Like a Pancake That Lands on the Ceiling

With some words on the Hawks, their city, and their parallel progress, here's Avery Lemacorn. He's been here before, and also writes the music and lit blog DeckFight.

“The uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar”—Freud

Uncanny yes that the Hawks were facing another Game 7 for the second year in a row in the first round of the playoffs. Uncanny yes that they had never won a game seven and that a group of pretty much the same players were in the same predicament. Uncanny yes that Atlanta’s game 7 blunders have haunted them.

For these Hawks, this was a long road back, but one done with quiet fortitude with little fanfare from the masses or the mass media. This is a team dizzied by its own potential, a team that says Joe Johnson should be in the conversation about the top of the league, a team that says Josh Smith should not be so mercurial, a team that says Al Horford is too small to be a starting center. A team doubted because of its conference, a team overshadowed by another Atlantan in another city, even.

The fact is that Atlanta is a haunted city. Not by ghosts, not by voodoo, not by old gangsters, founding fathers, or star-struck starlets. It is haunted by the dismantling of its own success. Sherman burned Atlanta down as a symbol against the excesses of Southern pride. The former penal colony turned Confederate powerhouse turned powder. And approximately 100 years later when the city thought they had all this figured out, that they and the world had an uneasy comfort with “their” view on things, a man with famous initials moved to town to launch a national movement bringing unrecognized sins to light. Struck down again.

Not to say that those changes in the city were not for the better, but granted, there were wounded egos. Hence, the flight out. Yes, that pale-colored flight.

In a way that no court could ever order, Atlanta began to change. In 1965, the Falcons came. In 1966, the Braves moved to Atlanta. Then the Hawks. In '73, the first black mayor of the city was elected then Hank Aaron had his historic run. But not many were there to see the Hawks get ever so close. Slowly, sports began to make the majority comfortable in the skin of the city again. The Braves won first in 1991, then big in 1995 drawing those on the outside back into the city core. The Falcons made their own run with the Dirty Bird to the Super Bowl in 1998. Atlanta elected its first African-American female mayor in 2001, the same year that the great uniter for the most beloved sport in all of Georgia would come: Michael Vick. Vick would electrify crowds of any color, of any persuasion. Staid ol’ UGA never played ball this way, not since Herschel, the Walker on air. But now this was happening in Atlanta, the ATL, to all and for all.

But Vick only brought them so far before his own uncanny downfall. Now it's time for the Hawks. City streets and landscapes are changing. New downtown condos, new “refabbed” neighborhoods are guaranteed to make white people comfortable. Here comes IKEA. From 2007-2008, for the first time in forty years the city proper took in more residents than it lost. No matter what happened to Vick, the momentum has swung. The city has changed.

Atlanta was ready for this, ready to win a Game 7. Ready to show how everything has changed. With their past, Atlanta was simultaneously ahead and behind the nation in racial politics. The success of the Hawks is directly related to this moment in time, a Southern city being comfortable on a large scale with its president of color, its own nuances of color, its music, its game. A place where the Cartoon Network and crunk can reside side by side.

Think all of this is too much? The players don’t think so.
From Mark Bradley at the Atlanta Journal Constitution:
“It feels good,” said Josh Smith, the Atlantan who scored 21 points and took nine rebounds in Game 7. “It feels like the monkey’s off Atlanta’s back, not just this team’s.”
Said Al Horford, who worked 32 1/2 minutes on a sprained right ankle: “It’s big. People are really starting to look at Atlanta and consider us a basketball city.
Despite all of the missteps in years past by the Hawks' management, Joe Johnson and the Hawks are still playing while the Suns, the Jazz, the Hornets and the Blazers are at home.. Their moment is easily calculable--going past this point will be truly unexpected. They made it to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro only to discover that Mt. Everest exists. But no one expects them to climb Everest, only to show that they can climb at all.

But there can be dreams of what may have been. Maybe it's the constant "lack" of the point guard that has plagued this team. Pete Maravich and Dominique then Steve Smith and Jason Terry and Joe Johnson—all more reliable wing scorers than anything else. Though I appreciate the Hornets, I firmly believe that Chris Paul was supposed to be in Atlanta, with Josh Smith the perfect receiver for anything and everything Chris Paul could launch. Instead, everything we are seeing is something played out in an alternate universe, and the rest of us are the Oceanic 6 trying to figure out just how this time travel thing works to somehow correct it. And as New Orleans threatens to dismantle, isn’t there a way to spin the wheel in the proper direction to make these annoying flashes of frustration stop?

Mike Bibby and David West are the same. Both are serviceable like Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate": not what you would openly wish for, but exactly what you need. But who are we kidding? Paul "needs" a Josh Smith, like the Hawks "need" a Chris Paul for fulfillment. Though both are satisfied, neither are exactly ecstatic. This will always be the Achilles Heel for both.

