This afternoon, I received my weekly issue of Sports Illustrated. I was hopeful to find an article about the hottest team in NBA, Atlanta Hawks. As a lifetime fan of the team, I could think of so many angles to discuss. I did find half a column, 1/8 of a page, dedicated to Atlanta Hawks. Of that, half of 1/8 of a page was dedicated to a picture of Jeff Teague with a caption of "breakout performer", and then this: "Atlanta has won 26 of its last 28. Is owner Bruce Levenson selling high or high for selling?" This is worse than an insult. It is worse than them not even listing Atlanta Hawks in a chart of stats for all NBA teams earlier this year and a week later apologizing for neglecting the entire team. It is the height of lazy journalism. But then… all those insults, started me thinking…
My anger, lead to bewilderment. My bewilderment lead to some thinking on a night that All Star starters will be announced, and knowing full well no Hawk has a chance of being selected as a starter voted for by fans. It lead me to put pen to paper. This is one fan’s perspective, nothing else.
To understand the root of lack of recognition by national media (TNT and ESPN telecasts that are missing best team in the East from national telecasts week in and week out, very few NBA TV telecasts, and virtually no SI articles worth mentioning) one needs to look back at NBA in 70s and 80s, pre Bird and Magic. The pre Bird-Magic era still had stars. I remember watching the Sixers team. So many remember Doc from that team. How many remember Chocolate Thunder, world B, a certain player who goes to become a great coach and now an analyst Doug Collins, and my favorite player of those years George McGinnis. McGinnis was that rare combination of power and skill. Things he did that Mailman could never think of years later. That team was showtime before showtime became showtime. That team was a circus. But even with the greatness of Sixers, and as far as they go, NBA was relegated to second or third class status among sports franchises in America. Forget international presence. For reasons fair or unfair, it was a league with a reputation for rampant drug abuse, violence, and unseemly characters.
For some it may seem unbelievable, but NBA playoff games were shown on tape delay. Late at night. If at all. My memory fades if series before finals were even shown on TV, even on tape delay.
And then…… two stars came to be. Bird and Magic. By force of their presence, by their clash of styles and background, by their games, they made their historic franchises matter again, and more importantly they made NBA matter to America.
The NBA executives, probably watched in amazement as the skill and will battles of Magic vs. Bird transformed the league in front of their eyes. Overnight, the TV ratings soared, the commercials featuring those two were everywhere, wall street and main street fell in love with NBA. Suddenly, by happenstance, the league found a way out of the ignominy of late night telecasts, and second or third tier status in America's sports hierarchy, and indeed irrelevance. That solution: Focus on the super-stars. Make them the pinnacle, the sun around which not only NBA franchises, but also the league itself and the NBA game revolves. The game became a function of having the super-stars.
It was as though the league couldn't have enough of the stars, Charles, Isiah, Mailman, Nique, Stockton, Doc, Moses, Microwave, Alonzo, Hakeem The Dream, Shaq, Kobe, and on and on and on … and the greatest star of them all Michael.
The league had solved the mystery of how to become a first rate sports league. Focus on something that masses can relate to. Connect to. Identify with. The player is bigger than the game. The team with the star, is the team that wins. Market that concept.
It worked. Amazingly well. The league flourished. The commercials of NBA stars seem to have more prime time presence than any other league including the Mega league NFL (forget baseball, who remembers a commercial featuring baseball stars). And the league became an international magnet. The game flourished overseas. Basketball is an easy game to follow. It flows naturally. Perhaps not as natural as soccer which has minimum timeout interruptions, but much faster. Certainly more natural than NFL and baseball games with constant interruptions for commercials and their hard to follow rules unless you grow up with game. The internationalism of NBA allowed for ever more pool of talent to inject the game with new blood. Think how much better basketball is because of the richness of its worldwide pool, vs. limited NFL and baseball talent pools.
The star driven league formula for success could even explain great TEAM franchises. Spurs? They got Robinson, The Admiral. They got Duncan, the big fundamental. Golden State? Similar to Atlanta Hawks? You must be joking. They got Curry. Who on Atlanta Hawks can mimick Curry’s incredible creative skills? (not to mention one of two greatest shooting guards in the league).
It all could be explained so easily. Except for ……. Our Atlanta Hawks(feel free to replace Atlanta Hawks with Detroit Pistons of Billups/Prince/Rasheed/Hamilton… but even that team had a player of incredible talent in Rasheed and an incredible defensive force in Wallace who may not have equivalent Hawk level players).
The current number 1 team in the East. The team that is currently 6 games ahead of all others in loss column in East. The team that has destroyed all the top tier teams it has played against in west (exception of Spurs early season loss at Spurs). A team with no mega star. A team that can’t be sold to masses. A team, Atlanta Hawks, that scares NBA. A team that challenges the formula for success.
What to do with Atlanta Hawks?
How do you sell an Atlanta Hawks with no mega stars to masses? How do you sell a team that not only doesn’t have a starter on cast of all stars, but not even a player that is close in the voting for any starting position. How do you sell a team that while leading the East, gets 1/8th of a page on SI for recognition, if you can call that recognition???
So the league ignores Atlanta Hawks. Hoping, wishing, this nightmare of marketing just goes away. Fades like those Pistons.
I get it. It is hard to sell Atlanta Hawks. For those who follow me, you know I love Josh. Josh was my Kobe. Josh was my Shaq. When I fell back in love with Hawks since the Nique days again, I had to focus on one player. I am the masses. I like the stars. I wanted an Atlanta Hawks superstar. It was Al at first. Remember Al is not the polished player he is now when he was drafted. He had no mid-ranger. He fought inside . He became my lion. As Al became more well rounded, more polished, more fifth avenue than Woodward Avenue, it became Josh. The highlight factory. The point was it was a player in the mold that NBA wanted. Someone I could fall in love with. My little star.
And then over night the team changed. So now, who is that one player? I had a crisis. I like Teague. I like Al. I like Kyle. I like Scott. Can I love any of them to carry the day? Can I fall in love? If I struggle with identifying who the best Hawk is, how can the league? How can the masses? Can the league sell Atlanta Hawks to America? Can the league sell Atlanta Hawks, a team full of international players to the world? How do you mimic a Lebron tour of China, a Kobe tour of Italy, with sending the whole team to Asia? Who do people overseas want the signature from? How does SI write a lazy article focused on one player? Whose jersey do you sell if Atlanta Hawks is the leading team in NBA?
As for me, it all went away at some point this year. May be the winning did it. But the joy came back. The game's purity exceeded the star's appeal. It all became clear finally. My glasses had become fogged up after all.
So it is that Atlanta Hawks, present the biggest challenge to NBA, since the advent of the superstar based system that was Bird-Magic. As we mentioned before, this is not the first time. Detroit Pistons proved a starless team could win. That team could also not be marketed to America, but at least back then, there was a Shaq and Kobe combo, that the league could confidently feel was superior to Detroit, and focus on. Can Hawks be sold to America? Can Hawks be sold to the world? Can Hawks be telecasted on premium channels and premium national publications? I say yes based on personal perspective, but it won't happen overnight.
The NBA has flourished in time since that crazy star driven Sixers team, by focusing on the super star system and giving all its marketing might to those teams featuring such players. And yet for NBA to go to the next level, where NFL has gone, parity, making all teams and all franchises strong and matter, the Atlanta Hawks way may be the way of the future. The game is better than the stars. The stars complement the game, not the other way around.
The fork in the road is there in front of NBA, will NBA make the right choice? Only time will tell.