Like roughly 70 percent of people reading this, I’m not originally from Atlanta.
But like many kids growing up in the 1980s, I spent a few years in awe of Dominique Wilkins. And Spud Webb. I grew up, though, in basketball-crazed Indiana, where Larry “Legend” Bird loomed like a twangy Greek god with a bad mustache and the mystique of Hoosiers and stories of cranky Bobby Knight will never die. I interviewed Dominique not too long ago; I annoyed him asking so many questions—completely off topic—about why Larry Bird and Michael Jordan were such badass basketball players. I wanted to hear about NBA basketball way back then—when the spectacle of the playoffs consumed America and even my grandma watched the Finals.
When I moved to Atlanta more than a decade ago, the Hawks coach at the time, Mike Woodson, was from my previous neighborhood in Indianapolis, Broad Ripple. This sounds ridiculous, but Woodson felt like a little piece of what had been home. (Ditto for Indianapolis-bred Jeff Teague.) That’s where my adoration for the Hawks organization as a whole began. The seeds of a strange but wonderful allegiance—rooting for a fun, good team that no one ever gives a chance, a squad no one outside Atlanta ever expects to be great.
Woodson, who’s now come full circle as Indiana University’s head coach, once said this about growing up immersed in Hoosier Hysteria: “Every yard had courts, little basketball hoops in the yard. If you didn’t have it, you had neighbors two doors down that had it.” That conjures images of dirt courts, netless rims, backdrops of red barns and cornfields. Hawks Hysteria—this era that’s dawning before us right now—is nothing like that. Hawks faithful play pick-up games on the courts you see all over the city emblazoned with the team’s logo. They take MARTA trains to the arena. And attending a Hawks game is less about stoic sports tradition than having a DJ in the rafters, craft beer flowing everywhere, and what feels like one gigantic, diverse dance party.
I once worked in the suburbs for a company that had access to great, free Hawks tickets. I always scored them because interest in driving downtown to see pro basketball was so low. (True story: During a Christmas raffle at that job, I was the lone bidder—$10—for an authentic, autographed Josh Smith jersey that still hangs in my closet; don’t be a jerk and say I overpaid.) With those almost-floor-seat tickets, I used to take writer pals to Hawks games and go buck wild screaming for the likes of Mike Bibby, Marvin Williams, and J-J-J-Joe Johnson. It was a different type of hysteria, a milder version, one that you knew in your bones could take you only so far into the postseason promised land. Kind of like that excellent 60-win team of six years ago. The team I watched get swept by LeBron’s Cavaliers in the nosebleeds, next to my crestfallen eldest daughter.
Speaking of Lola, the girl was born for watching good (and bad) basketball. I’ve never seen a kid—a baby, even, a decade ago—get so swept up in the energy of a live Hawks game. From the time she could speak, she’s been chanting “DEE-FENSE!” at the arena—and at home where nobody hears it but me. For years she’s danced with her kid sister, Marley, on her seat at games—but tragically never made the Dance Cam on the jumbotrons. She’s been able to name the starting five since the Dwight year. She wanted a Trae Young jersey after the first time she saw him play, nearly three years ago. Long before your aunt could spell Trae’s name correctly, before Ice Trae made fools of Gotham’s mayor and fanbase, my daughter recognized that a 20-year-old dynamo rookie dropping 49 points in the NBA wasn’t normal. She knows The Bow at midcourt in Madison Square Garden is the opposite of—and possibly the antidote for—28-3.
When the pandemic hit last year, I wrote for this magazine about how I’d lost my job—but even worse, the seats to an April Hawks game I’d bought my daughter for her birthday. A year later, this past April, we were finally able to use those tickets and attend a socially distanced Hawks games—coincidentally against the Indiana Pacers. The bandwagon I’d boarded so long ago for an adopted team was just starting to feel crowded, finally. Its destination was a playoff spectacle that’s consumed an American city—if not the full country again—like the Dominique days. And as the fourth quarter rolled around, just before the final horn in another convincing Hawks victory, Lola broke into a spastic Fortnite dance, and her lifelong dream of making the Dance Cam came true.
Josh Green, an Atlanta magazine contributor since 2011, is an editor, award-winning journalist, and published fiction writer who lives in Atlanta with his wife and two daughters. The former editor of Curbed Atlanta, he is now the editor of Urbanize Atlanta.