If We Win Again, We’ll Be One Again
Forty years ago, Hank Aaron brought the South together with the stroke of a bat. But with his Braves abandoning the city for the suburbs, another team has stepped boldly forward to unify the South's largest city. We asked veteran sportswriter Ray Glier to assess the shifting allegiances in the pro-sports landscape of Atlanta.
A few weeks into the spring of 1974 slugger Hank Aaron built a bridge for a community.
The arcs holding up that bridge were made of white flight, but not the kind of white flight you’re thinking about. Aaron was chasing Babe Ruth on the most exalted page of the baseball record book, the page listing the all-time leaders in home runs, and Hank’s soaring shots over the outfield walls of National League stadiums — the white flight of a five-ounce baseball — made a community of black and white cheer together, for a few months at least.
You would be blind and ignorant to think Hank’s bridge did not have some pockmarks. After all, his mailbox exploded with mean mail from neighborhoods just across town because he happened to be black and Babe Ruth happened to be white.
Nonetheless, there was a broad coming together. Baseball, not yet football, was the sport of the town, and the white folks in the apple orchards in North Georgia and the black folks down on Auburn Avenue had a common hero and a common cause, which was to erase a Yankee from the top line of the record books.
Hank wanted what Babe had, and Atlanta wanted what New York had.
The statue of Hank Aaron remains at Turner Field, where the Braves have two more seasons to play before decamping for Cobb County.
Two of Atlanta’s most prominent African-American business executives — Pinnacle Investment Advisors Managing Member Felker Ward Jr. and the late construction magnate Herman Russell — each told me home run No. 715 on April 8, 1974, the night Aaron passed The Babe as the all-time home run king, made their friend Henry a hero for the whole town, not just the black side of town. This city, which has had a reputation for greater racial tolerance than other parts of the South, responded to the healing stroke of Hank’s 33-ounce bat. Black folks had an inner pride the morning after No. 715, and white folks felt good for Hank and felt good for the city to be front and center on a national stage ahead of New York because some of them, you know, were still being bitter Southerners of another era.
The moment has been lauded for over 40 years. It trumped, for a short time, the more ominous brand of “white flight,” that of white folks selling their houses and fleeing to the suburbs. Hank was the right hero at the right time. He had no bluster about him. He had poise and was stoic, Russell said. Some white folks of the day said they liked that Hank wasn’t “uppity” — as if his grace was just an act to please them.
Aaron suddenly has some diplomatic descendants in the meshing of two sides of town. Just as baseball has ripped us apart as a sporting city with the Braves and their business flight to Cobb County and the taking of public money to build their new stadium, there are some new heroes in our midst at the right time. They created a oneness with a round ball — this one weighing about 22 ounces. They play with poise and heart, like Hank played.
I'm talking about the Hawks, of course.
Preposterous, you say?
Go buy a playoff ticket and see for yourself. They are the People’s Team.
These Hawks can take their egos, one by one, and make them small enough to fit snugly into the space reserved for the toe in their $300 basketball shoes. These Hawks cut, they pass, and they share the ball, all for two points. They also win. These Hawks are swinging the first hammers in the remodeling of the NBA from a league of aging monarchs, like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, to a league of teams that spreads the floor and wins with a democratic union of talents. The first pass is never the last pass.
There is a meshing in the grandstands of Philips Arena, too, a mostly together crowd, not a splintered crowd, just like in 1974 when Hank was hammering. Blacks and whites, sometimes a 50-50 crowd, squeezing past each other on the congested concourse, slimming up with a big inhale to get down a stuffed aisle to their seats, and then sitting elbow to elbow. It isn’t just white folks in the $300 seats and black folks halfway to the moon in the rafters, either.
The Hawks have replaced Hank as Atlanta’s sporting conscience and what the city should strive for.
What is preposterous is that just a year ago, the Hawks were the belladonna of Atlanta, a poison, somebody that made you cross to the other side of the street when you saw them coming. The team’s principal owner, Bruce Levenson, said black people scared white people away from Philips Arena. His e-mail to other executives in the organization was made public and Levenson came to the sensible conclusion that he needed to sell the team. There are a number of potential ownership groups lined up to buy the Hawks, a deal that will likely be done by mid-summer.
On top of Levenson’s coming out, there was the calamity of General Manager Danny Ferry. The architect of the Hawks read from a scouting report in 2014 that a free-agent prospect had “a little African in him.” There is suspicion about Ferry because he didn’t stop in mid-sentence and choke on those words about swingman Luol Deng. Ferry was suspended indefinitely and banned from all team activities. His fate will likely rest with the new owners.
