We Want The Funk! Why Atlanta Isn't An NBA Town

Andrew WillinghamContributor IMay 14, 2010

ATLANTA - MAY 10:  Josh Smith #5 of the Atlanta Hawks waits to shoot a free throw against the Orlando Magic during Game Four of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2010 NBA Playoffs at Philips Arena on May 10, 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

As a life-long NBA fan that recently lost his favorite team, the Seattle Supersonics, I have been looking for a new team to root for. When I moved to Atlanta last year, I was excited to become a Hawks fan. The Hawks were playing well and winning games, and had an exciting core of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, and Al Horford. 

But when I began attending games, I noticed that something was different. Something was missing; that intangible energy, the pride, the thing that makes fans go crazy, hate the other team, live and die with every game. For some reason, this doesn’t exist in Atlanta.

I felt “it” at Sonics games in the mid 90s. I felt “it” at Warrior games in the 2000s. I have spoken to other fans that have felt “it” at other NBA games, but “it” just seems to be missing from the “Highlight Factory.” I’ve been to 10 games in Atlanta over the past few years and I’ve never felt that energy, that excitement. This led me to an unfortunate conclusion: 

Atlanta just isn’t a basketball town.

To me, this just doesn’t make any sense; how can Atlanta not be a basketball town? The city of Atlanta is one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country. One would think that a population of over 5 million could sustain a pro basketball team.

Of all the games I’ve attended, the only one that looked close to being sold out this season was the Lakers game. And most of the fans only went to cheer Kobe. I’ve been to two games against Atlanta’s conference rivals, the generally disliked Boston Celtics, and the arena was barely 75% full.

But it’s not just about attendance numbers, for which Atlanta ranked 18th overall, barely beating the Wizards and Clippers. It’s about the mood at the game. Even when fans show up, Hawks games seem over-produced, over-marketed, and just plain soft. If I could pick one word to describe the Hawks’ crowd it would be “uninspired.” Sure, you see a lot of Hawks jerseys, but the passion is missing.

There are a few reasons Hawks fans may be tamer than most. First, the Hawks are a historically poor team. With the exception of the past few years, a successful 1994 season, and a run of good years in the early 80s, the Hawks have not won games, especially in the postseason. In fact, the Hawks haven’t been to the conference finals since 1968. The lack of postseason success is sure to create a disinterested fan base.

Secondly, the Hawks have had only one exciting franchise player- Dominique Wilkins. If anything is true about the NBA, it is that fans come to see the most talented players in the world. Joe Johnson, while a talented player, is not putting fans in the seats. If Atlanta is to create a buzz about basketball, they will have to sign an exciting impact player, the Isolation heavy style they have been playing with Joe Johnson is not fun to watch.

X’s and O’s aside, the experience at games looks like it’s out of an NBA commercial. Jets of fire, lasers, and spotlights augment the loud Black Eyed Peas song played over the PA. But these things don’t connect with Atlanta fans.

Hawks games are plastic. Fake.

There is no edge, no culture, no soul at NBA games in a city that is the center of Black culture in the United States. This is the city that produced James Brown for god’s sake!

Give me some soul! This is why the team has no buzz- the team, and specifically the fan experience, doesn’t reflect the city itself.

We often hear about how a team takes on the personality of its coach, but great teams, popular teams, take on the personality of their city. The Raiders, The Bad Boy Pistons, The Showtime Lakers; all of these teams reflect their cities whether through glitz, grit, hard work, passion for winning, blue-collar mentality, or character.

This is what the Hawks are missing. The Atlanta culture, the southern character that permeates all aspects of life here in the ATL, is not present at games.

Atlanta fans don’t want another well managed, family centric, “NBA Cares” production- we want something real, something funky and tough like our city, or at least I do.

Atlanta used to be called “Terminus” because it was where the railroad ended. I can’t think of a better marketing campaign than one based around this historical name for the city. It’s hard. It’s tough. It has history and culture, like Atlanta. “The Buck Stops Here” could have been the slogan for the first round.

Atlanta could become a basketball town, if the Hawks could be made to reflect the great city of its namesake.

Despite the many things the Hawks’ game day experience is missing, one part of the games that is completely unique is the Fan Dance. The Fan Dance is a standard gimmick in all NBA arenas, but Hawks fans take it to a whole new level.  I’ve seen the fan dance at Seattle games and it was nothing like this. You might see some standard dances like The Macarena or The Twist in any NBA arena, but the showmanship in Atlanta is something to behold.

At the first Hawks game I attended, the Fan Dance was the best display of dancing I’d ever seen, anywhere.

The three finalists were a boy of about 9 who could have been a young Michael Jackson, a teenaged boy doing the Pop-And-Lock, and a man of about 60, dressed in a full three-piece pimp suit with cane, doing the Cabbage Patch. The battle between the three went on for a few minuets, each hamming it up, improving on their moves, making up new dances; dancing like they’d never danced before. I loved it. The crowd loved it. It was the loudest I’ve ever heard it at a Hawks game.

This is the passion that is missing. If Hawks fans could be motivated to put half of the energy they put into Fan Dance into caring about the team, Atlanta would have a more fun and engaging fan experience. We need a team that plays tough D. We need a team that is physical. We need a team that is intimidating, scary, funky.

So maybe Atlanta isn’t a basketball town right now, but it could be. With the right franchise player and a team that energized the city, we could do it. We could turn the “Highlight Factory,” where there has been a recent drought of highlights, into “The End of the Line.” I can see it now, “Terminus, the place where opposing teams go to die.” Complete with a scoreboard graphic of broken down train cars with visiting team names on them.

Regardless of the catchphrases, we need to “Get Up Offa That Thing” and terminate this uninspiring Hawks team. For now, at least I have Fan Dance, and a nice, long off-season to work on my moves. Now, how do you do the Cabbage Patch? 

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