Atlanta sports. Those two words seldom bring joy or revelry. They are most often associated with pain, anguish, failure and lost opportunities. The story of any longtime Atlanta sports fan is a cautionary tale at best, and at worst, a deep-cutting tome of misery and strife.
So you think you have it tough as a fan in your city? Well sit down and I’ll spin you a yarn of what it’s been like to spend the better part of five decades attempting to appear as a loyal and sincere fan of sports in the city of Atlanta.
It’s rare to see a major metropolitan city with such an athletic talent pool from which to draw to consistently have some of the most pathetic to underachieving pro sports franchises in the world, but Atlanta somehow manages to do just that.
And it’s not just pro sports that seem to smote their fans on a yearly basis.
Along with the pro franchises in the city (as well as those which have come and gone over several decades), Atlanta is teeming with college sports fans. The University of Georgia and Georgia Tech making up the majority of college sports news in the Atlanta metro area, and even those two proud institutions seem to do their best at breaking hearts.
In terms of professional sports franchises, Atlanta is reasonably young but old enough to have a rather unflattering and checkered history.
The Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966. In that same year, the NFL expansion Atlanta Falcons formed their roost in the south’s capital city. The NBA Hawks set up shop in Atlanta — moving from St. Louis — in 1968. The city’s first NHL franchise, the Flames, began skating at the Omni Coliseum in 1972, and the second attempt to bring NHL fandom to Atlanta, the Thrashers, opened for business in 1999.
My family, a typical nuclear multi-generational New Jersey family, moved to Atlanta in 1971, so it’s safe to say, I’ve seen my share of sports in Atlanta, and I’m here to tell you, it hasn’t been a fun ride. If Atlanta sports were a ride at Disney World in the 1970s or 80s, it would be an A-ticket attraction.
(For those of you not familiar with the old Disney ticket books, the A-tickets were for the least popular rides in the park. Space Mountain was an E-ticket ride, making Atlanta sports the equivalent of the King Arthur Carousel. Wheeeeee…)
It’s not like Atlanta’s teams haven’t had the opportunity for success. It’s been there, time and again. They’ve had some of the most recognizable names in their respective sports play on teams for extended periods of time — Hank Aaron, Deion Sanders, Dominique Wilkins, and Tom Lysiak, just to name a few.
For a few years (from 1997-2000) Atlanta’s pro teams had the winningest active coaches in their sport at the time – Lenny Wilkens, Dan Reeves, and Bobby Cox – all leading their respective teams and managed only one championship.
The saga of sports venues in Atlanta is nearly as ugly as the teams they’ve housed.
I’ve seen multiple stadiums in every sport come and go. I watched the Omni Coliseum built and demolished to be replaced by State Farm Arena (formerly Philips). I saw the Falcons move from Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium to the Georgia Dome, only to see that only 25-year-old building leveled in favor of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Braves also inhabited Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, moving to Turner Field after the 1996 Olympic Games, and then opting for a spot in the ‘burbs and sunny
SunTrust Truist Park in 2017.
If nothing else, Atlanta’s pro teams keep the local moving company economy on track.
Yes, during my years as a fan in Atlanta, I’ve endured quite a lot.
I’ve seen two NHL franchises come and go — and one extremely good IHL franchise — all making their way to the Great White North. Cooooo-roo-koo-koo, coo-roo-koo-koo!
I’ve seen a revolving door of outdoor and indoor soccer teams have cups of coffee in Atlanta before moving on or simply folding.
The Atlanta Dream — the city’s WNBA franchise — has been to the WNBA Finals three times. Zero titles.
But those are the outliers. Not the real source of pain for Atlanta sports fans. Just reminders that even our less-attended and publicized teams somehow manage to play with our emotions.
Braves chopping our hearts out
(Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
I suffered through the many preposterous but somewhat entertaining Braves teams of the 70s and 80s. I saw owner Ted Turner play manager for a single game in the way a toddler might play dress-up. I sat in nearly empty stadiums where my voice was individually decipherable if you were watching on television.
The running Braves joke of the 1970s was:
Caller: “Hello, Atlanta Stadium? What time does the Braves game start tonight?”
Stadium representative: “What time can you be here?”
I witnessed the then-record 13-game win streak to open the 1982 season, only to see the Braves back their way into a first-round playoff sweep by the Cardinals.
They should have left that teepee alone.
I’ve seen the Braves become the best team in baseball for over a decade, but only have one championship to show for it. The other chances? Squandered by questionable managerial decisions, baserunning blunders, terrible scheduling by MLB, and some very suspect umpiring (don’t get me started on the 1991 series or Eric Gregg).