Then, on the eve of the 2014-15 season, the CEO, Steve Koonin, declared that the era of the minivan arriving at the arena doors to an NBA game from the suburbs with a load of scrubbed kids was finished. No matter how Koonin meant it when talking to Steve Hummer of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the comment was taken as a backhand to whites. (Koonin, it was later explained, was merely stressing that the Hawks needed to widen their marketing net. He was not excluding anyone, though some older white people didn’t take it that way when Koonin labeled them “Alpharetta Unicorns” on ESPN.com.)
The Hawks’ racial calamity came on the heels of the Braves fleeing downtown for Cobb County because the baseball team’s season-ticket base — mostly white — was on the northern arc and the city of Atlanta would not surrender $200 million — at least — to a reinvention of the Turner Field area. The Braves’ white fans who drove in from the suburbs told me, over and over, “the stadium is not in a good place in town.” The team announced it is leaving downtown after the 2016 season to improve its revenue streams with a real estate venture and get closer to its fan base, which happens to be white.
The politicians in Cobb County forked over almost $400 million to help make it happen.
So it was “Us” vs. “Them” again. Our pro sports teams, the Braves and Hawks, had ceased being public trusts and common threads of the metro area. That’s what it seemed like anyway. These were businesses, nothing more.
“What’s happened is you have gone from teams being institutions that, even though they are private owners, they are public trusts,” Bob Hope, the city’s ablest PR man, told me back in November. “The marketing was for the general community. When Ted Turner bought the Braves, like a house, he put a little down ($10 million) and went to work building a fan base all over town. Now it is just big-time business. These guys are looking at the demographics of their audience, making every move to maximize revenue.
“When you do that, the natural demographics of a community are torpedoed in favor of going to where your most likely customers are based.”
But then, just as our pot melted, it became a stew again. I recently heard a preacher use a churchy word: “transfiguration.” That’s what this is. A transfiguration.
Hank’s descendants are the Hawks.
The doors were thrown wide open to the rapper T.I. on opening night for the Hawks, and it was a young and black crowd that poured in to Philips Arena. I kept checking on the crowd the first few weeks of the season, and it was youngish still and more “urban,” but not the urban you think.
Koonin went after the urban millennials who are reshaping the city and demanding mass transit and community among the skyscrapers. Black and white. The Hawks kept the billboards up outside the perimeter for fans who looked like Koonin — older, whiter. Koonin was delivering on his marketing vow, drawing the millennials who were both white and black and live in the city. Who could be upset by that? Find the folks who want your product and pitch them. If you want to go see hoops, go already. If you don’t, stay home. The baseball showman, Bill Veeck, used to say, “If you’re not buying what I’m selling, it’s my fault, not yours.” Koonin had been saying it was the Hawks’ fault attendance sucked.
The Hawks hired Nzinga Shaw as their chief diversity and inclusion officer. She is the first to hold such a title in the NBA. She said Koonin, with his minivan comment, was merely saying the Hawks were going to chase a subset of fans it had ignored in the past. Fair enough. I get it now.
Koonin, the Hawks’ Showman, backed it up with an assortment of pre-game and in-game acts that had broad appeal. T.I. yielded to a children’s choir, who yielded to a Hanukkah celebration. The DJ spinning music filled the arena with the smoky soul of Adele and then leaned on the throttle with hip-hop, all over a new multimillion-dollar sound system. You used to have to petition the Supreme Court or call out the National Guard for this much black/white inclusiveness in the South.
There was one more piece to make it a Hallmark card. It was something Bob Hope said to me back in the fall: “If we win again, we will be one again.”
Sure enough, the Hawks started winning and the fans — all ages, colors, backgrounds — rolled into Philips Arena. The squad of non-superstars started knocking off the supposed powerhouses of the NBA, Golden State and Cleveland, among others. Atlanta, which was near the bottom of in the NBA in attendance in 2013-2014, had 10 sellouts by Feb. 1.
The Hawks had been misread. They were not going to make the fandom “too urban,” which is what the owner Levenson had feared. It just started off that way this season. T.I., one black fan told me, was just a big apology to black folks for the words of Levenson and Ferry. The people who happened to be black came out to see a cultural icon on opening night. If Sinatra had strolled out, there would have been a lot of light blue hair and graybeards in the joint, I’m sure.
Throughout this season, I have watched Philips Arena ebb and flow in demographics, and the diversity is striking. Blacks and young whites are dominant in the stands, but the suburban guy, the one with an SUV now instead of a minivan, is still showing up.
