Posted: Monday November 20, 2006 4:45PM; Updated: Monday November 20, 2006 5:03PM
As a rookie, Johnson was traded by Boston to Phoenix for Tony Delk and Rodney Rogers, a move that Johnson still doesn't understand. When the Hawks came calling last summer with a huge contract, he felt he had no choice but to accept the security offered by the deal, to cast his lot with the Hawks and press for a playoff berth.
"I was just coming into this situation trying to make a difference," Joe told me this summer while I was talking to him for a feature in SLAM. "I knew it wasn't going to happen in a year, wasn't going to happen overnight. But I definitely think it's going to happen."
One of the more interesting facets of the Hawks' recent rebuilding has been the dissolution of Atlanta Spirit, the team's ownership group. They came in with a flourish, announcing their intention to build a winner in Atlanta. A year later, they were arguing with other and they've been in court ever since, trying to figure out a way for the team to exist without either side losing face or large sums of cash. In the meantime, the Hawks have more or less functioned without an owner. Nobody has pledged vast sums of cash to improve the franchise, nobody has publicly been able to be the face of the team.
But thanks to Knight, the team has improved while staying well below the NBA's luxury tax threshold. This year, the Hawks have the youngest team in the NBA, and despite losing their last three games by a total of eight points, they're still sitting in second place in the Southeast division.
As it always is with the Hawks, though, I find myself thinking of what could be. One week ago, they were leading the Southeast Division, and e-mails were pouring in from my friends. Since I'm the only Hawks fan many of them have ever met, in the past they treated me with a mix of curiosity and indulgence. My wife even got an e-mail from a person she's worked with a few years ago, asking: "On another matter, please ask your husband how it feels to have the Hawks in first place in their division."
It felt great, I responded, and I know the Hawks will continue to improve. How do I know? I was in Atlanta last week for the Hawks/Bucks game, and about an hour after the Hawks lost a squeaker -- coming back from a double-figure deficit to lose in the last 30 seconds -- I was the last media member in the Hawks locker room. As the Hawks players got dressed and started to leave, Johnson went around the room and approached each player, held out his fist to give each guy a pound and quietly told them, "Hey, way to fight back, way to play hard. That's what we need." If I'd tried that with my friends after a round of golf or a pick-up hoops game, it would've seemed contrived and ridiculous. But Johnson had so much sincerity that the players seemed to listen and take his words to heart. And finally, the Hawks have an honest-to-goodness leader.
Seeing that nearly brought tears to my eyes. Would Big Dog ever do that? What about J.R. Rider? The Hawks are in good hands. It's been a long road, and there are still miles to go. But, hey, at least they're moving in the right direction. Baby steps, people, baby steps.
Lang Whitaker is the online editor of SLAM magazine and writes daily at SLAMonline.com.