In a lot of ways, the Hawks are a parody and lesser version of the Cavs. The point guards complete, but there is still an over-reliance on the wings for stability. LeBron by himself is essentially the ultimate culmination of Josh Smith/Joe Johnson. Cunning with his ballhandling and creative with his shot, LeBron is Joe Johnson while also being explosive, dynamic, competitive, expressive in style and action like Josh Smith. This series then is the battle of the two-headed monster of the Hawks against the monstrous leviathan of the Cavs with Bibby and Mo feeding and reeling the beasts.

Is the transformation of the city of Atlanta or the Hawks to champions fully complete? No, not yet. Not by any means. But maybe they have escaped that which has always been old and long familiar.

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At 5/05/2009 11:19 AM, Blogger Joey said...

I am going another way on this, mostly due to ignorance and arm's-length judgment. To a New Yorker (and now a St. Louisan), Atlanta has always been nondescript in its ascendancy. It's important, but I don't really understand its character. From pictures, its downtown has looked a little like Dallas's, one built to be best observed while doing 50 on a highway either coming or going. These Hawks remind me of Atlanta in that regard: they are ascendant, but they seem locked in a struggle for identity. Maybe a different PG would force one upon them, but as constituted, they are this shapeless mass of excitement which, oddly, leaves me wanting more precisely because they collectively seem to have no true character, good or bad.

At 5/05/2009 11:44 AM, Blogger Alexander J said...

I paid a visit to Atlanta back in March of 2008. My guide was from a suburb just outside the city limits, and kept our tour only on the north side; stops in 5 Points and Decatur were certainly interesting as was the number of people out in the park with their dogs and their plastic beer cups. I feel like the relationship between the hawks' management and players is kind of like the dynamic the norther part of the city has with the still not as gentrified south side.
Both (the city and the team) have that southern-fried souther pride approach; Defacto team leader, Joe Johnson (Bibby looks too much like Kirby to be taken seriously by this fan) being, like Clinton, a prideful Hog (H1N1 reference negated).

Big Boi put on a performance with the Atlanta ballet company, they're doing their thing down there.

I think we all thought long and hard about the strange war of attrition that was to be the playoffs of 2009; TNT used to always play out that movie Andersonville, I don't think there's a connection here, but it's 5:43 local time in Spain and it's almost too bright to see what I'm typing.

At 5/05/2009 1:07 PM, Blogger Ryne Nelson said...

The longest I've been in the ATL were a couple hours in the airport on a connecting flight. I'll take Alexander's word and analogy. But, overall, I like how the parallels can be drawn between the team and the city.

At 5/05/2009 1:48 PM, Blogger VictorVonRimp said...

I've spent a few weekends in Atlanta, and what struck me most about the city was the actual evidence of southern hospitality, something which I thought was cliche' coming from the midwest, and now CA. I really enjoyed that aspect of the city. I love this Hawks team, especially in videogames, where you can beat just about anyone with them between Joe's propensity to hit 3s from anywhere, and the inexplicable ability to dunk on fools between your legs with Josh Smith, IN TRAFFIC.

But in real life, they're about to get sweeped. Sorry.

Yes, sweeped, not swept, like hanged, not hung.

At 5/05/2009 1:58 PM, Blogger MC Welk said...

If the Hawks were in the West they'd be the #9 seed. And Woodson gets chewed out by Mike Bibby? \sorry

Nice ATL wv, though: poondged

At 5/05/2009 2:55 PM, Blogger Harish said...

I agree with Joey's comment. The question remains: what IS Atlanta (team and city)? Part of what rendered their first round series unwatchable was their unpredictable nature- blowing the Heat out one game, losing by 20 the next. What's sad is that their quest for identity, unlike other young teams recently (Blazers and Thunder, for example), seems unintelligible to a casual observer. What distinguishes their play from one night to next; who are they waiting for to break through?

Until they can establish a concrete image of who they are, they will always be on the fringes of our attention- knocking on the door, but never entering.

At 5/05/2009 6:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the identity that they're trying to build, beckons and image of a youngster trying to build his/her identity and grow without a guidance figure. If you look at the management and ownership of the Hawks over the past several year's, they've really given no guidance as to the mould and image that they want to build this team towards. The roster make-up even reflects as such, what with most of the key players on this team being able to play multiple positions (Johnson, Williams, Smith, Horford). And in the process, the team as a whole seems to lash out at times, and experiment at times, much like the part of a growing process of a young person. For example, Josh Smith's through-the-legs dunk mid-game (lashing out), and his propensity to dabble in long-range shots (experimenting), seems to fit the image that's in my head...

Now I don't exactly know what it is they're trying to build towards (they seem to lack a cohesive image, especially when they go half-court, but it seems to trend towards a fast-break team that pushes the tempo, but of a different branch than D'Antoni's SSOL), but they don't seem too far off from it, judging from their 3rd-place seeding and their improvement from last year's playoff run.

