ATLANTA — America has a new team, even though it hasn’t played together in 21 years, one month and 12 days. In a time of no other sports, the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls have filled a void. “The Last Dance,” the multi-part ESPN series that chronicles their journey has us discussing Michael and Scottie and the Worm (i.e., Rodman) and the Zen Master (Phil Jackson) with a TV-driven fervor not felt since somebody shot J.R. Ewing.
Those Bulls claimed a sixth championship in eight years. Back in the day, I asked Jackson about riding the whirlwind. He likened it to being part of the Beatles — he’d just watched the Fab Four documentary that aired in 1995 — and also the Grateful Dead. “There were really only about six people around the Beatles,” he said. “Counting coaches and trainers, there are about 20 of us traveling around. And we’ve got our Jerry Garcia (Jordan), our Bobby Weir (Pippen).”
The Bulls ruled the ’90s, achieving two three-peats. What we forget is that, after their first three titles and with Jordan off playing minor league baseball — I covered his Birmingham Barons opener on April 8, 1994, the same night Kent Mercker threw a no-hitter in L.A. — as part of his first retirement, there was a vacancy atop the Eastern Conference. Larry Bird had retired. Isiah Thomas was about to quit, his Bad Boy Pistons having collapsed. Shaquille O’Neal was in his second NBA season. The Bulls were without the greatest player ever. Who would rise?
As it happened, the Atlanta Hawks. Briefly.
Of the many strange Hawks seasons, 1993-94 might have been the strangest, mostly in a good way. In Year 1 under a new coach, the Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens, they won 57 games, matching a franchise best that stood until 2015. They tied the Knicks for first in the East and claimed the No. 1 seed via a tiebreaker. They were a fun team to watch. They guarded hard and shared the ball. Midway through, they traded away the best player in Hawks annals.
Over time, shipping Dominique Wilkins to the Clippers has become the runaway leader for Worst Hawks Trade Ever. At the time, it made sense. Wilkins was 34. His shooting percentage — as you might have heard, he liked to shoot — had dipped to a career low. His contract was set to expire in June, and Wilkens, who’d won an NBA title in Seattle with the superstar-less Sonics, was looking to build a more collective vibe. The belief was that the Hawks had little interest in keeping ’Nique, so why not get something in return?
What they got was Danny Manning, who famously led Kansas to the 1988 NCAA title and had become an All-Star if not a superstar. His all-court game fit the Wilkens Way. The deal was consummated on Feb. 24. The Hawks were then 36-16, tied for first with Chicago in the Central Division. With Manning, they went 21-9 and took the Central by two games. Their winning percentage with Wilkins was .692; with Manning, it was .700. In sum, they traded the great Dominique and got incrementally better.
They clinched the division and the No. 1 seed on the season’s final day, a Freaknik Saturday that saw them hold off Shaq’s Magic, 93-89. Orlando had a chance to tie at the end, but Mookie Blaylock stole the ball from Penny Hardaway and fed Stacey Augmon for the clinching dunk. Manning had 19 points and four assists.
Afterward, Jon Koncak reflected on an improbable regular season: “So many things happened. Michael Jordan retires. Other teams have some injuries, and we go through the whole year without any. Chicago loses to Boston last night.”
Even with the wrenching Wilkins trade, it had been a serendipitous ride. The playoffs likewise set up nicely, with the Knicks and Bulls in the lower half of the Eastern bracket. The Hawks drew No. 8 Miami, which finished 42-40. Serendipity took a hike.
The Hawks lost Game 1 of the best-of-five at The Omni. They faced elimination in Game 4 on the road, prevailing on a night when Blaylock scored 29 and Manning 26. They led throughout in the decisive Game 5, played on a Sunday afternoon. They opened against fourth-seeded Indiana 48 hours later. They looked and played tired. They were outscored 49-32 in the second half. They were again down 1-0. This time there was no way back.
The home team won every game from then on, none decided by single digits. The Hawks lost Games 3, 4 and 6 in Indianapolis by 20, 16 and 19 points. The Knicks beat Chicago in seven and then Indiana in seven to advance to the NBA finals, where they lost to Houston in seven. (Game 5 of Rockets-Knicks is remembered for NBC airing the game in split screen as the slow-speed chase of O.J. Simpson and Al Cowlings in the white Bronco unfolded.)
As one guy (blush) wrote in the ol’ AJC: “These Hawks just gazed on the greatest opportunity of their professional lives and flubbed their chance.” The East had been there to win in a way it hadn’t before and wouldn’t again. Just this once, they were really good when there was no Bird, no Jordan and no LeBron to get past. In grand Hawks style, a sweet season ended with a thud. Then things got way worse.
Manning, see, was also a free agent. The Hawks offered $35 million over seven seasons. He thumbed his nose. By midsummer, general manager Pete Babcock said the odds of keeping him were “less than 50-50,” which made little sense, seeing as how nobody else could offer $35 mil. Sure enough, Manning signed with Phoenix — for one year at $1 million. Said team president Stan Kasten: “We tried to tell you.” Apparently Manning didn’t like playing alongside Kevin Willis.
The Hawks had traded one All-Star forward for another. Now they had neither. Wilkins signed with Celtics. His post-Hawks career: Clippers for 25 games; Boston for a year; Panathinaikos (Greece) for a year; San Antonio for a year; Bologna (Italy) for a year; Orlando for 27 games. Then he retired. The Hawks had gotten one thing right: He didn’t have much left.
Wilkens would coach the Hawks through 2000. Only in his final season did they miss the playoffs. Never would they advance past the conference semis, and never again would they win even two games once there. By spring 1995, Jordan was back with the Bulls. Three more title dances would ensue.
The Hawks’ shining regular season was rendered a curio, though this much should be said: Even as it happened, it didn’t quite seem real. The East’s No. 1 seed finished 21st in the 27-team NBA in attendance. Of the six home playoff games, none sold out. Only in Atlanta, folks.
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