“We finally won something!”
You like mavericks? We’ve got your mavericks, right here. In this town!
As with all things gamethreads, we have to go back a way for a prime example. We’ll swing it to the late 1980s, featuring a former tight end, D-Lineman, and two-time SEC champion with his UGA Bulldogs, the son of a 1940s UGA Dawgs hero, the pride of prestigious Buckhead (not City)’s Dykes High School in Atlanta as its former quarterback. A couple decades removed from his gridiron glories, Billy Payne was a mover and a shaker in the white-collar world.
By then, Payne had presided as a lawyer and executive at major financial and real estate institutions with influences spanning the region and the globe. But like many a native Georgian and resident Atlantan present and past, Billy had quite a dream, a vision conceived on a random Sunday in church. When he relayed his reverie to his fellow bigwigs, they would tell him he needed to wake up and smell the coffee. Or, perhaps, swill another beer.
ANOTHER American-hosted Summer Olympic Games? Only this time, in the South? In Georgia, no less? Centered in what was often derided as the nation’s worst pro sports town? The place legendary AJC writer Lewis Grizzard affectionately dubbed, “Losersville”?
Entering its third decade trying to keep professional sports afloat, Atlanta’s baseball heroes were still seeking its first playoff victory -- not just a series, but a single game. The annual decline in regular season results, after getting swept in the 1982 NLCS, was congruent with the drop in fans venturing south of downtown Atlanta to watch the Bravos play. By 1988, the club was enduring its losing-est season since 1935, two MLB towns ago.
“Fall is glum in the Loss City of Atlanta,” scribed Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly in that summer of 1988. “The Braves fall, then the leaves fall, then the Falcons fall.” At least the baseball team’s co-tenants had a solitary playoff win, an NFL wild card game from 1978, to hang their helmets on.
The puny single-digit-win returns in most of the regular seasons that followed had the foxy Falcons mired in a swamp of their own making, the NFL’s worst team in 1987. Save us, #1 draft pick Aundray Bruce! Their owners essentially said, “Save us, Atlanta city and Georgia state coffers, with a new domed stadium. You wouldn’t want us running off to some Nique-forsaken burg like Jacksonville, now, would you? Would you???”
There was hardly a flicker when the pro-hockey Flames were shipped out at the beginning of the Eighties. Not even Miracle on Ice Olympic goaltender hero Jim Craig was enough to draw ice hockey fans and, more importantly, money, to downtown Atlanta’s luxury-suite-less Omni Coliseum. As Payne spoke of Olympic grandeur in Atlanta, in 1988, the recipient home of the Flames was celebrating not only the completion of a Winter Games, but an NHL President’s Trophy, and the embarking of an eventual run to the Stanley Cup.
The owner and seller of the Atlanta hockey franchise to Calgary in 1980, original Atlanta Hawks owner and Omni developer Tom Cousins, would level with Payne years later, when the latter shared his Olympic-sized ideas. “Billy,” Cousins recalled advising in a Golf Digest profile of Payne, “I think you’d be wasting your time and money. And I’m sure he got that from most places he went.”
Besides, many an American pondered, nobody wants to watch a bunch of 30-year-old Bobans thumping on our hastily-collected crew of NCAA All-Americans, not on our home turf. And wait, didn’t we just have the Games here a few years ago? No nation had ever hosted Summer Games as recently a dozen years apart. Why are we spending *our* time and money, taxpayer largesse in particular, trying to woo the world’s amateur-sports fans back here again, already?
Oh, and this wasn’t just any quadrennial jock-fest we’d be hunting. These would be the Centennial Games, the 100th anniversary of the initial “modern Olympics” effort in Greece back in 1896, a time I imagine when Greek pankration still had a Dream Team. The clear-cut favorites around the globe, Athens (not the quaint college town where amateur-athlete Billy excelled) had applied enough friendly pressure on the International Olympic Committee that most respectable metros and nations around the world had enough sense to just sit this run out.
