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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 his paper.
"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.
"When we 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 subsistence level.