Are the Hawks an endangered species?
Last week’s Final Four would almost have you thinking Atlanta is a basketball town. Crazed and shirtless Maryland fans congregated across from equally rabid Indiana fans, faces painted and hearts filled with lust for turtle blood. As state flags flew from Suburbans and Camrys alike, Centennial Park evolved into something like a basketball version of "Braveheart."
But the romantic ideal of Atlanta as a basketball mecca left in a cloud of dust and tire smoke on Tuesday. The same night that 60,000 NCAA fans made their way up 85, returning from whence they came, Atlanta’s home pro team, the Hawks, beat a very good Milwaukee team in front of only 9,000 people. The sheer apathy the team and their fans have displayed this year begs the question: do the Hawks really matter? The team hasn’t made the playoffs since 1997. They haven’t had a legitimate star since Dominique Wilkins. And unlike the similarly unfortunate Washington Wizards, there are no signs that the Human Highlight Reel has any intention of coming out of retirement to save the team.
But all is not lost in the city that Sherman burned to the ground. Since the All-Star break, the Hawks are 15-11. Shareef Abdur-Rahim, the team’s de facto star (large moon, perhaps) and scoring leader, has scored 30-plus four times and is averaging 21.1 ppg for the season. Even more exciting, the rest of the team is beginning to step up. DerMarr Johnson, a player about as well known in Atlanta as snow is in Mexico, scored 28 against the Bucks. Jason Terry has been playing solidly all year, and is good for twenty night in and night out. Jacque Vaughn shows us flashes of his Kansas brilliance once in a while despite his underwhelming year-to-date performance.
And that’s where the problem comes in. Outside of Abdur-Rahim and Jason Terry, no one on this team shows anything but flashes, or potential. The Hawks have so much potential energy unused, if it were ever released, they’d win the Super Bowl. Besides the two main scorers, no Hawk averages significantly more than ten points per game.
Toni Kukoc, Chicago’s former Great White Hope, has satisfied himself with a pitiful 10.3 points per game. Compare this to the 19.7 he was averaging when he first came down from the Windy City. The rest of the team, a motley crew of journeymen and washed up college celebrities, has contributed so little, there’s little point in
These great guys, aided by a whole mercenary corps of underachievers, have led Atlanta to yet another losing season. Maybe Lon Kruger should appear on the next Jenny Jones show, entitled "Send my sorry, overpaid athlete to boot camp." Or perhaps it’s Lon himself who is to blame. A .353 career average is really quite respectable. For a third baseman. However, Kruger is a basketball coach, and even more telling than his regular season record is his playoff record: .000. Kruger and the playoffs are like AC Green and sex: never been, and at this rate, won’t get there any time soon.
On balance, then, the Hawks appear to be stuck in limbo. A team good enough to beat the playoff-bound Bucks and knock the Pacers out of home court advantage will be going home to play pool and watch Miami Vice marathons come May. Despite their post All-Star push, let’s face it, this season’s over. We’re playing for pride now, fellas. Unless some major changes occur in the offseason, guess what the Hawks will be playing for next year? (Give yourself three brownie points and a shot of Jagermeister if you guessed pride.)
At some point, someone in management is going to have swallow hard and start cutting the fat. A new coach, perhaps? Maybe a high school phenom? How about a cagey veteran? Everyone loves cagey veterans. As the Wizards have shown, a little ingenuity and some forward-thinking can turn a team around. While the Wizards probably aren’t going to the big show either, their team is energized. Even when Mike’s not playing, the fans on K Street and Rhode Island Avenue and Rockville are still watching. More importantly, they’re cheering when the team scores. They’re booing when the stripes screw up. Down on Peachtree, they don’t even so much as look up from their beers when the Hawks lose. And so long as the Hawks don’t care if they win or lose, neither will we.
Faraji Whalen is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com
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