If following sports was a drug, then being an Atlanta Hawks fan for the past twenty years would be an after-school special on the dangers of addiction.
Granted, supporting the Hawks hasn't led to my financial ruin or career suicide, has yet to result in an emergency intervention from family and friends, and has never caused me to break into an impromptu and altered rendition of "I'm So Excited." But the storyline is surprisingly similar: an innocent and exciting introduction of seeming invincibility, the inevitable dramatic turning point that spells the beginning of the end, and finally a disastrous downward spiral that doesn't stop until rock bottom.
Before you proceed, I should warn you that this tale is not for the faint of heart. But the story must be told, and I shall be its messenger ...
You may not believe this, but the Hawks weren't always characterized by an NBDL roster, overwhelmed coach, and tiny crowds that resemble an episode of "Hang Time." My formative basketball-viewing years took place in the late 1980's, back when the NBA was bursting at the seams with superstars and Mike Fratello still rocked the man-perm. I watched Fratello's Hawks nearly topple Larry Bird's Celtics in '88, taking them to seven games on the back of Dominique Wilkins (who heroically matched Bird shot for shot in the most captivating fourth quarter shootout of my lifetime). I watched them battle valiantly against the Pistons right as they were transforming into the two-time champion Bad Boys. I watched 'Nique push Michael Jordan to the limit in the Slam Dunk Contest, to the point that they had to fix the outcome in '87. Hell, I watched Spud Webb do a three-sixty. Maybe the Hawks weren't a championship organization, but they were a formidable player during the most competitive era in league history and were always entertaining.
So when MJ first retired to pursue a baseball career and the Eastern Conference was finally up for grabs, you can imagine my excitement watching the '93-94 Hawks roll through the regular season with the best record in the East. With a healthy 'Nique at the tail-end of his prime, a lockdown defensive backcourt of Mookie Blaylock and Stacey Augmon, Kevin Willis in just his early fifties, and coach Lenny Wilkens before he went on auto-pilot, the Hawks seemed primed to make a title run. Like any true fan, I dove in head first and waved goodbye to sanity.
Then the unthinkable happened ...
February 4th, 1994 was a momentous day in history: Merlene Ottey set the women's fifty meter indoor world record, "Days of Our Lives" cleaned house at the 10th Annual Soap Opera Digest Awards, Dutch painter Han Jansen died at 62, and&.oh that's right, the Hawks committed franchise suicide for no reason whatsoever.
Yup, on February 4th, 1994, He Who Shall Not Be Named traded 'Nique, the most important player in franchise history, to the lowly Clippers in return for Danny Manning and some knee braces. Since a future hall-of-famer for an overrated collegiate wonder wasn't quite one-sided enough, the Hawks also threw in the following year's first round pick after apparently falling for the classic "yes/no, yes/no ... no/yes, AHA! DEAL!" negotiating trick. Not only that, but they were duped by Elgin Baylor, leading to the rarely seen "insult to insult to injury." Sure enough, the revamped Hawks squeaked past the first round and went out with a whimper in the second, as Manning (a free agent to be) left skidmarks leaving Atlanta after the final game. Eventually the Knicks lost to the Rockets in the most boring Finals ever, and I ended up spending an entire summer reenacting the pool scene from "The Graduate."