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Basketball back in the lost city of Atlanta

1/19/2015
After decades of indifference, the Hawks have pushed basketball back to the forefront in Atlanta. Kevin Liles/USA TODAY Sports

Once, six years ago, when the Hawks showed a glimmer of hope by starting the season 21-10, I made it my goal to find and attend a Hawks fan club in Atlanta, whatever that might mean. A deep Internet dive led me to a guy called "Bee Moe" who said he was starting one. I wrote him an impassioned email expressing interest from a like soul. He replied: "Well, you would be the first. Let's see what kind of response we get. I will follow up." He never did, despite numerous follow-ups of my own.

This is what it's been like to be an Atlanta Hawks fan in the late 20th and early 21st century: lonely.

Decades ago, during the civil rights movement, it was called "the city too busy to hate." But for years Atlanta felt more like "the city too busy to root." Fans arrived incredibly late to games, if they came at all. And when they did come, they were most often presented, over the past two decades, with an unattractive, isolation-heavy style of basketball that -- the thinking went -- befit the few real stars (Dominique Wilkins, Moses Malone) and the many pretenders we've seen here (Joe Johnson, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Steve Smith: bless their long-dribbling hearts). Meanwhile, homegrown hoops prodigies like Dwight Howard wouldn't touch "Hotlanta" with a 10-foot pole.

Seven straight playoff berths and hasty, hope-snuffing exits couldn't remedy any of this.

But now, I can say for the first time in my 33 years of being alive and a Hawks fan, we've got a team of non-stars who form a beautiful basketball constellation. DeMarre Carroll, Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap: these are not household names or All-Star shoo-ins. But thanks to their sharing and scrappy intelligence, these Hawks are now being called "Spurs of the East." It's as if the bird itself must be abandoned in order to believe what's being seen: two separate winning streaks (one still going) of nine games or more before the All-Star break; a 28-game stretch with just two losses; the best record in the Eastern Conference (33-8). Yes, it's the weaker conference, but there's this, too: They’ve beaten nearly every top Western team already this season.

But it's also the way the wins have come, through the collective efforts of an unlikely cast of characters sprung from a Tom Robbins novel. We've got a Macedonian hit man draining off-balance 3s; a little German backup point guard with a blond striped head and a skateboard back home jamming over 7-footers; a 33-year-old pure shooter who runs rocks underwater in the offseason and could become the first 50-50-90 player ever; a forward/center who reads Gabriel Garcia Marquez and does yoga when he's not getting triple-doubles; a coach who seems to have downloaded Gregg Popovich's brain, without the mean part; and a bench that goes moose-goggle nuts supporting the team, like every game is the Final Four.

Still, nationally, the Hawks are doubted.

It's not just the team that has historically struggled for legitimacy on the large stage. It's the city, too. And for good reason: In the past 20 years we've had a mayor who went to jail for tax evasion; an Olympics that was both aesthetically and functionally inadequate to visitors and residents alike; a "snowpocalypse" that, most of all, revealed the city's woefully inadequate transit system. We've even given birth to the televised plague of “Honey Boo Boo” and the abortive campaign of the pizza baron turned presidential meteor, Herman Cain. (OK, places just outside of Atlanta led to those last two. But we still get the "credit.")

Atlanta is home to Coca-Cola, Home Depot, Delta and the busiest airport in the world, yes. But a half dozen blue chips and a bunch of airplanes does not a city make. So now, just as the Hawks are finally finding their wings, it's doubly satisfying to see that Atlanta is making progressive moves worthy of its longtime moniker, "Capital of the South."

To name just a few: We finally have an outstanding Civil and Human Rights center worthy of the struggle; we've opened an urban pathway called the BeltLine -- one of the largest urban redevelopment programs underway in the country -- allowing Atlantans to, gasp, walk and bike an old railroad corridor through the famously car-centric city; nationally noteworthy restaurants are popping up right and left, along with craft breweries; long-abandoned or under-utilized buildings are becoming beautiful, multi-functional spaces like Ponce City Market and Krog Street Market; we've got a nice-looking (if expensive) streetcar in place. We've even earned the title of "Hollywood of the South," as tax incentives have made Georgia one of the best states to film in the country. Oh, and our river water and air have gotten cleaner … which won't hurt if we want to see more of those hawks with feathers flying around.

There are, of course, never steps forward without steps back, and we've seen that with both the team -- general manager Danny Ferry's indefinite leave of absence for making racially charged comments last year -- and the city: a massive 2011 public school cheating scandal led to the indictment of the former schools superintendent and is still being addressed. But Atlanta and its basketball team are moving in the right direction. I just emailed Bee Moe, and it sounds like he's finally getting that fan club off the ground.

A writer-at-large at Atlanta, Charles Bethea (@charlesbethea) writes for the New York Times, Outside, Esquire, and The New Republic, among others.