It is ‘Underdog Week’ across SB Nation and, with that in mind, writers from the Peachtree Hoops staff weigh in with their favorite underdogs from Atlanta Hawks history.
Zach Hood: I’ll take Zaza Pachulia. A second-round pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, Pachulia was an enforcer for the Hawks when they needed it. With peak Dwight Howard in the division, it was important to have a physical center who would not back down. Plus, I don’t think anyone old enough to remember will ever forget when he bowed up on Kevin Garnettt in the playoffs. Often called a dirty player by his peers, Pachulia definitely flirted with the line between tough and down right mean throughout his career.
Rashad Milligan: Give me the man who the Philippine Basketball Association banned — Ivan Johnson. Dude was a baller who said he didn’t fear any competition because he didn’t “really watch basketball.” Within 125 games in two seasons, he called Kevin Garnett a dirty player, broke the backboard during a practice at Butler University and gave Chris Bosh a run for his money on national television. After asking him about his permanent grill, Ivan Johnson told Jameelah Johnson he’d “probably be a truck driver or something” if he weren’t a professional athlete. Ivan Johnson - the people’s champion.
Graham Chapple: Mike Muscala is my choice. Muscala was someone I don’t think many expected to “make it,” but he was always someone people rooted for, and a lot of that has to do with the fact he went to Bucknell and played in the Patriot League — the small time, so to speak. Whenever Muscala checked into a game in the early stages of his career, he was even met with enthusiasm from opposing commentators. “The Bucknell Bison!” People were excited when it came to Muscala just for that.
He wasn’t much more than a ‘end of the bench’ guy in his first few years with the Hawks, but he was a fan favorite for whenever he did check in. The Mooose! He had a big moment during the Hawks’ legendary 14-15 season, and in the playoffs no less, when Muscala hit the game-tying three-pointer with 14 seconds remaining in Game 3 against the Washington Wizards in the second round. He was still that big behind Mike Scott in the rotation, but finally started to see more game-time in the 15-16 season in the form of more games played, a career-high 60. I was always, personally, a fan but I would imagine many wouldn’t have expected Muscala to become an actual NBA player, but that’s what happened in the 2016-17 season as he hit 41% from three and played 17 minutes a game in 70 games. And then came another legit season from Muscala with the Hawks in 17-18. He’s since been traded from the Hawks and has been with a few other NBA teams now, but I don’t think anyone expected Mike Muscala to have carved out a 7-year (and counting) career in the NBA. Come home, Moose.
Sam Meredith: Paul Millsap isn’t the first guy that comes to mind for most people in an “underdog” role, simply because he is enjoying a (very) successful career. However, when Millsap was in Atlanta, he was at his very best and was still rarely referenced as being one of the best players in the NBA for that stretch. In fact, the only four All-Star appearances of his career to date were during his four seasons as a Hawk. As a result, he went from making $9.5M per season in his first season with the Hawks to eventually signing a contract with the Nuggets that paid him $30 million annually to leave Atlanta. During his time with the Hawks, the franchise won an average of 47 games per season and even made it to the Eastern Conference Finals once. Millsap’s departure from the Hawks also marked the end of their ten-year playoff run and, even before his NBA career started, Millsap was an underdog as a second round pick (No. 47 overall) out of Louisiana Tech.
Glen Willis: Spud Webb is the obvious guy for me. He is basically the same height as I am and won a slam dunk contest! With that said, he deserves to be remembered for so much more than that. He was only drafted (by Detroit) because the NBA Draft had more than two rounds at that point, but no one imagined more than 8,000 points, 4,000 assists and 400 games started for Webb. From the perspective of what he did for the Hawks franchise, he was a key rotation player on some of the best teams of the Dominique Wilkins era. He was the ultimate fan favorite.
Andrew Kelly: Pero Antic. He is one of my favorite Hawks ever, honestly, as weird as that sounds. Antic was already a veteran when he entered the league. I enjoyed his screening, his interior defense, and his sneakily elite inbounding. From his one-legged jumper game winner to his face-off with David West, Pero left a mark. I’ll always be a fan.
