60/30: No. 24, Philips Arena

Andrew Unterberger is on the home stretch of his quest to see a game in every NBA arena. Here’s his report from Atlanta…

I got to spend an extra day in New Orleans before heading to Atlanta, though as it turns out, even by stretching the boundaries of the fourth meal, there aren’t enough reasonable eating opportunities to check off every foodstuff of note to be had in New Orleans. I managed to knock out a po’ boy (some catfish one at a bar near my family friend’s house), jambalaya (Coop’s Place on Decatur), beignets (Cafe Du Monde in the Riverwalk mall) and a muffuletta (Central Grocery in the French Quarter), the latter of which was so huge that it also served as my lunch and dinner the next day. All good stuff, but I missed out on having alligator, gumbo, oysters and crawfish — the latter of which, at least supposedly, weren’t even in season. Reason enough to come back, I suppose.

Walking down Bourbon Street that afternoon was a treat, in any event. Not as bustling on a Thursday afternoon as it would be on a weekend night, I suppose, but I still got solicited by three different strip clubs while stumbling around drinking a tallboy of Beck’s — would have to suffice as far as decadence goes. (I was also relieved to find that New Orleans boasts almost as many ridiculous stores of t-shirts with obnoxious slogans on them as New York does — I found “I got BOURBON-FACED on SHIT STREET” really funny for some reason.) The only down part of my stay was the hotel I stayed at on Tulane Avenue that night — not a bad place, and I got to watch the end of the excellent Spurs-Nugs game on TNT, but people hanging around the hotel kept warning me about the shady activity going on therein, and as I was checking out, the workers at the hotel desk kept cackling to themselves that I had stayed the night in Room 405. I’m trying not to think about it too much.

The next night I was at Philips Arena to watch the latest chapter in the heated Southeast Division rivalry between the Hawks and the Bobcats — the Stephen Jackson Bowl, Pt. 3.

The Stadium: I got flashbacks to my family’s road trip to Atlanta about a decade ago walking to Philips Arena, as it’s attached at the hip to the CNN Center, which we’d toured during our stay in the Peach State. (The arena might still have been the Omni back then, I can’t remember). The CNN Center is so big and so much more prominently displayed in the surrounding area that it threatens to dwarf Philips, which is still a fairly nice building — I especially liked the columns outside the gate that spelled out “ATLANTA,” though it took me a long-ass time to figure out that it was supposed to spell anything at all, and I couldn’t fit more of it at once into my camera than the “AT” and about half the L.

The interior of the stadium was one of my favorites that I’ve visited so far. The whole thing was kind of wacky looking, the hallways splashed with exuberant colors and all sorts of goofy shit hanging from the walls. The food options were plentiful and admirably diverse, and there was an impressive number of different Hawks paraphernalia stands, including one just for team hats (which I wish I’d seen in time to get a throwback) and one just for t-shirts of the 80s team logo in various different color schemes. Really, the entire area just looked like a big mall food court and rec center — which might be meant as an insult coming from some, but from someone who spent much of his youth craving the bourbon chicken at King of Prussia mall, it’s one of the highest of compliments.

Almost everyone I talked to at the arena had nice things to say about the court seating — Bret LaGree of Hoopinion, who talked to me before the game, said he’d sat all over the place and never had a bad seat, though I guess he’d never sat underneath the upper-deck over-hang, which a couple of the fans in the lower level weren’t thrilled with. I was personally a little worried to be seated so close to the designated fan section, but they were one of the more tolerable ones I’ve heard so far — I liked them asking the PA announcer “HEY RYAN, HOW MUCH TIME IS LEFT??” in perfect rhythm with his obligatory “Two minutes left in the quarter” call. Creative. Sort of.

The Game: What can you say about a Hawks-Bobcats basketball game, really? Slow, deliberate, occasionally messy hoops on display, with no one coming off looking particularly good or particularly bad. The Bobcats’ injury-and-mediocrity-decimated lineup made what already would have been a plodding game even worse, with Nazr Mohammed and Dominic McGuire forced into the starting lineup — the latter of which took a wide-open jumper in the first quarter that hooked about two feet to the right, surely presaging what was to come. Easily distracted for most of the game, Boris Diaw and DJ Augustin both somehow managed to get to 22 points for the game before I even noticed a single notable play made by either. Mostly, I was hoping for the game to end quickly and painlessly so I could get back to my hotel and catch up on some sleep.

The one interesting-ish thing about the matchup was watching the Hawks working with their full starting lineup for the first time since Joe Johnson got injured at the beginning of the month. The Hawks’ starting five — which, if they make it to the playoffs again this season, will have made the playoffs for four straight years with the exact same lineup, something virtually unheard of in this NBA day and age — can be one of the most exciting in the league, playing with synergy and energy and incredible balance, or it can result in a ton of contested jumpers at the end of the shot-clock, depending on opponent and circumstance. I got to see both teams at the Highlight Factory, as the team seemed to go static for entire quarters, but had bursts at the beginning and end reminiscent of the team that I fell in love with playing against the Celtics in the ’08 playoffs — most notably, on back-to-back alley-oops between Bibby and Horford and Johnson and Smith late in the fourth. It’s a team I wish we got to see a little more often this year, certainly.

