At many points this year, the Atlanta Hawks’ season has seemed to teeter on the brink of destruction. They started out with a sub-.500 record under former coach Lloyd Pierce before switching to Nate McMillan at midseason; they were heavily picked against by the media going into the first round of the playoffs against the New York Knicks; they fell into huge deficits against the Philadelphia 76ers multiple times during the second round; they had to win without superstar Trae Young to keep things even with the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday night. Each time, the Hawks did something very un-Atlanta-like: they overcame the adversity rather than succumbing to it.
As Mark Bradley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution put it after Game 7 of the Sixers series, “We’re not accustomed to seeing Atlanta teams play like this when it matters most, but by the time these Hawks are done they might have reconfigured the way we — and the world — view Atlanta sports.”
It’s about time. Since 1980, no city in pro sports has underachieved more than Atlanta in terms of winning pro championships. Atlanta has won just one title in that time span, which is about 4.75 less than you’d expect if you made the simple-yet-egalitarian assumption that all teams in a league had an equal shot at a championship each year.
No city’s sports fans are sheltered from the agony of defeat. By definition, only one team in a particular league can win the championship, so seasons in even the most successful cities are likely to end in heartbreak just as often as they end in Champagne baths.
But some have undoubtedly had it better than others. Among the “Big Five” of North American professional sports, just five metro areas — New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and the San Francisco Bay Area — have hogged nearly half (43 percent) of the 186 available titles since 1980. A Lakers letdown, for example, might be softened with an L.A. Kings victory in the Stanley Cup. For other cities, the pain is more unabated. Seasons upon seasons of coming up short can imbue a sense of fatalism in even the most optimistic supporters.
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But at least for a moment, however fleeting, that is about to change. After the Los Angeles Clippers were bounced from the NBA playoffs on Wednesday night, we’re left with three teams — the Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns — from cities ranked among the nine most title-starved towns in professional sports over the past four decades, and one of those will deliver the tinsel that has long evaded its residents. It’s even more symbolically significant that the NBA will cut against the title-hoarding narrative: The league has been the epitome of unfairness, with just 12 cities hogging all the championship glory since 1980. (Los Angeles alone has taken home 11 of those 41 titles.)
Milwaukee is certainly not in a region bereft of title-winning. Green Bay, which lies just two hours to the north up I-43, is home to the perennially successful Packers, who have won two Super Bowls since 1980 and played a chunk of their home games through the 1990s in Milwaukee. But the city’s two full-time franchises — the Bucks and Brewers — have been defined by years of mediocrity. Neither has been outright awful; the Bucks have gone just above .500 since the 1980-81 season, while the Brew Crew has treaded slightly below that mark. But more often than not, each club has faltered when it mattered the most.
The Bucks were knocking on the door of basketball greatness throughout the 1980s; they made the playoffs every year, with two-time Defensive Player of the Year Sidney Moncrief anchoring the cream of those Cream City squads on both ends. But they could never get past the conference finals, and their best team of the decade — and their second-best of the past 40 years — was swept aside by the Larry Bird-led Celtics in 1986. A playoff drought followed for the franchise in the ’90s, and the team was limited to first-round exits throughout the early 2000s.
A similar tale was playing out in parallel on the baseball diamond. After striking gold in 1982 and reaching the World Series, buoyed by the brilliant MVP season of future Hall-of-Famer Robin Yount, the Brewers went into a tailspin, undergoing a 25-year playoff drought, only making it back to October baseball in 2008. Recent years have been more kind; Milwaukee has qualified for the postseason in three consecutive seasons and looks poised to make a run this year as well. But the franchise has come tantalizingly close recently: After forcing Game 7 against the L.A. Dodgers, the Brewers’ bats went silent in a 5-1 Game 7 home loss to end the 2018 NLCS.
And the recent Bucks, led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, have offered their own glimpses of both championship promise and disappointment. With Antetokounmpo winning back-to-back league MVPs, Milwaukee had the NBA’s best record in both 2018-19 and 2019-20, only to be upset twice in the Eastern Conference playoffs. This year might change that — or it might extend that streak, since Antetokounmpo injured his knee in Game 4 of Milwaukee’s series against the Hawks. (Reports are that Giannis suffered no structural damage, though his status for the rest of the series is unclear.)
For Atlanta, the mere mention of “28-3” conjures up perhaps the biggest postseason meltdown in professional sports, but its fans have plenty of other moments to choose from when channeling their despair. The Braves of the ’90s rode one of the most formidable starting rotations in major league history to five World Series appearances, but they have just one Fall Classic victory (over Cleveland in 1995) to show for it. Since that title, no Atlanta team has finished a season on top.
The city has come close. The Angel McCoughtry-led Atlanta Dream would make three WNBA Finals appearances from 2010 to 2013, but they were swept by the Seattle Storm and Minnesota Lynx in each series. With Dominique Wilkins — “The Human Highlight Reel” — leading the charge (and, later, Dikembe Mutombo, Steve Smith and Mookie Blaylock), the Hawks were perennial playoff contenders throughout the 1980s and ’90s, but they could never get over the hump of the conference semifinals. The Braves held a 3-1 series advantage and a 2-1 lead midway through Game 5 over the Dodgers in last year’s NLCS, only to see a Will Smith home run revive an L.A. title run. And, of course, there’s the collapse for the ages in Super Bowl LI, marking yet another championship snatched away by a successful sports city from a title-deficient counterpart.
As for Phoenix, the city can boast three WNBA titles from the Mercury, and it got an MLB championship from the star-studded 2001 Diamondbacks. But that’s all the city has to show for the past 40-plus years. It used to be a one-sport town — the Suns were Phoenix’s only major pro entry until 1988, when the football Cardinals moved from St. Louis — but it has added franchises from each of the Big Five pro leagues in the years since. Yet, with those four titles since 1980, it has the fewest championships of any city that currently has teams in all of those leagues. (Atlanta plays in only four of the five leagues because the NHL’s Thrashers flew north to Winnipeg and became the Jets in 2011.)
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A certain sense of “us against the world” has also contributed to the heightened stakes of this postseason. The most successful NBA franchises of the past few decades have tended to hail from large markets, and Milwaukee does not fit that billing. A recent comment from an ESPN host calling the remaining cities in the NBA playoffs “terrible” only added fuel to those flames, with some Milwaukee residents responding by purchasing custom shirts that read “Terrible City.” And though neither Atlanta nor Phoenix is a small market, both franchises have historically struggled to attract top free agents. A flurry of offseason spending and acquisitions in 2020, however, has seemed to pay dividends for each club. A win in the conference finals would only burnish the new image that Young and co. have cultivated in Atlanta, while a championship breakthrough for the Suns would arguably make Phoenix a top suitor for new talent.
Ultimately, only one team can triumph in these NBA playoffs, and each city is in some relatively uncharted territory. But when all is said and done, one of these three unlucky cities will finally have its sports prayers answered.
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