June 15, 2020 will go down as the day the Atlanta Hawks sowed their seeds for their collective future.
The team didn’t participate in the NBA’s playoff bubble and former head coach Lloyd Pierce took on a leadership role that was unprecedented in the history of Atlanta sports. As the city was reeling from the untimely death of Rayshard Brooks, Pierce along with Vince Carter, John Collins and Kevin Huerter, proclaimed State Farm Arena should become Fulton County’s largest polling location, an unprecedented move at the time. Pierce also spoke out against police brutality toward Black men.
“I was born a Black man and I know one day I’ll die a Black man,” Pierce said. “But I don’t want to die because I’m a Black man.”
As members of the team joined thousands of Georgians on the march from the Richard B. Russell building toward the State Capitol, the Atlanta Hawks made sure they would not only excel on the court but also drive social change off of the court.
Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin had the idea of transforming State Farm Arena into Fulton County’s largest voting precinct for the early voting period. It would house 302 voting machines and sixty check-in sites for 315,000 eligible voters.
“We were helping our state, and our city, take part in the democratic process,” Koonin said, via USA Today Sports. “Also, we were helping to make voting easier. That’s how it should be. No one should wait in line for 10 hours to vote, or vote in a Kiwanis club or library. Nothing against those places but voting should take place in large venues.”
40,000 Fulton County voters would cast their ballots at State Farm Arena during the 2020 Presidential Election.
“We still saw ridiculously long lines at early voting locations across the county,” CEO of the New Georgia Project Nse Ufot said. “But every single voter we spoke to about voting at State Farm said that the experience was smooth [and] efficient. The staff were friendly and they were in and out in what felt like a reasonable time.”
Notably, Hawks principal owner Tony Ressler and the Herman J. Russell Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (RCIE) formed a partnership. Ressler invested $40 million total in the process.
First, Ressler contributed $5 million to the RCIE, the largest nonprofit center for Black entrepreneurs in America, offering financial resources to Black-owned businesses and entrepreneurs throughout Atlanta. The RCIE was founded in 2019 by the Russell family (which includes H.J. Russell & Co., the largest minority-owned real estate and construction company in America, and Concessions International LLC, the largest Black-owned airport concessions company in the U.S.). The donation will spur the creation of partnerships between Black entrepreneurs and corporate partners, as well as provide entrepreneurs that seek financial support and increase access to capital.
While the Hawks drove social change, the basketball team did not procure positive changes on the court and in the NBA’s Eastern Conference standings. They limped out to a 14-20 start and after a 101-99 loss to the Miami Heat on February 28th, the Hawks fired Lloyd Pierce. That loss was the 11th such instance in which the Hawks were unable to hold a lead. Atlanta also was 11th in the East.
“As we said at the beginning of the season, our goal was to have progress this year,” Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk said in the March 1st news conference. “To move forward. And we just felt like that wasn’t happening as quickly as we wanted it to. These are not easy decisions. These are real-life decisions that affect multiple families, and they are not easy. But we felt like for the organization it was the best thing for us to do moving forward.”
Pierce, hired in 2018, was 63-120 (.344) with the Hawks, missing the playoffs in each of his two completed seasons.
At the time of Pierce’s dismissal, free agent signings Kris Dunn had yet to play, due to his ongoing recovery from ankle surgery. Bodgan Bogdanovic had missed 25 games and Danilo Gallinari had missed nine.
Schlenk was not one to blame injuries.
Pierce’s top assistant, Nate McMillan, would be named interim head coach by Schlenk shortly after the press conference.
Shortly thereafter, the Hawks traded backup point guard Rajon Rondo to the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for Lou Williams. Williams had scored more than 4,000 points for the Clippers as their sixth man. Even though he was from Snellville, he wanted to ultimately retire as a Clipper, even moving his family to Los Angeles. But when he arrived in Atlanta, he felt like it was time to retire. However, something changed.