At 5/05/2009 6:12 PM, Blogger Harish said...

One of my questions as an infrequent viewer of Hawks games is- HAVE they actually improved from last season, or is this second round appearance more a function of their abysmal playoff opponent than anything else?

At 5/05/2009 7:16 PM, Blogger salt_bagel said...

So what I'm feeling from this is a city and a team with no underpinnings. Japan after the bombs, a meadow after the trees burn down, babies on an island who invent a new language.

So they will be in a position where they may be able to draft Steph Curry. He is no doubt Of The South, but his game and his pedigree link back to something tangible. We pull our energy from cultures that came before. This Hawks team has gotten this far generating their own from scratch, which is admirable, but doesn't work forever.

The Hawks should read Watership Down.

wv: rotted.

At 5/05/2009 7:34 PM, Blogger nolan said...

On the city: I grew up outside of Atlanta and, having spent the last three years in Southern CA, can wholeheartedly endorse the truth that Southern hospitality is not a cliche. Return visits to Atlanta reinforce the vast differences in social culture between these coasts. Does the city need an identity, like New York or Los Angeles? I think it is better off as an eclectic mixture of individual themes: crunk, Cartoon Network, IKEA, Greenbriar Mall, Little 5, East Point, etc. The city could be viewed as a vast array of overlapping "niche" neighborhoods.

On the team: The parallels between the Hawks and the city seem more apt when viewing the city as a bunch of individually functioning parts, not an interconnected machine (the lack of widespread public transportation in Atlanta vs. the subways of D.C. or NYC). But is that an effective way to develop a successful NBA team? A more defined set of roles for the players could lead to more half court sets (which proved effective against Miami), rather than relying on the natural athleticism and improvisation skills of younger players like Smith and Horford. Joe Johnson would have a better sense of what he's supposed to be doing as well. The Hawks can be a lot of fun to watch, but when they encounter turbulence in games the individual pieces fall apart quickly. A more defined team could withstand these pressures better, I feel.

Finally, Flip Murray looks like he's been to prison. I bet he's always carrying two packs of smokes to trade. Dominique Wilkins, who does the color commentary in Atlanta, once said of Flip "He could make coffee tremble". What? Cavs in 4, although I'm a Hawks fan.

At 5/06/2009 12:07 AM, Blogger Toasterhands said...


The Heat had a starting lineup "featuring" James Jones and Joel Anthony with a very inconsistent pg. The Hawks just got lucky the Heat were the 5th seed and not Philly.

At 5/06/2009 1:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Watch Natsha Naked!

At 5/06/2009 5:24 AM, Blogger Andrew said...

If Joe Johnson were in a tweener forward's body, wouldn't he be Boris Diaw? This just keeps making bizarre sense to me.

Anyone else find it curious that in this New Age of the Point Guard, the offenses of three of the best eight teams in the NBA are predicated on the freakish and totally unexpected distributing abilities of tweener players? Atlanta runs its offense through Johnson, who is as much PG as he is SF. Orlando's offense depends on a six-ten Turkish dude whose signature moves are dribble-drive layups, turnaround jumpers, alley-oop passes, and high-percentage threes. LeBron is all paradox: how is the game's best scorer the best distributor left in the playoffs?

LA doesn't have a dominant point guard either, but Kobe's distributing ability seems more easily labeled "pained" than "freakish and unexpected." And though Houston doesn't have its PG controlling the game, I have problems classifying exactly what the Rockets do on offense. It's like 40% someone pass to Yao, 30% Artest pulling up wildly off the dribble, 20% Aaron Brooks dribbling past D-Fish like he's standing still, and 10% Shane Battier or Luis Scola doing something that Mike Breen thinks is smart.

This round's Eastern Conference matchups are intriguing in light of these clashing styles. Orlando-Boston sees the Magic challenging the conventional notion that a dominant point guard wins in the playoffs. Atlanta-Cleveland is a clash between two teams that have already rejected that notion. The Cavs and Hawks have point guards whose primary goal is to space the floor in deference to the unconventional distributing abilities of LeBron and Johnson.

At 5/06/2009 3:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

yeah, the new "combo guard" is not pg/sg or even sg/sf but pg/sf in a new version of the point forward. Doesn't that hark back to the conversation on here once about Lebron playing PG if he went to the knicks? makes total sense.

At 5/07/2009 9:07 AM, Blogger Justin said...

Vick would electrify crowds of any color, of any persuasion.The thrill I got upon racing to the comments section and finding nobody had noticed this left me feeling really, really bad about myself.

At 5/07/2009 9:20 AM, Blogger pkim said...

Wow what a brilliant post!

I'm an editor at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity - hit up Shoals about writing for our blog on race and ethnicity. Would LOVE to have you write something - if interested let me know!


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