The Braves haven’t won a postseason series since 2001, and haven’t advanced to a World Series since 1999.
The latest tale of Braves woe came in 2019. A fanbase that was as fired up for the Braves as we’d seen since the miracle of 1991, saw the nixing of the signature foam tomahawks and culling of “The Chop” as the playoffs began.
The superstitious among Braves fans blamed the lack of the Chop and accompanying tomahawks as the source of the Cardinals’ 10-run explosion in the first inning of a deciding 2019 NLDS Game 5, leading to yet another early playoff exit for America’s(?) Team.
Perhaps it was just the Braves pitching all along.
Since coming to Atlanta in 1966:
Playoff appearances – 21
Division titles – 19
World Series appearances – 5
Championships – 1
Atlanta Sports: NBA pain? Bill Simmons, you know nothing of torture.
(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
I’ve seen some well-put-together Hawks teams eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by much lesser competition, and while long runs of playoff appearances have been the hallmark of the Hawks on several stretches, they’ve only managed to reach the conference finals once.
Worst of all, I saw a team led by one of the greatest scorers in NBA history, Dominique Wilkins, pave their path to NBA glory. Picked by most experts to make it to the NBA finals and possibly even win the title, the Hawks traded away their best shot at winning that championship, sending Wilkins to the Los Angeles Clippers for the “future of the franchise”, Danny Manning.
The Hawks struggled to get past Miami in the first round and then were easily bounced by Indiana in the second round, 4-2. Manning was wearing a Phoenix Suns jersey the following season.
Since that fabled season, the Hawks went on to find a few successes and even more failures. They put together a string of 10 consecutive playoff appearances from 2008-2017, getting past the first round only five times, and into the conference finals only once.
Probably no Atlanta franchise has experienced draft day bungles and bad luck the way the Hawks have. There’s a veritable Hall of Fame-worthy team of players the Hawks passed on (Theo Ratliff, Stephen Jackson, Andrew Bogut, Jamal Crawford, Andre Iguodala, Al Jefferson, Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, Draymond Green) or traded on draft day, such as Pau Gasol and Luka Dončić , in favor of players who would be forever marked with their anonymity in Atlanta, such as Josh Childress, Marvin Williams, Shelden Williams, John Jenkins, and Dennis Schröder.
And then there’s Jon Koncak.
If you want to sum up what fans have seen from the Hawks in 50-plus years in Atlanta, you can do it with those two words…
A reserve player for most of his career after being taken with the 5th overall pick in 1985, the Hawks rewarded his mediocrity by matching an offer from the Detroit Pistons, giving him an unprecedented (at the time) $13 million contract in 1989. This move had a dual effect.
It hung the nickname “Jon Contract” on the Hawks lumbering center, and it made Shaquille O’Neal rethink his sport of choice, deciding to go with basketball over football after seeing the money which was to be made in the NBA.
Futility lives in State Farm Arena.
Since coming to Atlanta in 1968:
Playoff appearances – 33
Division titles – 5
NBA Finals appearances – 0
Championships – 0
28-3, and other tales of Falcons horror
(Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)
The Falcons have been a considerable source of pain for Atlantans over the years because the southeast and metro Atlanta as a whole are such football-crazy areas. Atlanta was broadcasting high school football games on television long before it was in vogue, and the pipeline of highly ranked prospects from Georgia is second only to Texas and Florida.
You’d think an expansion NFL franchise would thrive in such an environment.
No such luck.
Atlanta’s NFL franchise didn’t experience a winning season until its eighth year of existence and never had two consecutive winning seasons until the Matt Ryan era began in 2008.
Prior to that? Pockets of fleeting success. A few bright spots in an otherwise dark and troublesome franchise history. Before Matt Ryan and the consistency of “almost” came to the Falcons, you had to really grasp for things to cling to as a Falcons fan.
Hey, we had Tim Mazzetti, the soccer player/Philly bartender who finally got his shot at NFL glory with the Falcons, and set a record for kicks made in a 1978 Monday Night Football game, going 5-for-5 in a win over the Los Angeles Rams.
We had Big Ben I and II – soul-crushing wins over the much-hated Saints and 49ers. We had William Andrews and Lynn Cain, the two players who were essentially responsible for the infamous All-Madden teams, as the former Raiders coach exclaimed on numerous occasions, “If I were going to start my own football team, it would be with these two guys.”
We had the colorfully named and equally destructive “Grits Blitz” defense, which set a record for fewest points allowed in a 14-game season in 1977.
We had Billy “White Shoes” Johnson and Deion “Prime Time” Sanders, making sure the kick return games were always entertaining.