It is a mirror of what is happening in the city. There is a “transfiguration” happening right before our eyes in our sporting landscape.
In 1997, the percentage of black voters for mayor was 59 percent. That number has dropped to 47.41 percent, according to an analysis of the Georgia Secretary of State’s most recent voting records. The percentage of white voters is 35.52 percent. The next mayor might want to start his campaign on the concourse of Philips Arena, because its demographic makeup reflects the electorate.
Clark Dean, senior managing director for the real estate firm Transwestern, was a member of the Hawks “board of ambassadors,” a coalition of business and civic leaders who backed the team, before Koonin disbanded it. Dean said the Hawks never preached to him that they were going to market exclusively to one demographic. There was never an aim to exclude the people in the ’burbs, he said. Think of the Braves in 1991 and the arc of the love that surrounded that team county to county. It extended to Cherokee, down to Clayton, out to Gwinnett and DeKalb, and west to Douglas, as well as Fulton and Cobb, and all the way north to outposts like Ellijay.
“When I hear Steve talk about targeting ‘millennials’ it is different than targeting urban and targeting suburban,” said Dean, who is Harvard-educated and of the Gen X cohort (over 40). “Millennials are a very diverse group of people in race, socioeconomics and geographic preference. These millennials are engaged in the notion of community. They want to make a difference. They want to do meaningful work. It is a group that believes in social capital.”
I talked to some of the white fans at the Hawks’ home opener. They have no idea what Levenson was talking about in his infamous e-mail about black faces scaring away whites.
“I’ve been coming here 10 years, I’ve seen maybe 100 games,” Jack Priblow, who is white, told me for a story I wrote for USA TODAY. “I haven’t had one issue here with anybody. This is a great atmosphere to watch a game.”
Next time you are at a Hawks game, look at the Sixth Man crowd, a rowdy bunch of people in Hawks’ gear. Young. Black. White.
Here is the cool part, the wave, the bounce. Atlanta is recalibrating. There was so much distress when the Braves announced their departure, but there is a window open for a younger set of sports fans to wrap their arms around Major League Soccer at the new stadium, or the Hawks, or Georgia State University athletics, if the giant downtown institution succeeds in buying Turner Field.
A new fan base is washing over Atlanta. Those Northeastern immigrant dads who showed up in Celtics jerseys from the Larry Bird Era are headed to the rest homes. Their kids are showing up wearing the colors of the Hawks.
Kwanza Hall, an Atlanta city councilman, said there is a way forward — together — because this is the new age of participant sports. We all play here in Atlanta with our moderate temperatures. We’re outdoors, a lot. The sports landscape after the 2016 season will no longer include a Major League Baseball team downtown, but it will include a professional soccer team. It could soon after include a retrofit of Turner Field for the Georgia State football program, and room for the Panthers’ baseball program across the street at the site of the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
Hall, who studied at MIT after growing up in Southwest Atlanta, is all about silver linings.
“Georgia cities and communities have gone through life cycles from the professional teams here kicking off — the Falcons, the Braves in the ’60s — the Hank Aaron home run, and the Olympic moment,” Hall said. “There is a need now to recalibrate. We’re at a place where things are in flux and there is a paradigm shift. What do we do next?”
Hall can see the city embracing soccer and becoming more international. He sees opportunity in the new Martin Luther King Jr. Natatorium, which is slated to be built in the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood. (As a teenager, Hall served as a lifeguard at the recently closed natatorium, which the new one will replace.) Hall can see positive redevelopment in the Turner Field site with its acres of parking spaces turned into a park.
“We have to chart a new course and have a game plan,” he said. “Teams win and have losing streaks. How do you keep your winning streak going? You reinvest. Get sharper. Develop facilities, develop your people. We are at that point of reset. (Those) who came out of the Civil Rights Movement put a lot of energy into this community. The strides that were made were monumental. We have to find that generation of leaders that will carry on the work.
“We might have lost something, but we gained something.”
What Hall meant is that Atlanta has gained a fresh start.
Could it be that downtown is better off without the Braves and the Braves are better off without downtown? Can the community around Turner Field be better served?
“Things happen for a reason, and when they happen, real players quickly pick back up and come up with a game plan,” Hall said. “What I learned from losing a game on the playgrounds of Southwest Atlanta was much more valuable than what I learned from winning. We’re going to work harder as a collective. We have to organize ourselves a little better and come up with a new generation of players so we move forward the next 25 to 30 years.”