Joe was a little off in his first game back, ending just 5-14 for the contest, but two of those came on a mini-run he had in the fourth quarter to help seal the game for the Hawks, which was good to see. Tellingly, each member of the team’s starting lineup ended in double figures, as the Hawks beat the Bobcats 90-85 — although not before an absolutely interminable final minute of meaningless fouls and layups, conducted for the sole purpose of delaying me from hitting the sack early. Assholes.

The Fans: Bret warned me not to expect much of a turnout at PA for the game, which indeed ended up half-empty. “They’ve been terrible,” he said of the crowds. “They’re the third worst in the league [in attendance] … People who are Hawks fans are serious fans, committed. There just aren’t that many of them.” As for why, Bret cited the inconvenient location of the stadium, the relatively young history of pro sports in the southeast, and general distrust of the front office and ownership all as reasons why the fans don’t often come to fill out the stadium. “I don’t know if Atlanta’s ever going to have the sort of basketball culture to have sell outs for 41 games and the playoffs.” Shame as far as I’m concerned, especially after seeing how good the building could get, when the team pushed Boston to seven games in the ’08 first round.

Another contributing factor might just be that there’s no surprises left to be had with this team — the fanbase knows pretty much who they are at this point. “Second-round team” was the phrase used by just about everyone I talked to. “Second round is about as good as it gets,” said fan Ben in the lower deck. “They’re not gonna pump a lot of money into the team, so this is about as good as it gets.” Kevin, sitting nearby, agreed: “I feel like they kinda turned out the same as last year, a second-round team.” (Bret at least allowed that he thought that with the improvement of Josh Smith and Al Horford, they at least wouldn’t get swept in the second round this time.)

Unsurprisingly, the max contract handed to Joe Johnson was a bone of contention. “There’s no defense for it,” Bret told me. “He’s still a good player, but … it’s really gonna be painful in a couple of years, when he can’t get to the foul line and he’s gonna be a jump-shooter.” Kevin agreed the short-term benefits weren’t worth the long-term cost. “We would’ve been worse [without him], but he doesn’t really make them any better. They’re never gonna be any better.” Kevin also worried about the consequences when it came to re-signing Josh Smith: “If they end up losing him [as a result], it’d be the worst thing that ever happened.”

Most Popular Jerseys: Pretty even spread among the starting five — OK, maybe not so much Marvin Williams — but J-Smoove probably takes the crown among the currents. For retro, it’s never easy to compete with ‘Nique in Atlanta, though my favorite was one guy who had a #44 Pete Maravich jersey that just said “Pistol” on the back.

Also Worth Noting: The Atlanta Hawks were one of many teams over the course of my now ten-game home winning streak to play Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” after their victory — a little played out over the last three decades, but still sort of hard to argue with. However, I would advise the PA guys at Phillips Arena to maybe refrain from muting the music during the “WA-HOO!!” part in the intro in the hopes of the fans filling it in themselves. When your arena is only half full to begin with, and then 85 percent of them have already left to spare themselves the final minute’s miserable hackfest, chances are good that the audience response is going to be somewhat underwhelming, as it was Friday when I think maybe three people in the entire building participated.

Celebrities in Attendance: NeNe, beloved Real Housewife of Atlanta, was in the building. Imagine the cross-marketing opportunities possible in some sort of Hawks-Nuggets trade. Pronounced differently, but still.

Swag Acquired: I ended up getting one of the 80s logo t-shirts, my third retro T of the trip. It wasn’t until earlier this year that I realized that pic was supposed to be of a hawk. Growing up, I always looked at it as some sort of weird Pac-Man tribute. Still like it better that way.

Also had the following exchange with the stone-faced girl at the counter:

Her: (Noticing my press pass) “Oh, wait, are you a team employee?”
Me: “No, I’m just covering the game tonight for an NBA blog.”
Her: “Oh. Well, team employees get 20% off all purchases.”
Me: “Well that sounds great, but I’m not a team employee.”
Her: “You sure?”
Me: “…Yes.”
Her: “Because you look like a team employee.”
Me: “OK, fine, I’m a team employee.”

Saved me $4 on my shirt. Thanks for looking out, stone-faced girl.

2010 Jam of the Day:

Lawrence Arabia – “Dream Teacher.” Super-weird Beach-Boys-beyond-the-grave schoolboy-crush anthem. New Zealanders, you know.

Time to take my Corolla to South Beach. Write to you from the ocean.