“It took me a few days to get here because once I arrived, I wanted my energy to be positive,” Williams said in his first interview as a Hawk on March 31st. “I wanted my experience to be positive. I didn’t want the guys to look at it like I didn’t want to be here. It wasn’t personal against the Hawks. I just needed time to figure out what was best for myself at this stage of my career, but now I’m here and I’ve been embraced. Seems as though guys want me here, so I’m ready to get back to work and make this push.”
When the Hawks began their climb up the NBA’s eastern conference standings, McMillan immediately guided Atlanta to an eight-game winning streak, ultimately finishing 27-11 in the regular season.
One time for the birthday boy @gucci1017 and his wife @KeyshiaKaoir #TrueToAtlanta #TheAtlantaVoice #LakeShow pic.twitter.com/UxQmYSXehM
— The Atlanta Voice (@theatlantavoice) February 13, 2019
Though fans were not allowed in the building until later in the year; historically, attending Hawks games could be easily classified as an event on the social calendar (unless the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, or the Los Angeles Lakers were playing). Additionally, fans hoped for their stars to play against the Hawks, even though many teams would rest their top players, believing they could get past Atlanta with little resistance. If neither took place, Hawks games would be an opportunity to take great photos, show off designer clothes, shoes and bags because the lighting is phenomenal and would serve as an opportunity to spot celebrities.
Coincidentally, as the playoffs drew closer, the Hawks weren’t getting their just due because they weren’t on the national stage or fodder for cable sports network talk shows. Atlanta was featured on national TV broadcasts three times this season. Also, most Atlanta residents love the NBA but don’t pay attention to the Hawks. Each year, Atlanta ranks in the top five with respect to NBA Playoff television ratings.
However, that would soon change.
After Atlanta split the first two games of their first-round series against the New York Knicks, Hawks fans showed up to State Farm Arena in game three with the virulent passion that is rarely felt in this town. Why? They saw Trae Young get disparaged, cursed out and spat on in Madison Square Garden.
From the beginning of the game, Hawks fans were loud, boisterous, talked trash, and showed out. Ultimately, the Hawks beat the Knicks in five games while Trae Young ascended to superstar status. Young closed out the Knicks series by draining a 30-foot three-point shot. He took a bow amidst angry, obnoxious and shocked Knick fans.
“I know where we are. I know it’s a bunch of shows around this city,” Young said of the bow after the Hawks’ 103-89 victory. “And I know what they do when the show is over.”
In the second round, the Hawks would beat the Philadelphia 76ers in seven games. McMillan’s ability to adjust from game to game, as well as exposing the Sixers’ Ben Simmons as someone who’s afraid to take a shot on the national stage.
Even though Atlanta would ultimately fall to the Milwaukee Bucks in six games, Hawks fans applauded the team off of the court as the final seconds ticked down in game six.
McMillan became the third coach in the last 40 years to lead his team to the Conference Finals after taking over in-season (Pat Riley twice, ’82 Lakers and ’06 Heat; Tyronn Lue, ’16 Cavaliers).
Tuesday, July 6th, McMillan agreed in principle on a four-year contract to become the Hawks’ permanent head coach. McMillan and Schlenk would speak to the media on Friday, July 9th.
“The incredible job Nate did after taking over this season made this an easy decision,” Schlenk said. “We were able to see how gifted a tactician, motivator and leader he is first-hand and the high level of respect and trust he earned from our players made securing him as our head coach our top priority.”
When asked about his mindset, McMillan was squarely focused on finishing the season strong.
“It was all about us wanting to see these guys play better basketball,” McMillan said. “It was never about at the end of the season we’ll talk about a contract. It was focusing on finishing this season, my mind was focusing on finishing this season.”
With the Hawks young core of Trae Young, Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter and Kevin Huerter, Atlanta has the building blocks to not only compete for playoff spots but contend for championships. That is a fact this organization has been unable to lay claim until this year.
Moreover, the City of Atlanta got the chance to get in on the ground floor of a new movement that promised to change the city on and off the court. After year one, the Atlanta Hawks are on schedule.
The 2021 NBA Playoffs witnessed Atlanta turn their “future” into their present reality. Now, they have to build upon their successes.