Earlier efforts to drum up local support for Olympic bids died predictably on the vine. The city of Atlanta was mired in global disrepute for unsolved cases of missing and murdered children. Beyond the city bounds, Georgia was getting depicted in the media as an unwelcome haven of Southern hos-pi-tility, between Deliverance, Miss Oprah Goes to Forsyth, and The Big Boss Man.
To kickstart the Eighties, the state’s most globally-prominent native son was a loser, specifically, the first elected president since 1932 to lose in his attempt at presidential incumbency. The city’s best pro team squandered its chance at proving itself a peer of America’s Team, the Dallas Cowboys. As the decade neared its end, only the Hawks had the look of a possible contender in Atlanta, while Georgia’s most renowned athletic product was, at that moment, a Dallas Cowboy himself.
There were the social and geopolitical schisms, going back from at least Mexico City through Munich, Montreal and Moscow, and the exorbitant municipal expenses that went unrecouped whenever the Games left town, that had many critics rightfully questioning whether this pursuit was worth one red cent anywhere, much less here.
Most anyone envisioning a 1996 Olympics in Atlanta would not have given it a second thought, given all the “Losersville” backdrop and all the dismissive scoffing. But Billy Payne was not most anyone.
Merriam-Webster’s defines a “maverick” as “a person who does not conform to generally accepted standards and customs.” Custom would dictate being gentlemanly enough to let Athens enjoy its Olympic centennial, granting enough time to get Atlanta’s reputation for pro sports off the mat, and Georgia’s stalled economic climate back in gear, for efforts much further into the future.
Payne, however, was a maverick with means, one with considerable pull in the boardrooms. To lug his dream toward reality, he had to get other mavericks on board to share his vision.
A former U.S. Congressman, Andrew Young endured a controversial and brief run as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. But he rebounded well in his return to local politics. Through much of the Eighties, Atlanta’s mayor pushed for expansion of both international investment and minority enterprises in his city’s reforming economy.
Payne, who originally convened an affluent professional group of White colleagues to brainstorm about the Games, recognized Ambassador Young as a suitable champion to bridge private-sector support with skeptical Black, minority, and/or poor and middle-class citizens, particularly those that held leadership positions and political clout.
Both Payne and Young recognized that in Atlanta’s pocket was the most recognized commercial product brand on Earth. However, the Coca-Cola Company’s CEO, Cuban-born American Roberto Goizueta, was still freshly licking wounds gained from the biggest protests anyone around town would see for a while.
Coca-Cola spent the early 80s quietly reformulating its fizzy brown soft drink. Eventually, Coke unveiled a new flagship beverage, “New Coke”, that would win many a Pepsi Challenge, since it tasted too much like the beverage of their bitter rivals from up north. The sarcastic adage, “Oh, THAT idea will go over like New Coke!”, supplanted lead balloons as a result of Goizueta’s folly.
The late Coke chairman would not only keep his job until his passing in the mid-90’s, but he’d have his name tied, Wharton-style, to Emory’s business college. Coca-Cola turned tail on “New Coke,” but not before accidentally creating a feverish demand, for an iconic, “Classic” product that the world’s consumers had hitherto taken for granted. In the interim, Goizueta needed desperately to take up a new cause that could return his company to Atlanta’s, and the South’s, good graces. Enter Messrs. Payne and Young.
Young, who was with his ally Dr. Martin Luther King on the day of the civil rights leader’s 1968 assassination, understood ways in which the city could leverage its history with civil rights and “rising from the ashes” to enhance its profile as an internationally progressive and influential locale.
Atlanta had an expanding interstate freeway and a spiffy new rail transit system coursing through its central city, a transport backbone feeding directly into an airport, regional hub to both Eastern and Delta Airlines, that was swiftly asserting its place among the world’s busiest. Young’s city also had what was emerging as the nation’s largest convention center, in the shadow of the Omni.
