I grew up in Atlanta a fan of the Hawks. My dad was a season ticket holder (he says he thinks he paid $200 total per seat in 1978), so as early as I can remember, and even before I can remember, I've been attending NBA games (I moved to Portland in '97; the Hawks trade of Steve Smith to the Blazers for J.R. Rider, the most egregious transaction of the disastrous Pete Babcock era, is what once and for all made me a Blazers fan first).
Except for a few years at the height of the 'Nique-led "Atlanta Air Force" of the mid-to-late '80s (a team that, like Cleveland of the same era, had lots of talent and Ws, yet wilted in the face of the Pistons, Celtics and Bulls in the playoffs), the Hawks have never been a big draw. My dad says that when I was 3 or 4 years old, I would run around the vast empty sections of the Omni (an underrated, now-demolished arena that looked like an egg crate on the outside but was cozy and charming on the inside, with a REAL organ player who scored the action on the court far better than today's canned music can), counting the numbers on each individual seat. Imagine a kid being able to do that at the Rose Garden.
Some games were so sparsely attended, my dad worried that then-Atlanta coach Hubie Brown's profanity-laced screaming could be heard by me and every other child in the Omni. He even wrote the Hawks a letter about this problem (he can't remember the reply, but clearly Hubie Brown wasn't going to be messed with).
The NBA was a very different league then -- much less glitzy, much more working-class oriented. Only the stars earned salaries that seemed out of the reach of the average fan. The Hawks of the late '70s, overachieving squads led by the likes of John Drew, Dan Roundfield, "Fast Eddie" Johnson, Tree Rollins, future Maryland Congressman Tom McMillen, Princeton grad Armond Hill, Spencer Hawes' uncle Steve Hawes, tiny sparkplug Charlie Criss and other anonymous role guys, had the lowest payroll in the NBA, around half a million dollars TOTAL. See what I mean by how different things were then?
Back then, teams flew commercial, just like the rest of the working stiffs. And this is the reason why a singularly strange event occurred on Feb. 21, 1979 (I looked up the date on Database Basketball), when the Portland Trail Blazers came to Atlanta. I was only 6 years old, but I remember it well.
For some reason I vividly remember my dad and I stopping at Sears on the way to the game to look at the selection of riding lawnmowers, a luxury item my dad contemplated acquiring on several occasions but never actually did. When we got to the Omni, it was shortly before tip-off time, but the Blazers were not on the court. Finally, they came out, but they were not wearing their own warmup suits. In fact, they weren't wearing any warmups. Instead, they were decked out in Atlanta Hawks practice gear. Turns out that some of the Blazers' luggage didn't make it to Atlanta with the rest of the team, including the team's uniforms. They waited a while, hoping the unis would show up, but finally they were compelled to put on their opponents' ratty practice clothes and go out to play a real NBA game.
Needless to say, it was a strange sight to watch the Atlanta Hawks play an opponent wearing uniforms that had "Atlanta Hawks" printed on them. It had to have been somewhat discomfiting -- I'm sure some of the players' unis didn't fit exactly right, and who knows if they were wearing their own shoes -- and perhaps contributed to the Hawks' jumping out to a huge first-half lead.
By halftime the Blazers' uniforms had arrived at the arena; the team changed clothes and came out to play the second half, but by then it was too late. Atlanta romped to a 106-83 victory; Tree Rollins set a franchise record for blocked shots, 11, that stood until Dikembe Mutombo tied or broke it nearly 20 years later.
Watching the Blazers' "power play" hoop against the Celtics the other night, I wondered if that was the weirdest thing I'd ever seen while attending an NBA game. Maybe, but I think the no-unis game is still the strangest. It would NEVER happen today. And it was my first Blazers game to boot!
Have a Happy New Year, everybody.