Atlanta is home to a uniquely tortured fan base. It’s not a city tortured by enduring losing streaks or a curse or even a consistent failure to make the postseason. It’s a city tortured by an inability to win championships.
The Atlanta Hawks have four banners in the rafters in the south end of Philips Arena. Two are for the Atlanta Dream’s two WNBA Eastern Conference championships, one is a LEED certification noting that the building meets exceptional environmental standards and the other is a congratulatory banner for the band Widespread Panic on selling out 17 consecutive shows from 1999 – 2007.
The city’s sports teams have won all of one championship collectively in 48 years of play. That run includes the Braves’ spectacular 14-season run of National League East championships from 1991-2005, the Falcons’ five division titles (1980, 1998, 2004, 2010, 2012) and the era of the great Dominique Wilkins for the Hawks. Not even two championships. Just one.
No star player has better personified the spirit of perpetual above-average-but-not-quite-great like Josh Smith. Smith is a player who has averaged 15 points, 8 rebounds and 2.1 blocks for his career, was the fastest player ever to 1,000 blocks and won an NBA slam dunk championship in his first season as a pro. But he has never played in so much as an Eastern Conference Championship game.
Even though he’s moved on, Hawks fans still love Smith. Some of them, at least.
The College Park native and nine-year Atlanta Hawk made his return to Philips Arena Wednesday night, wearing an opposing uniform for the first time. His performance in the Hawks 93-85 victory over the Pistons reminded fans in attendance why some loved him and why others were ready to see him take his talents to Detroit.
He went 5-for-15 and missed all four of his 3-point shots en route to scoring just 11 points on the evening. While Smith’s shooting and shot selection were horrid, he filled up the stat sheet, with 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocked shots, in a way that only J-Smoove can.
“It was good to get it over with,” Smith said after the game of his return to Atlanta. “Now we can all move on.”
The reception from fans to his introduction with the visiting team was as ambivalent as his career had been. Some fans cheered, some fans booed, many didn’t make any noise because no one shows up before tip-off at Philips Arena.
“I didn’t get a chance to see the introductions, so I don’t know how it went,” said Demetric Phillips of Atlanta. “[Smith is] sorry, though. We did the right thing [allowing him to leave]. I was thinking he would take a lot of threes to prove himself. He can’t shoot the three, though.”
For others, it was tough to watch him lose.
“I used to be a Hawks fan, now I’m a Pistons fan,” said Richard Schnapper of Johns Creek. “Josh Smith is my favorite player. I just came to see Josh.”
Most reactions fell somewhere in the middle.
“It was totally different seeing [Smith] tonight,” said George Wilson, a Hawks fan who says he’s been coming to games as long as he can remember. “I still cheered for him, even though I wanted to see the Hawks win. I wanted him to be great.”
Beverly Johnson, a longtime Hawks season ticket holder, echoed the ambiguity of seeing Smith in an opposing uniform.
“It was hard to boo him,” she said. “I booed everybody else, but I couldn’t boo him. He still has a piece of my heart.”
As for his performance, Beverly’s husband Charles called it “lackluster.”
“I don’t think he liked being booed by his own fans,” Charles said.
After the game, it was like nothing had changed. A crowd of reporters gathered around his locker as if he were still the biggest star in Atlanta, and he let them wait.
Though he dressed in the visitors’ locker room, with the Atlanta Dream’s logos, rather than the Hawks’ adorning the walls, the 6’9 style maven took his time putting on his three-piece designer suit, brushed his hair and joked with attending members of the Hawks staff about a “gift basket” he was owed.
Asked about the defense new Hawks swingman Demarre Carroll played on him to induce his poor shooting night, Smith responded, “He had help.”
About his shot selection on the evening, which included only six shots from inside the paint and nine shots outside, all of which he missed: “I was good. I took shots I normally take. They just weren’t falling,” he said.
He was the same Josh Smith he’s always been, for better or for worse. He plays for the Pistons now.