Witnessing the success Peter Ueberroth had in leveraging private finance to offset the local costs of the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, Payne sought to copy that model. He recognized the value gained by using existing sporting venues, like the Omni and UGA and Georgia Tech’s coliseums, for prospective Olympic events.
Further, it helped to establish ready-made plans for post-Games operations of new venues, from the Georgia International Horse Park, the forthcoming Georgia Dome, and Tech’s new aquatic center, to the notable conversion of Olympic Stadium into a new home for the Bravos. Tech’s central location and mostly-empty summertime campus made for an ideal Olympic Village site. The city and state paired up to clear land near the Omni for an Olympic fan celebration zone, transitioning the space into intown parkland.
Beyond his corporate mavericks, like Goizueta, and his public-private partnership mavericks, like Young, Payne also had the ear of a sports and media maverick. The sitting owner of the Atlanta Hawks and his self-styled baseball version of “America’s Team”, Ted Turner was thriving, even when his local teams were spinning their wheels. This was due to the wildfire success of his 24-hour news network, and his sports-flavored “superstation”, latching onto the rise of cable and satellite television.
An avid sailor who earned the nickname, “Captain Courageous” as 1977’s winner of the prestigious America’s Cup, Turner the media exec established the Goodwill Games in 1986. They were ostensibly his attempt to ease pressures on amateur sporting due to capitalist-communist policy fights disrupting participation in the Olympics. He proved capable of not just successfully fielding the events in Moscow, but also showcasing the power of his Atlanta-based television networks, broadcasting a multitude of live contests internationally while limiting the need for tape-delays.
Payne didn’t begin petitioning his dream in earnest until 1987. Yet by the spring of 1988, with the aid of maverick leaders like Young, Goizueta and Turner, Atlanta had eclipsed Nashville, San Francisco, and the early favorite, Minnesota’s Twin Cities, to nab the US Olympic Committee’s bid as America’s submission to the IOC.
Ranked 36th among cities in U.S. Census population at the time, Atlanta making it through the “first round,” and decisively so by a 14-2 vote over Minneapolis, raised plenty of eyebrows, plus a few guffaws and snickers around big-sports-media towns like New York and Philadelphia. “It’s Atlanta? Seriously?”
The USOC’s president considered a 1996 victory for America an impossibility, given all the attention demanded by the freaky Greeks. Other USOC officers agreed that any serious push to field another Games in the States, following L.A. and Lake Placid, was premature. To the US committee, Atlanta was intended as merely a sentimental vote, a tip of the cap to Payne and the local leaders’ hopes to be acknowledged as a worldly, big-league metropolis. Here’s to you, Atlanta. Who knows? You “might” even win, someday!
If any North American nation was securing an Olympic repeat anytime soon, the prevailing thought went, it would have to be Canada. Despite the debacles of ’76 in Montreal, the Canadians were submitting their second-largest city, Toronto, and their nation’s mild summer climes, for the ’96 Games, shortly after concluding a critically lauded Winter Games in Calgary. Yet while Toronto’s bid came with ardent opposition willing to travel to IOC meetings in protest, Young and local leaders were able to keep foes of Atlanta’s promotion relatively small, localized, and late to the party.
By starting its formal efforts late in the USOC and IOC processes, Atlanta’s contingent stymied the foment of organized local, and international, resistance. They sent a multi-racial “Dream Team” of enthusiastic women and men to the IOC meeting in Tokyo for Selection Day in September 1990. The perception of a prepared and diverse American crowd ready and eager to roll out the welcome mat for the IOC, standing alongside bitter Canadian protestors, would not go unnoticed by the committee.
Georgia’s diverse 300-person delegation also contrasted with those brought by Manchester, England, and Bogdan Bogdanovic’s hometown. Belgrade was awash in ethnic strife and political unrest. With the Yugoslavian city eliminated in opening-round IOC voting, as Mike Davis at The Medal Count blog noted, top-seeded Athens found itself surrounded by four “Anglosphere” challengers.
