The Atlanta Hawks play their home games on a giant jigsaw puzzle in one of the world’s busiest arenas, four inches above a layer of ice. Traveling shows come and go through the fall and winter, but the ice remains, so that when Celine Dion thumps her sternum, when Jay-Z and Young Jeezy shuffle across the stage, when Britney Spears impersonates a snarling cat in a golden cage, they all stand on an icy foundation. Only the Ringling Bros. circus, because of its complicated rigging, can force the removal of ice during hockey season. It takes about four hours. The conversion crew turns off the evaporator core and shatters the ice with bulldozers.
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One Sunday night in November, after a Thrashers game, the conversion crew built a basketball court in the bowl of Philips Arena. Forty-seven men and one woman reported for duty around ten o’clock. Some had just come from other night jobs and others would go to work in the morning after sleeping an hour or two. There was a postal worker, a man in pretrial intervention, a mixed martial arts fighter named Gator, an insurance estimator who said he needed extra cash to care for his sick mother. Many had no income besides the $75 they would earn that night.
Gator rallied his colleagues with a raised fist. “Let’s go, conversion!” he said, and the workers got on with their various tasks. Crash, bang, clatter. Carts rolled onto the ice, laden with gray-brown fiberglass panels. The crew laid down the panels in an offset grid, rounded at the edges to match the contours on the walls of the hockey rink. The fiberglass prevented puddles on the court by forming a buffer between the ice and the hardwood. I asked conversion manager Brandon Miller how many panels there were, not expecting him to know the answer. He thought for a moment and said there were 503.
To the north and south, on hidden sections of floor littered with peanut shells, other crews rejiggered the bleachers to make room for more fans. “One, two, three!” they chanted, shoving bleacher rows deep into a man-made cave. A big man sang to himself: Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone . . . Metal decking fell on another man’s hand, possibly spraining it, and he was excused to visit the hospital.
The hardwood came out around midnight, after the penalty boxes had been dismantled. Floor leader Jesse Williams laid dusty red chalk lines to mark the edges of the court. Four men lifted the first heavy maple slab off the cart and laid it on the center of the north end. The slab was eight feet long and four feet wide, with a sharp whiff of polyurethane. The court would be fifteen slabs long, fifteen wide, and not especially cold, despite the frozen bedrock. “Go get the goals,” Williams said.
The Hawks would host the Portland Trail Blazers on this court in less than nineteen hours. Williams laid the third slab and fastened it with a metal pin. Twenty-one hours later, Joe Johnson would soar above that same wooden slab and drop in a finger roll to give the Hawks an 83–82 lead with fifteen seconds left.
They brought the goal out on a forklift and dropped it on the court, fastening it with an eyebolt in the center and thick metal pins on each side. And so, when Josh Smith sealed the win with a violent baseline dunk near the end of overtime, the goal stood firm.
The job was done by 5 a.m., when the workers finished surrounding the court with overstuffed black folding chairs. The night’s payroll came to about $4,000. Six courtside tickets would cover it.
Photograph by Caroline Kilgore
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