This can be a strange and fickle sports market. Teams don’t get a huge window to grab the public’s attention, and when they lose it it’s hard to get it back.
The Braves had it in the early to mid-1990s, then lost it when fans became jaded. The Falcons had it with Michael Vick, then lost it amid the blur of calamities that followed, and even three winning seasons haven’t brought back everybody. The Thrashers had it for about five minutes. But even their hard-to-beat-down fans eventually were crushed by franchise ineptitude, and it will take time to reconstruct bridges (assuming nobody phones Bekins).
This is the Hawks’ window. Blow this and it will be some time before anybody looks in their direction again.
They played two road playoff games at Orlando, winning one and having a good chance at a second upset in the other. That was impressive. But now that they’re home, will they play like they care? Or will they treat their fans similarly to the way Egyptians were treated to plagues in the Old Testament?
Locusts! (A 41-point home loss to New Orleans.)
Frogs! (A 34-point home loss to Philadelphia.)
Boiling seas! (Six home defeats in March by increasing deficits: 7 to Oklahoma City, 13 to New York, 14 to Los Angeles, 15 to Denver, 21 to Miami, 33 to Chicago.)
The Hawks’ home record during the regular season was 24-17. That ranked 16th in the NBA. Many want to blame the lack of success on poor fan support. The problem with that theory is that the only playoff team with a worse home record than Atlanta this season was the Knicks (23-18), who are one of the best-supported teams in the league.
“Sometimes it feels more like a road game,” coach Larry Drew admitted Thursday. “Maybe our guys don’t respond to those things very well.”
But Drew knows: Empty seats or booing fans or too many folks in the crowd pulling for the other team are not legitimate reasons for losing. Teams lose because they lack talent, or interest, or focus.
How about if the Hawks give people a reason to show up and cheer?
Doesn’t the saying go: “Home is where the heart is”?
“At home at times [this season] it didn’t feel like we had that confidence of the crowd, but I feel like our crowd feeds off what we do,” Al Horford said. “So if we have some highlight plays and really get it going, the crowd buys into that. Or we play hard. That’s all the fans ask for. It’s really disappointing at times we don’t do that as a team.”
This sports market has always supported two things: 1) Georgia football; 2) Something else. No. 2 always changes, either because of fluctuating success, the perceived level of commitment of ownership and management or, as Horford said, just flat out effort.
In short, fans want to be given a reason to believe. If the Hawks win two home games over the Magic, watch how quickly their bandwagon fills up.
“We have to go out and compete, regardless of who’s out there,” said Joe Johnson. “We’ve gotten past that. We understand where everybody stands on that.” (And yes, the remarks drip with irony given his remarks about the fans a year ago at this time.)
Top to bottom, the Hawks probably face more uncertainty than anybody in the playoffs: ownership (Atlanta Spirit is looking for a buyer), general manager (Rick Sund could be done after this year), coach (Drew’s contract offers little security), roster (a shakeup could be forthcoming).
But a strong showing against the Magic would help. It would get people excited. The Hawks need to take advantage of it, because these windows don’t open very often in Atlanta.
By Jeff Schultz