As one city would be eliminated in each round of IOC voting, those delegates largely cast their votes for another Anglosphere city, rather than Athens. The former ambassador Young’s pull with African, Middle Eastern and Asian voters carried underdog upstart Atlanta through each round. Feeling the heat, the Athens contingent went from feeling self-assured of victory to crying foul about this well-heeled, and amazingly prepared, American interloper.
“The Olympic flame will not be lit with oil,” a grouchy Athenian newspaper editorial complained, “but with Coca-Cola.” The Greeks entered Tokyo with its main message to the committee being, “regardless of our flaws, you’d better hand us the Centennial Games, or we may never bid again,” a threat that proved idle, and unwise. They demanded their A-plus, without taking their homework, or anyone else in their class, seriously.
Coke, being a longtime Olympic sponsor, gave Atlanta a leg-up that no competitor was prepared to counter, until it was too late. So did the application of American technical wizardry, including computer-generated animation by a firm that would later be known to larger audiences as PIXAR, in the 1990 U.S. bid presentation.
That September, it all came together. And yet, as Juan Antonio Samaranch decreed, “The International Olympic Committee has awarded the 1996 Olympic Games to the City of… At-lanta!”, the moment was a stone-cold global stunner, and an over-the-top-rope regional plancha. The scene around Underground Atlanta seemed every bit as surreal as it was jubilant. Specifically in all-matters sports, Atlantans were unaccustomed to good fortune in competition, and especially clinching what they worked so zealously to earn.
“Atlanta?”, had become, “It’s Atlanta?” within roughly a calendar year. In the space of two-and-half more years, “It’s Atlanta?” had become, “It’s Atlanta!” On this September day, there was joy in Losersville, as Atlanta was a genuine “world champion” in the arena of sports for the first time. Other towns could fuss with each other about “Rings” until the cows came home. But for us, five colorful, interlocking ones would do just fine.
One overjoyed attendee at Underground’s celebration shared with the AJC: “We finally won something!” Each word leaps from the page, as an exclamation unto itself. We! Finally! Won! Something!
Indeed, Atlanta did win something. To a greater extent, Georgia prevailed. The South, in a good way, prevailed. America prevailed. But none of it happens without a maverick willing to defy “It’s not your turn,” “They’re not sophisticated enough,” and, “He’s too little!” customs, seeing past all the reasonable doubts and unreasonable constructs to paint a bigger picture that no one else, at the outset, could.
The Georgian who made the Olympic Dream happen couldn’t see it quite as clearly as he would in another significant capacity decades later, but Billy Payne would come to learn that, even to a self-made maverick, big dreams cannot be realized in a vacuum. A committed collective of talented mavericks, diverse in ways that are more than just skin-deep, have to coalesce in order to turn notions of “Impossible!” into, “I’m possible!”
That’s the feat that faces one of Atlanta’s, and America’s, biggest sports mavericks around today. Trae Young graces State Farm Arena (You made it! Welcome back, Hawks fans. 7:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL) before an adoring crowd and an opposing team from Dallas that fashions itself as “Mavericks”. Not even six months ago, a nationally-televised, highly anticipated season-opener on TNT Thursday featuring Young and 2018 draft-mate Luka Doncic – in Trae’s downtown Atlanta NBA building, no less – seemed impossible. And yet, here we are!
A quarter century has passed since Atlanta made good on its promise and welcomed the world. Between Samaranch’s mealy-mouthed attempt to qualify praise of the hosts’ endeavors, the sting of the mid-Games park bombing, and the central city’s economic lurches once the Olympic high died down, you could understand the locals feeling a bit jaded, in the aftermath and ensuing years of ‘96.
Anyone expecting Atlanta to become some American utopia as a result of the Olympics coming to town was due to be in for a good measure of disappointment. But the region has transformed, in strange and unpredictable ways, including on the sports pages (remember sports pages?). Over the course of the past 25 years, Atlanta has shed its “Losersville” pro-sports wound. The new scar to rip off is called, “Can’twinitallville”.
