ATLANTA — It all started with a discount.
Ben McCleskey, now 24, was a freshman at Shorter University in Rome, Georgia when he and his crush Avery Armstrong, now 26, were casual friends. A self-proclaimed “broke college kid,” McCleskey found the perfect opportunity to take Armstrong out on a first date: The inaugural Atlanta Hawks “Swipe Right Night.”
“We had known each other, but we were just casual friends,” McCleskey said. “Then, I talked her into going to the game, I was like ‘Hey, use the Tinder promotion for $10 tickets, a food and drink voucher.’ So that was our first official date.”
McCleskey said he was poking fun at Armstrong for previously having a Tinder account, so he sarcastically tweeted that she was his 393rd match on the app.
“Swipe Right Night” was a promotion that was, at the time, the Atlanta Hawks’ latest attempt to connect with digitally-crazed millennials in the city. It was the cross between “smart risk-taking” and “consumer democracy,” according to Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin.
“I’m a native Atlantan, and Atlanta’s a very unusual city in the fact that most people aren’t from here,” Koonin said. “But so many people moved here and had families here that this next generation, this younger generation, is born here. We want them to be Hawks fans, and it’s a very different generation in communication.”
Communication is a field in which Koonin, the former longtime president of Turner Entertainment, has experience. It’s an avenue that he’s hoped to grow the Hawks’ brand in the city since being named the team’s CEO in 2014.
“Your voice, the way you connect with people, how you communicate, how you share your ideas is very important,” Koonin said. “We put a big emphasis on social media and digital marketing, and this was a very loud demonstration of what you could do if [everything goes according to plan].”
Today, Koonin takes much pride some of the visions that he and his staff have brought to life, led by the arena renovations that include Killer Mike’s barbershop, Topgolf and the Players Club, which yes, is a different club than the Courtside Club, the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Club or Atlanta Social. The CEO, who was on the road on Tuesday night in New Orleans, is also excited about the high-paced offensive basketball the fresh talents of Trae Young and John Collins bring to the games on the court.
“Our core values are about innovation, inclusiveness and authenticity,” Koonin said. “If you look at the building and you look from the way we play to the way you go about watching the game, I think it has all of those elements.”
The Dating Timeline
The first date night for McCleskey and Armstrong was so positive that the two students returned to another Hawks game during finals week, this time as a couple.
“We took a picture [at the game], and that’s when it blew up a little bit,” McCleskey said. “A couple of online articles were written.”
A few months later, McCleskey received a DM from former Hawks social media manager Jaryd Wilson, who then invited the couple back out to Swipe Right Night 2.0.
“We then met with Steve Koonin, and he offered that if we ever got married, then he’d pay for it,” McCleskey said. “We said, ‘oh, okay. He’s just being generous because that’s never going to happen.’”
Fast forward a couple of months later, and the couple became engaged.
“They called and asked ‘were you serious?’ And we said, ‘absolutely,’” Koonin said. “They worked with our team, they planned the wedding and they got married on center court on March 3, 2018. It was something that we were really proud of doing.”
“We’re very, very appreciative because we did not have the money to pay for a wedding at the time,” McCleskey said.
Getting married on an NBA court was a dream come true for McCleskey, a lifelong fan of the Hawks and LeBron James. For Armstrong, however, the idea took some convincing initially before the day came.
Large white drapes, accompanied by a number of flowers for decor served as the backdrop behind the Hawks’ Pacman logo that sits at center court. Tarp was placed on the court to provide a safe space for the various dress shoes and heels that would wander throughout the day. Photos with friends and family were taken near the area that will soon be known as the Home Depot backyard between State Farm Arena and Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The reception was conveniently across the floor at the courtside club, where Koonin gave a speech.
Tinder paid for the newlyweds’ honeymoon.
“They did such a phenomenal job,” McCleskey said. “You can tell that there was a top-notch professional organization running everything and how smooth it was. My wife ended up loving it as well. Although she wasn’t very sure at first, she wanted a traditional outdoor ceremony, or something along those lines. I was like, ‘Hey. If we can get married in Philips Arena, and everything’s paid for, what else could we want more in our life?’”
The McCleskey family recently gave birth to its second daughter, Teddi Grace. Joel, who the family calls “Jojo” is now two years old, while Teddi Grace is two and a half months old now.
“It’s been life changing,” McCleskey said of fatherhood. “It definitely hit me real quick. I was playing basketball in college, so I had to stop that. It goes from your life’s about you to your life’s 100 percent about another human being, which changed quick, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. It’s been a huge blessing.”
Ironically, McCleskey now works at the courtside club in which he celebrated his marriage. For years, McCleskey has applied to jobs on teamworks.org, and he finally landed one this season as an usher down on the floor level. In the application process, McCleskey asked Atlanta Hawks senior director of brand communications Janet Smith for a recommendation.
“I think that definitely helped,” McCleskey said.
Koonin said that he was unaware that McCleskey landed the job until he saw him earlier in the season.
“He greets me with a big smile, and I always high five him,” Koonin said.
Although two of his children, David and Amy, are getting married this year and they won’t tie the knot inside of State Farm Arena, Koonin said that he can see many different events being hosted in the renovated building.
“Our building should be a town hall for the city of Atlanta,” Koonin said. “It should have things that all kind of people, from family entertainment to music, comedy, obviously sports and on the social end. We’re really in the business of making memories. If you think about it, and it very much is at the top of my mind with two weddings this year, a wedding is all about memories. The theme stays true anyway that we look at it, whether we’re creating memories at the MUSE concert [on Tuesday night], or at McDonald’s All-American [on Wednesday night], playing in an NBA arena, or Ben and Avery getting married on the happiest day of their life, memories have been made in our building.”
In addition to being an usher at Hawks games, McCleskey is also an assistant varsity boys basketball coach at The King’s Academy in Woodstock. The young father who bought matching Joel Embiid jerseys for himself and Jojo said that he hopes to work full-time in basketball soon. The goals line up with the rest of McCleskey’s story because it was a basketball game that changed his life after all.
“It’s crazy,” McCleskey said. “I never would’ve thought about anything else besides coming to 10, 15 games a year watching basketball somehow led to a wife, two kids and now, a part-time job.”
Koonin, who’s anticipating a family memory surrounding the Hawks this Sunday when he takes his father to a game five decades after the duo attended the franchise’s first games in the city in 1968, echoed McCleskey’s level of surprise.
“It is literally very nice to have Ben’s family connected to the Hawks family,” Koonin said. “Something as crazy as ‘Swipe Right Night’ comes full circle with the dad working for the team, a wedding there, family, it just has all of the elements. I think we just made a Lifetime movie.”