Daniel Comer: In an effort to not repeat some of my other favorite underdogs (Ivan Johnson, Pero Antić) on this list, I’ll go with current Hawks guard Brandon Goodwin, who went undrafted out of Florida Gulf Coast University in 2018 and spent time with the Grizzlies’ and Nuggets’ organizations before making his way back home to Georgia this season. A proficient scorer in the G League, the former Norcross High School standout began seeing increased playing time with the Hawks in late December and rewarded his team with a 21-point effort in a win against the Magic on Dec. 30.
Although a mid-January deal for Jeff Teague limited Goodwin’s minutes later in the season, he proved a valuable enough spark plug to earn a two-year NBA contract with the team in February. If the Hawks guarantee his 2020-2021 contract later this summer, Goodwin figures to be next on a list of fan-favorite role players that have suited up in front of the Highlight Factory faithful.
Josh Lane: Give me Mario West. Mario “F-150” West is the single greatest underdog that I personally have had the pleasure to watch in an Atlanta Hawks uniform. For those that do not remember Mario West, he was an undrafted guard from Georgia Tech that was specifically known for his defensive versatility and hustle. Apparently, Mario passed up the chance to play with the Globetrotters just so he could try out for the Hawks. Former Hawks head coach Mike Woodson mentioned at the time that he has never seen anyone play as hard as Mario West. The legend spent three seasons in Atlanta where, to this day, I believe those were the most defensively intense 4.4 minutes per game that you will ever see.
Bob: I took the “underdog” definition a little more literal and thought of it more as an under(-performing) dog. Now, there have been three players with nicknames involving dogs to play for the Atlanta Hawks: the Big Dog shared by Antoine Carr (1984-90) and Glenn Robinson (2002-03), as well as the Junkyard Dog for DeMarre Carroll (2013-15). DeMarre was an under-the-radar free agent signing in 2013 for an approximately $5 million contract over two seasons — his next contract was for $60 million over 4 seasons so it’s safe to say he overperformed in Atlanta. Antoine Carr was originally drafted by Detroit in 1983 but couldn’t agree to a contract with the Pistons, played overseas for a season, and then was traded with Cliff Levingston to Atlanta for Dan Roundfield. The original Big Dog played in Atlanta for 6 seasons backing up Kevin Willis, Tree Rollins, and Moses Malone in what was mostly a median performance for a mid-first round pick.
But Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson was a first round pick who caused the NBA’s Rookie Scale Contract in 1995. He played eight seasons for the Milwaukee Bucks with two All-Star appearances before being traded to Atlanta in 2002 for Toni Kukoc, Leon Smith, and a 2003 first round draft pick. He was the impetus for the infamous Playoff Guarantee of the 2002-03 season when he (30) was added to a team sporting a young core of Jason Terry (25), Shareef Abdur-Rahim (26), Theo Ratliff (29), Dion Glover (24), and DerMarr Johnson (22). The team looked great on paper and started out well with the Big Dog winning the Eastern Conference’s first player of the week that season on their way to a 3-1 start. They would make it to 10-10 at which point they took a heavy nose-dive below .500, replaced their head coach Lon Kruger with some guy named Terry Stotts, and finished the season 35-47 while silently paying out their $125 vouchers for failing to guarantee a playoff appearance. While the Big Dog still averaged 20 points per game and 6 rebounds a game much like his career averages, he did it with his lowest field goal percentage of his career. On-court chemistry was a problem all year long as the team finished 29th in turnover rate and were in the bottom third for both offensive and defensive efficiency. The team ended with the 12th highest payroll and actually paid the luxury tax that season and brought in Billy Knight with the edict of rebuilding the team. One of Knight’s first moves was to trade the Big Dog away for an injured Terrell Brandon’s contract (to collect insurance payments) and a first round pick that converted into cash considerations. The Big Dog would play half a season for Philadelphia and then play a small bench role on the 2005 NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs team.
Brad Rowland: I’m going with Eldridge Recasner. I often reference Recasner in a light-hearted manner but, in truth, he is one of my favorite Hawks ever and a perfect fit for this list. After playing his college basketball at Washington, Recasner went undrafted in 1990 and played overseas until March 1995. He only spent two seasons — 1996-97 and 1997-98 — in Atlanta, but Recasner was a big-time underdog that worked his way into a nice NBA career. He was (obviously) never a star, but Recasner was a legitimate NBA role player for four seasons (including 20.5 minutes per game for the Hawks) and, maybe in part due to my own age, he’s the first player I think of when prompted on an underdog for this franchise.