The Bravos would shock the baseball world with a worst-to-first sprint in 1991, then run headfirst into one wall after another until the year before the Olympics. In defiance of their first 25 years of existence in town, they’d proceed to win ten more consecutive division titles after breaking through with its first World Series win in 1995. They would claim seven more such banners over the past 12 seasons, including four in a row. And yet, fans can only hope the second World Series trophy will arrive very, very soon.
The Falcons. You all know what happened. No, not that time, that other time. The Dream. Hmph. Hey, the Hawks won 60 games that one time, that was cool. Thrasher? Why, I hardly know her!
At least Atlanta United was able to defy the “Can’twinitall” gravity in our sport-mosphere, once in its first couple seasons of pro-soccer contention. We’re nearly three years removed from their breakthrough MLS championship. Largely, though, because of the other longstanding teams finding creative ways to come up short, if they come up at all, the MLS Cup celebration at Magic City still feels fresh.
Through it all, Atlanta has had its share of athletic mavericks blaze into town -- the Prime Times, the Number Sevens and Number Elevens, the Highlight Films, the Fab Five Freddies, the Angels and the Ices. It helps to have architects, like Alex Anthopoulos, Darren Eales and the Hawks’ Travis Schlenk, with the skills and foresight to identify them, and to build high-caliber teams around them.
While these standout athletes get Atlanta close to the pin on occasion, to do what King Josef accomplished and nail a hole-in-one, these otherworldly talents must assess the maverick spirits within the people that surround them, and then forge environments in and beyond the sporting venue conducive to championship-quality contention.
Such are the tasks that face Trae Young (9.4 APG, 2nd in NBA in 2020-21, and 25.3 PPG), coming off an ascendant NBA Playoffs run (28.8 PPG, 9.5 APG) that now has the rising fourth-year point guard on a first-name basis in sports markets like New York and Philadelphia that, no matter their own shortcomings, could always take Atlanta and its “Can’twinitallville” reputation for granted. Until now.
Bold and unbothered, crafty and cunning, recalibrating and unrelenting, Trae exudes the qualities that are hallmarks of people we identify as mavericks. But to achieve his ultimate ends, he needs other mavericks, willing and able to collaborate with him, letting him lead as he continues applying what he learns along the way.
There’s the top-20-winning-coach maverick in Nate McMillan, who learned much about himself along the way to dismissing his “Can’twinatplayofftime” reputation, perhaps once and for all. There’s the league-leading-rebound maverick in Clint Capela, and the model-of-efficiency-with-mad-boosties maverick in John Collins, who will now spend years together redefining what a modern NBA frontcourt looks like. That’s thanks to real estate maverick Tony Ressler, who showed this summer that parsimoniousness, unlike some owners of NBA clubs on the rise, won’t get the best of him.
There’s the net-scorching perimeter-shot maverick in Bogdanovic, whose surge as a healthy starter this past April, together with tactical improvements from McMillan, set the stage for the Hawks’ fascinating turnaround (27-11, following a lackluster 14-20 start) to become the NBA’s unexpected Southeast Division champions.
Then, there’s the legion of mavericks-in-training, from De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter and Cam Reddish at the wings, to local product Sharife Cooper at the point, to Cooper’s fellow rookie Jalen Johnson and Onyeka Okongwu. Whether it was during critical junctures in the Playoffs or the free-wheeling Summer League, these up-and-comers have already had some shining moments, each demonstrating that when it comes to revealing true maverick potential, they have only scratched the surface.
There’s a definitive difference between being a maverick and being, well, a “Mav”. It is possible to be both. Sharing space with Trae under the net on the SI magazine cover, as Reilly’s former rag previewed the NBA’s 75th season, Luka Doncic has been brilliant on the court (11 triple-doubles over 66 games in 2020-21) while lugging former Internet maverick Mark Cuban’s franchise back into perennial playoff position.
