Smith says the
Atlanta media give him such a hard time because "they've never been able to
get my goat. And that burns them." But last season Smith characteristically
allowed himself to be drawn into a halftime radio interview with Journal sports
columnist Ron Hudspeth and delivered a loud foolish tirade against Hudspeth and
"My kids read
about me," Smith sighs, "and they say, 'Is that my dad?' " He says
the only reason he puts up with the abuse he gets as the Falcons' owner is so
he can pass the business on to his sons. One of them, Rankin Jr., 29, recently
replaced Wall as club president, with Wall becoming vice-president in charge of
finance. "We need leadership," says Smith Sr. Unfortunately, the void
does not appear likely to be filled soon.
As for the Hawks
and the Flames, when they came along they were thrown into a gaping hole. Tom
Cousins owned vacant acres in downtown Atlanta, where railroad yards had
thrived in the days when Union Station was the city's economic and geographical
heart. Cousins wanted to protect his investment against central-city decay, so
he brought in NBA and NHL teams and built the Omni—a futuristic arena without a
bad seat—for them on this property.
"My whole and
sole reason for ever getting involved in sports in the first place was real
estate reasons," Cousins says. Until the last few months, when the
financial drain forced him to dispose of his interest in the Hawks and turn his
personal attention to the Flames, he put "not an average of 10 minutes a
month" into either team.
bought the Hawks from Ben Kerner," he says, "the organization was
supposed to come intact. But I found out that Kerner himself had really been
running this organization he'd told me about. I'd never seen a pro basketball
game myself. The only guy I'd ever heard of was Wilt Chamberlain."
In St. Louis, the
Hawks had been perennially strong. In Atlanta, they have been below .500 six
years out of nine, and this season will make it seven of 10. They tried to
build around Pete Maravich, but later traded him for draft choices that were
supposed to turn the franchise around. Then they let the ABA's Denver Nuggets
take those draftees, David Thompson and Marvin Webster, away from them. The
city has not forgiven the Hawks for failing to sign Thompson and Webster.
"The press never misses a week but what they mention that," says
Cousins. "They'll say, 'Turner may buy the Hawks (who didn't sign Thompson
and Webster).' They must have mentioned it a thousand times."
The Flames, a
hustling, competitive team in a sport Atlanta doesn't know enough about to
expect much of, have enjoyed a more sympathetic press and in fact have drawn
well, everything considered. Significantly, the Flames, unlike the Falcons and
the pre-Storen Hawks, began with an experienced hockey man as president and
general manager. Cliff Fletcher, who learned his hockey from Sam Pollock in
Montreal and later from Scotty Bowman in St. Louis. Fletcher's first move was a
public-relations coup. He hired Boom Boom Geoffrion, the former Montreal star,
as the Flames coach, and Geoffrion's rapid Gallic monotone helped sell the
game. If it weren't that pro hockey everywhere is in terrible financial shape,
the Flames would be something of a success story. As it is, though, they have
already lost Cousins and seven other investors roughly $5 million. They're
averaging 9,900 spectators a game, down from a high of 14,153 in 1973-74, their
second season in Atlanta, but need an average of 13,000 to break even. And his
real estate debts being what they are, Cousins has no real estate profits to
cover his sports losses, whereas Turner can write off his sports losses against
his TV and billboard profits. With his empire in trouble, Cousins now refuses
to pose for pictures.
At any rate, all
four of the city's sports operations have in one sense or another been
stopgaps. Too little informed effort having been put into making them fixtures,
they have themselves become gaps, soaking up money and leaving the city's
sports fans wondering why they should support losing teams.
It is not as
though Atlanta is historically a bad sports town. From 1904 to 1966 Tech's
football teams under Head Coaches John Heisman, William A. Alexander and Bobby
Dodd were to Atlanta what the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were
to ancient Athens. Tech kept producing national powers studded with
All-Americas while priding itself on high academic standards and a gentlemanly
approach to the game. Tech's fight song, I'm a rambling wreck from Georgia Tech
and a hell of an engineer, sprang to Atlanta-area children's lips as readily as
Dixie or Jesus Loves Me.
Along about the
time the big-league teams came in, however, the Yellow Jackets coincidentally
lost their magic. The school that was inclined to consider itself too good for
the Southeastern Conference—and went so far as to resign from the SEC in 1964
on grounds of academic incompatibility—became mediocre on the playing fields.
Atlantans now buy Falcon season tickets, try to find neighbors who will use
them, and whoop it up for the Junkyard Dogs of the University of Georgia, 65
miles away in Athens. The void left by the fading of Tech's White and Gold
mystique might be filled by an exciting Falcon team, but the Falcon management
seems content to keep a football-hungry town scraping along at a bare