball in my soul probably before I could form a coherent sentence or use the bathroom by myself. Those years were full of awe and splendor. A packed-out OMNI going bonkers when 'Nique threw down a filthy dunk right on some hapless defender's dome. Of course, the apex was still heart break, the first real one I have a memory of; the famous/imfamous Bird-'Nique duel in game seven of the Eastern Conference Semis in '88.
Ever since, outside of the '95 Braves and the aforementioned ATL United run, the litany of "almosts" and "what ifs" is long and gory. Soul-crushing loss after soul-crushing loss. Lather, rinse, repeat. This Hawks season ended in similar fashion, but it felt vastly different.
I keep thinking about the 1991 Braves, and the parade Atlanta threw them after that worst-to-first season that ended in a seven-game loss to the Twins in the World Series. Even in defeat, they had raised the city to heights of ecstatic jubilation that hadn't really been felt before. Even more than the 2015 squad, that was this year's Hawks.
Look at what happened after Nate McMillan took over this team. They were looking at the draft lottery again until that coaching change. Then a supernova bloomed in the heart of the city. Trae Young showed the whole country what Hawks fans have known since the draft night swap: he's THAT GUY. Like 'Nique. Like Dale. Like Julio. It's not just his brilliance on the court, it's the infinite swag. The bow in MSG, the pre-3 shimmy in Milwaukee, that dude is COLD in a way that feels so perfectly aligned with ATL. And the front office put a team around him that just freaking works. Red Velvet (TM @SheBeKoolin), JC, AKA John The Baptist (#PayDaMan TM @femaleatlhawk), De'Andre Hunter, who was having a magnificent season before his injury. Cam Reddish, who, even in a loss, had a damn COMING OUT party last night. Clint, Bogi, Solo, and on down the line. This team is an ideal mixture of youth and experience, insanely talented, and exquisitely calibrated. They will be giving the league hell for years to come, and the last few weeks have been a transcendent proof of concept.
The Hawks came to Atlanta from Saint Louis in 1968. Until this season, they had been to the Eastern Conference Finals once (the Cavs series I mentioned up top.) Until now, they hadn't won a game in the ECF. But this year and this team were special. They stormed out of the NBA's basement after the coaching change and played two epic, seven-game series to take out the Knicks and Sixers. They rolled into Milwaukee and took game one with Trae officially showing anyone who hadn't figured it out yet precisely what a badass he is. Then they took a game in ATL without him after a fluke, stupid injury. That's two more ECF wins than any other Hawks team ever had. He tried last night, the whole team did, but there just wasn't enough gas in the tank, even with the Bucks missing Giannis.
Listen, NONE of that matters right now. NONE. OF. IT. All the joy, the miracles, and the pure, giddy, delirious hope we just experienced are enough today. And it should be. No sane hoops person would have told you in February this is where the Hawks' season would end. They're a mile ahead of schedule with a full off season to get healthy and nothing but possibility and promise stretching as far as the eye can see. Whether or not a banner ever goes up (I think it will), we need to keep this joy close. I've already seen plenty of haters on the TL today talking shit. Fuck those people. Let this team and this season reverberate in your hearts and drown them out. What we feel right now, the hope and delight and boundless optimism, it's rare. Especially in for ATL sports fans. Cradle this moment with your entire souls. It's worth celebrating, even if the rest of the world won't.