How much further the big-M Mavericks can navigate, through the rough-and-tumble Western Conference during the regular season, and whether they can become much more than an intriguing first-round exit, depends on how well-conditioned Doncic can remain, and how many other small-m mavericks Doncic has at his disposal.
While I know little of his overseas offseason regimen, this summer, Luka has certainly thrown his considerable weight around. He pushed out his championship-winning head coach, the on-paper longtime GM, and Cuban’s riverboat-gambling maverick pal, the fellow that seemed to be truly pulling basketball-operation strings behind the scenes. The point guard who helped Dallas’ prior star maverick claim their franchise’s first NBA title a decade ago, Jason Kidd takes the head coaching reins.
Kidd has spent many of his recent years on the sidelines fine-tuning the point guard skills of superstars who would customarily be forwards. He’s expected to do more of the same with Luka (35.0 usage%, 2nd in NBA last season; 8.6 APG, 4.3 TOs/game), who doesn’t have much of a learning curve in that department. To advance this club further, Luka and Kidd need their one-time unicorn to morph into the transformative maverick that Dallas (and previously New York) thought they were getting.
Averaging just over 13-and-5 in Dallas’ seven-game series loss to the Clippers, while shooting under 30 percent on threes, 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis is now Dallas’ full-time option at the four-spot, with Dwight Powell serving as the starting pivot. “I want him to be who he is, and that’s a basketball player,” says Kidd, proponent of the league’s fashionable “position-less basketball,” of Porzingis. “I want him to feel comfortable on the floor in any spot.”
Like former Mav and new Hawk backup point guard Delon Wright, the Mavs have an adequate assistant ball-caddie in Jalen Brunson. But Kidd needs his other basketball players, from Porzingis on down, to commit to moving the rock (22.8 assists per-48 in 2020-21, 26th in NBA, even with Doncic), especially in the rare moments Doncic gets a breather.
If not Porzingis, can the returning Tim Hardaway, Jr. be a maverick in thus-far unforeseen ways? Can it be Dorian Finney-Smith (9.8 PPG), who finished third behind Luka and Timmy in floor time, or former Knicks shooter Reggie Bullock, or Bucks bench man Sterling Brown, expanding their repertoire? Can a young gun, like second-year swingman Josh Green, emerge to be that reliable second- or third-wheel that helps free the offense from stagnation?
Dallas finished its preseason scrimmages tied for first with Golden State in averaging 29.8 assists per contest, while committing just 13.0 turnovers (3rd-fewest in NBA), and it wasn’t all Luka doing the dishing. If Coach Kidd can get successful ball movement to carry over into the next 82 games (please, hoop gawds, let there be 82 this season), and find more on-ball stoppers to cluster around Doncic as his own defense improves, Dallas might be a legitimate postseason threat for reasons beyond #77. If not, Doncic may be demanding more staff members, on and off the court, to hit the bricks.
Unfettered by any star-player distractions or setbacks, Atlanta enters 2021-22 with a clearer understanding of who their current and future mavericks are, certainly more so than the “Mavs.” For the Hawks, it’s a matter of teammates helping each other realize their full capabilities, individually and collectively, and Trae Young is proving the be the kind of facilitative maverick that makes this happen.
Despite this summer’s postseason breakthrough, no one among the NBA media is out over their skis about the Hawks’ chances at title contention, not just yet. Rather, they’re resuming the position the USOC gave Billy Payne and Atlanta back in 1988. Great effort, here’s your laurels. While the world turns their attention back to the prohibitive favorites, Atlanta, just stay at it and, who knows? You “might” even win something, someday.
By season’s end, with the rise of Atlanta’s many mavericks, we could bear witness to a stunning and groundbreaking outcome -- one where “might” makes right!
Thank you, Squawkdonors! Let’s Go Hawks!