— The modern-day Atlanta Hawks fan has a stash of foul memories big enough to fill The Omni.
Ill-fated trades, laughable draft picks and bafflingly incompetent personnel moves spawned an era of basketball misery that has been a constant through the early part of this young millennium.
But now, in November 2008 — six months removed from an inspired playoff performance and a few weeks into a torrid 6-1 start — an unfamiliar sense of optimism permeates the air.
Considering what has come before, this is decidedly uncharted territory for today’s Hawks fan. In the mid-90s, you had to watch helplessly as your team dealt its legendary-but-aging franchise cornerstone — a man so exciting his nickname had the word "highlight" in it — for the younger but significantly less electric Danny Manning, who left the Hawks as a free agent after 26 games.
In the late 90s, on the tail end of seven straight playoff runs, you had to watch as the franchise traded a class act with balky knees (Steve Smith) for a player with fresher legs, but a rapidly diversifying rap sheet in Isaiah Rider (who came to the Hawks, along with Jim Jackson, in exchange for Smith and Ed Gray). The deal immediately ushered in a 28-54 record in the 1999-2000 season, which was the start of an eight-year playoff drought. Rider was gone the following season, but in his aftermath, the franchise became synonymous with dysfunction and general basketball-related discomfort. (Karma 1, Hawks 0)
The Hawks fan also remembers lower-profile, but equally haunting moments, such as when Atlanta tabbed a 7-foot-4 behemoth named Priest Lauderdale in the first round of the 1996 NBA draft. It resonates with gruesome clarity how this enormous, off-kilter man shot a basketball and somehow very nearly made it rotate sideways. (For frame of reference, planets are supposed to rotate on an axis; jump shots are not.)
In addition to Lauderdale, a Hawks enthusiast’s brain is littered with faint but troubling images of such forgotten names — and dubious talents — as Cal Bowdler, Pig Miller and Hanno Mottola.
Just over three years ago, you saw the Hawks pass on Chris Paul and Deron Williams with the No. 2 overall pick in the '05 draft, but in this rare instance some observers had faith in the talent and upside of the team's selection (Marvin Williams), only to see Paul and Williams become the future (and present) of point-guard play in the NBA.
One year later, you, the Hawks loyalist, threw an autographed Dikembe Mutombo sneaker through an antique Ming vase when the Hawks inexplicably selected ultra-bland power forward Shelden Williams over ready-made team centerpiece Brandon Roy. (This one still angers you to the point that if there were still a Ming vase or any other piece of fine pottery in your vicinity right now, its future inhabitance on this earth would most certainly be in jeopardy.)
You last witnessed an above-.500 campaign at a time when Grant Long, Tyrone Corbin and LaPhonso Ellis roamed the earth. Which is to say that much like a purveyor of bad sandwiches, you know something rotten when you see it. But this, according to your well-trained eye, is not rotten. What you are seeing right now is in fact the polar opposite.
There were hints of something big last spring, when the eighth-seeded Hawks (sneaking into the playoffs with a 37-45 record) pushed the No. 1 seed Celtics to seven games in the first round. The energy generated by that series was immense, but after a cruel 99-65 loss in Game 7 and some typical moments of incompetence in the offseason (losing sixth man Josh Childress to Greece — yes, Greece — and dragging out negotiations with restricted free agent forward Josh Smith for far too long), optimism for this year was tempered by a feeling that these might still be the same old Hawks.
But now, you see perhaps the most unheralded superstar in the league (Joe Johnson) playing at an MVP level (24.4 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.9 assists a game in the Hawks' first seven games).
You have seen pure defensive wizardry from the aforementioned Josh Smith, who, before an ankle sprain this month, averaged a ferocious 3.0 steals and 3.3 blocks in his three healthy games.
You've seen the team's already reliable and exceedingly promising second-year center, Al Horford, forecasting a glimpse of his future with a 27-point, 17-rebound, six-block masterpiece against Chicago.
You have seen Marvin Williams, the man selected before Paul and Deron Williams, finally adding a new wrinkle to his game: the 3-point shot. Williams has yet to make anyone forget his draft position, but his newfound outside marksmanship (8-of-11 through seven games) will be a big factor going forward.
And finally, to your enduring disbelief, you have actually seen a snafu work in the Hawks' favor. After the debacle of losing Childress, the front office replaced him with journeymen guards Maurice Evans and Ronald "Flip" Murray. Though it didn’t resonate loudly at the time, in hindsight, it was a stroke of genius (even if accidentally). Because for all of his strengths — hustle, defense, ball-handling, random tip-ins — Childress’ jump shot was less pure than a can of prunes left open for three days on a kitchen counter in mid-July.
Evans, conversely, is a deadeye on corner threes, and Murray’s well-known one-on-one ability has been a huge boost to the creativity-starved Hawks offense. The upshot is that Johnson, the team’s focal point, now has multiple solutions to the many varieties of double teams he sees on a nightly basis.
With all of these pieces working in conjunction — and with the team's often-criticized coach, Mike Woodson, still preaching inspired defense while diagramming broken plays — you saw the team win its first six games, defeating the likes of Orlando, Philadelphia, Toronto and New Orleans. Then so fittingly, you saw the 6-0 Hawks go to Boston, the place where that sublime near-upset ended in carnage last May.
But there, playing on the second night of a back-to-back against the reigning NBA champions — and without injured game-changing power forward Josh Smith — the Hawks did more than simply stay in the game. They went on the assault. At one point in the second quarter, the Hawks led by as many as 16, showing no signs of being intimidated in an arena that haunted them last spring (all four of Atlanta's playoff losses came on the Celtics’ home floor).
Ultimately they lost by one on a late, brilliant, desperation fall-away from Boston's Paul Pierce. And though the Celtics may not have heard it in the midst of their victory celebration, the Hawks sent a clear, resounding message:
We are not those Hawks.
The rest of the league will be receiving that communication soon enough.