Strobe lights illuminated what’s normally the playing floor at State Farm Arena on Thursday evening. The hardwood had been removed, replaced by red-and-white tables where roaming fans enjoyed finger foods and drinks. Season ticket holders wore lanyards around their necks identifying how long they’ve stuck with the team—financially and emotionally. The lower bowl was full of fans gazing up to the screens live-broadcasting the NBA Draft on ESPN, eagerly waiting to see who would become the newest members of the Atlanta Hawks. If you closed your eyes and just listened, you would have thought it was a game night.
This wasn’t the small but dedicated NBA Draft gatherings of years’ past. Instead, Thursday’s free bash in the newly renovated arena shows off a savvier, forward-thinking direction for the $1.9 billion NBA franchise, showcasing a fan energy that Hawks legend Dominique Wilkins, who made a scheduled appearance at the party, described as “unbelievable” and “outstanding.”
“I think this is the largest crowd we have ever had on draft night,” said legendary broadcaster Bob Rathbun, who has been calling Hawks games since 1996. “I think what we see here is dovetailing on how the team ended last season. People are believing in the Hawks again.”
The amped-up feelings have a lot to do with the young talent up and down the Hawks lineup—John Collins, Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, Omari Spellman, and newly drafted rookies De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish—along with work the front office has put in over the past couple of years. The key leader is general manager Travis Schlenk, who since arriving in Atlanta in 2017 has helped draft franchise players in Collins and Young and solidified the franchise’s reputation for being a wheeler and dealer. The Hawks traded longtime forward and fan favorite Taurean Prince to Brooklyn for the 17th overall pick, which Schlenk packaged with the eighth pick in order to draft Hunter with the fourth overall.
“[Schlenk] understands what it takes, and he’s been making some strong moves,” Wilkins said. “The last three years have been outstanding.”
When the Hawks drafted Reddish, a sharp-shooter out of Duke, with the 10th overall pick, the crowd inside State Farm roared so loud that it was hard to hear any of the screens broadcasting the draft live. “This is about as exciting as I have seen it here,” said Steve Holman, the team’s radio play-by-play broadcaster for the past 35 years.
During a post-draft press conference at the team’s practice facility in Brookhaven, Schlenk was clear about his confidence in the selections.
“We feel good about how the draft played out tonight, getting [Reddish] at 10. He was a guy we had pegged a little bit higher, so we are excited that he was there,” Schlenk said.
With Atlanta United as the reigning MLS Champions, the Falcons seeing Super Bowl play in 2017, and the Braves winning the NL East title last year, there’s more pressure on the Hawks to be more competitive. Drafting strong franchise players that fans can get behind for the long haul is one piece of that equation. The draft party was a microcosm of how the franchise is striving to be more fan-forward. The team held a free lottery draft party at the arena in May and a media appreciation night not long after that. These type of events are few and far between among NBA franchises, and the additions made during the $192.5 million renovation of the two decades-old arena, too, shows an effort draw in sports fans who might otherwise find themselves more often next door at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Fans can not only stroll the typical team shops and eateries (with lower pricing inspired by neighbor MBS), but get a haircut at Killer Mike’s Swag Shop barbershop or sip drinks at a courtside bar shaped like the team logo. Going to a Hawks game is once again, as it was in the mid-80’s, the early 00’s, and the 60-win season of 2015, a hot ticket. Atlanta’s loveable losers are losers no more, at least in regards to fan experience.
“There’s a buzz in here, and it’s great to see,” Holman said. “I think everybody wants to be here to be a part of this. It’s a happening.”