[Ed note: All of you die-hard “Mike Across America” fans will notice that we skipped from Pit Stop 5 to Pit Stop 10. This is due to the fact that Mike last night witnessed a second amazing NBA upset since the beginning of his voyage, and we wanted to share it with you as soon as possible. Please enjoy, and check back as we spend the next few days filling in the blanks.]
The headline on the front page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution today read: “Hawks Need a Win—With Fans.” The article is about the lack of support the team might have found earlier tonight, for its first home playoff game in nearly a decade, against a Celtics team that’s been absolutely killing them. Inside, the cheery subheadline reads: “Expectations are not high,” and has a quote from a season ticket holder saying, “A close game would make us feel like we deserved to be there,” understandable since the Hawks squeaked in with under 40 wins. That defeatist attitude is mainly why I persuaded my wife to let me spend our food budget on a playoff NBA ticket, that and a desire to see the Celtics run rampant. Things went differently.
I decided to throw myself wholeheartedly into the grandest and oldest of American pastimes: rooting for the underdog. So we got psyched, we got to the Arena early and mingled with the fans, we booed Celtics fans and yes, I bought a foam finger. We were ready to go and root along with the very-much-not sold out crowd in a losing effort. But things went a little differently.
From the beginning, I was stunned by how into it the crowd was, un-sold out and all. The chants were loud, the boos were louder, and the Philips Arena/Hawks staff put together a few amazing montages to get the crowd juiced, pre-game. The first included highlights from the Giants beating the Pats, Appalachian State beating Michigan, and yes, the Miracle on Ice. The overlaid text asked such questions as, “Where would you be without the miracle shot?” and “Who defines impossible?” The videos and the announcer made it clear that the team and the city have fully embraced their status as feisty underdog, passionate but ultimately probably content to lose. Fortunately for them, things happened differently than that.
The game itself was unbelievable. Josh Smith deserves some kind of medal, if not for the five dunks, for lighting his city’s hope and dreams up on SportsCenter. He did some jawing over the last week, and he backed it up impressively Saturday night. The energy in the Arena as the game crept on and on is indescribable. I’ve been at upset victories and playoff games before, but this was something different, the kind of high-fiving-strangers-accidentally-flinging-your-hot-dog-over-the-balcony energy that only comes from watching a true underdog succeed. Afterward, Josh Childress was interviewed on the big screen and gave a heartfelt thanks to the fans for helping bring the victory about, while Josh Smith ran the baseline, slapping palms with every fan lucky enough to sit courtside.
After the interview, the camera lingered on one of several signs, reading “SHOCK THE WORLD.” We all trickled out, shouts of “Let’s! Go! Hawks!” echoing off the halls of the arena, and poured out into Atlanta, where I swear to God the entire city had taken up the chant. Inside the subway, packed with sweaty, happy fans, the chant started again spontaneously. Later, a dish washer got on, looked at everyone nervously and asked, “Did they win?” When everyone shouted, “Yeah!” he broke into a wide smile. Then he lost it, and asked, quietly, “Did they really?” Yep, they really, really did.
The victory was all the sweeter, for me and for Atlanta, because of how obnoxious Celtics fans are. I guess it’s really all Bandwagon Beantown fans, the sorest losers and most fickle bandwagoners in the nation. To best the Celtics at home, on the day the Falcons drafted Matt Ryan to officially end the Mike Vick era and start the Dear God Anyone Else era, with ATL rap royalty T.I. and Young Jeezy in attendance and happily mugging for the cameras… well, I don’t think Atlanta would have had it any other way. One more note on Boston fans: on that subway, my wife and I watched two mid-thirties Celtics fans seriously consider jumping three Hawks fans (all in high school) after they got off, because they thought they were celebrating too raucously. Gimme a break, guys; like you didn’t spill your beer all over yourself ordering your Sox jerseys after they won the World Series.
It’s unlikely that the Hawks will win this series, of course. Ridiculously, horrendously, ludicrously unlikely. Just like the chances of them winning on Saturday night, when the true Hawks faithful were rewarded for their stalwart support, and I just happened to be in town to watch. The article I mentioned earlier encourages fans to jump on board the Hawks’ bandwagon. “And bring a friend,” it says. “There’s plenty of room.” I’d guess that after Saturday night, things are a little different.
Free news isn’t cheap.
We believe that everyone should have access to important local news, for free.
However, it costs money to keep a local news organization like this one—independently owned and operated here in Long Beach, without the backing of any national corporation—alive.
If independent local news is important to you, please consider supporting us with a monthly or one-time contribution. Read more.