And we had two teams who were our first hope of becoming NFL champions — the 1978 and 1980 teams — led by fan-favorite and cannon-armed quarterback, Steve Bartkowski.
But then there was the Dallas Cowboys. America’s team. The team who twice completely deflated the Falcons fanbase with 4th quarter comeback playoff wins over favored Atlanta teams in 1978 and 1980. The moral of those losses – never bet against Danny White.
Drew Pearson is still not allowed within the Atlanta city limits to this day.
But nothing will compare to the shock, disbelief, and heartbreak for Falcons fans which is simply now known as “28-3”
Atlanta had the mighty New England Patriots on the ropes. Up 28-3 in the 3rd quarter of Super Bowl LI, with all the momentum on the Falcons side, nothing was going to stand in the way of the Falcons finally hoisting the Lombardi Trophy and ending five-plus decades of futility…
Atlanta looked like they were being controlled by a Madden 20 player who had gone to the kitchen for a beer while his opponent quickly B-buttoned their way to an unlikely victory.
Even when (or if) the Falcons finally win a Super Bowl they will never…ever…live down being on the wrong end of the biggest comeback win in Super Bowl history, and the Atlanta fanbase will forever be tormented by the numbers 28 and 3.
For myself and thousands of other Falcons fans, our time in purgatory has already been logged.
Since beginning in Atlanta in 1966:
Playoff appearances – 14
Division titles – 6
Super Bowl appearances – 2
Championships – 0
Atlanta fans only auditing college sports
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
If Alabama, Duke, and Clemson fans are the valedictorians of college sports fandom, then those who throw their loyalty at the two major universities in and near the Atlanta metro area are only auditing.
Beyond the aforementioned glory seasons of 1980 and 1990, there has been little to truly cheer about as a Georgia or Georgia Tech fan. Two of the oldest universities in the country with athletic programs that have been in place for over a century have given little back to the fans who so proudly wear their colors.
For football fans, it’s been one seasonal disaster after another following the magic of 1980. Season-ending losses in the two successive Sugar Bowls — to Pitt and Penn State — saw the Herschel Walker era at UGA come to a close and began the long drought which has still yet to be quenched…
Another national title.
Vince Dooley never got another shot after that 1982 season.
Ray Goff and Jim Donnan couldn’t beat a bowl of cake batter.
Kirby Smart has come close, and in a tale almost as painful as the Falcons 28-3, let Nick Saban and Alabama off the hook in the 2018 National Championship Game, and then again the following year in the SEC Championship game.
Georgia men’s basketball has been an unmitigated disaster for decades, with only a flicker of hope coming during the Hugh Durham years. The biggest claim to fame since then for UGA hoops fans is the tornado-interrupted SEC Tournament in 2008.
The UGA women’s team was on the cusp of greatness several times during the Andy Landers era, making it to the Final Four in five different seasons, and losing in the championship game twice during those glory years.
Similarly, the Georgia Tech men’s basketball team has teased fans, making the Final Four in two different seasons (1990, 2004) and losing in the title game during the latter.
In football, the Yellow Jackets have done little to boost the sports fan morale in the Atlanta Metro area, with a revolving door of coaches (at least giving way to some consistency from Paul Johnson and his famed triple-option attack) and season after season of mostly mediocrity. Even their lone modern-day championship in 1990 is disputed.
To be fair, the Georgia Bulldogs did grace fans with a national championship in baseball in 1990. I guess that could be considered a banner year for Atlanta area fans.
Atlanta Sports: Doom, Despair, and Agony On Me.
Oh, it hasn’t been all bad.
I saw Hank’s dinger to break the record. I saw Herschel and Georgia complete the perfect season and win a national title. I saw Bobby, Leo, and the Braves finally ring the bell in the strike-shortened 1995 season. I even saw Georgia Tech share a national football title with Colorado in 1990 (for the record, the coaches all said Tech was the real champion).
I got to see the Atlanta Knights win the IHL Turner Cup, and saw the fledgling Atlanta United FC take home the MLS Cup in only their second year of existence.
But aside from those highlights, it’s been horrid. A series of laughable teams, bad managers and coaches, awful ownership, and some moments of elation which quickly eviscerated into a mushroom cloud of torment and heartache.
On the whole, being a fan in Atlanta has been downright gutwrenching. A punch-in-the-face several times a year as seasons come and go. It’s becoming difficult as I get older to look at any upcoming season square in the eyes and feel confident or even encouraged because the end result of tears and flying expletives is almost certain.
And people wonder why I’m such a bourbon fan.
Cheers, Atlanta. May we outlive them all in our misery.