Hall talks earnestly about the next generation of sports in Atlanta. There is the soccer team, but there are also the X Games and other alternative sports.
“You have to look at where people are unified by sports, not divided,” Hall said. “We will be unified.”
So what about the team moving to the other side of the Chattahoochee? We are not unified behind them. The baseball team that stopped being America’s team a long time ago will no longer even be Atlanta’s team. The Braves are a niche team. The red specks on the season-ticket-holders map look like a measles outbreak over the northern arc — Cobb County, Cherokee County.
The club had enough of trying to make it work downtown and they wanted a public handout, which is how it is these days in professional sports. They couldn’t create a retail mecca — without the help of the city, state and county — and have a boomtown on the south side of Atlanta to boost profits and stay competitive with the rest of the teams in their division.
The Braves had advertisements on “urban” radio stations and billboards on the south side of town, but it didn’t produce results. They also couldn’t get their “majority” consistently down I-75 to games. That majority, over and over, said it was because of “the neighborhood” and traffic that they didn’t go to Atlanta.
So a business decision had to be made, and it was made by some men who weren’t here 40 years ago. Like many pro sports teams before them, the Braves found a few good men — Cobb politicians — to fork over the people’s tax dollars without a referendum and proper vetting.
The Braves own 60 acres in Cobb and will use 15 acres for a ballpark and the rest for their retail mecca, or so they hope. The club will be a landlord over development and it will help the organization pay salaries for the millionaire players. The politicians of Cobb County gave the Braves $400 million when the club could not get it from the mayor of Atlanta, or the team’s own billionaire owner. The politicians downtown, meanwhile, twiddled their thumbs, dared the team to leave, and the baseball team called their bluff.
Still, Ted Turner didn’t walk away from downtown when Atlanta, like Mobile, Ala., for instance, went from being a baseball town to a football town. Arthur Blank didn’t run to the suburbs, either, chasing money. His Falcons stayed downtown, albeit with the prodding of some public money. The Falcons’ new football stadium, now under construction, will host Final Fours, soccer, conventions and such, but $200 million of public money for a $1 billion football/multi-use stadium does not compare to over $400 million of the $672 million fleecing in the Braves deal, which had no transparency.
The Braves wanted to own the property around Turner Field, one landowner told me. His property. You will recall in the infamous Memorandum of Understanding between Cobb and the Braves, as reported by the AJC, the Braves wanted power of eminent domain around the new stadium so the county could buy/seize private property for the club.
The Braves also said the lack of rail to Turner Field really hurt and they had to move because of that. It made you scratch your head. There was not — and still is not — a plan to bring rail to Cobb County’s new ballpark. Cobb has fought the Metropolitan Atlanta Transit Authority from crossing into its county as vigorously as a dictator fights rebellions.
Joe Dendy, chair of the Cobb County Republican Party, sent out this statement following the announcement of the Braves’ move to Cobb: “It is absolutely necessary the solution is all about moving cars in and around Cobb and surrounding counties from our north and east where most Braves fans travel from, and not moving people into Cobb by rail from Atlanta.”
It just confirmed that the Chattahoochee is really a moat between Atlanta and the new Braves stadium.
Billye Aaron, the wife of the home run king, is dismayed by what she sees as a fracture in the two societies, not just here, but around the country. We have moved backwards, she said. I think some of it has to do with businessmen who run sports franchises working as hard as they can for the money and doing what they have to do. Mrs. Aaron thinks there is also something far more sinister going on.
“We have lost our way for the moment; hopefully it will not be a lasting thing,” she said. “Race relations are at a tremendous low at this stage, and it is reflective of what the Braves have just done. I hear people saying ‘We have to take our country back,’ as if to say they want to move back to pre-Civil Rights days.”
Mrs. Aaron’s distress is so real she hopes the majestic statue of her husband that sits in the plaza at Turner Field does not move to Cobb County. She said it was nickels and dimes that paid for that statue and it should stay downtown where her husband hit his home runs. The Braves are on record, saying the team wants to move the statue to the new ballpark in Cobb County.
She might soften one day, but she also said, “I don’t know that Cobb County would want it.”
The Braves told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that they want the statue to be a part of the landscape at their new ballpark. They obviously feel they own the statue. Georgia State, I am told, wants the statue if it buys the Turner Field property and develops its own baseball stadium.
A judge, in the manner of Solomon, might rule just to cut the statue in half and see who really wants it.
“I think we have come to a sad place in our history here,” Mrs. Aaron said. “The legacy of the former mayor, Ivan Allen, and all of that group of business leaders has just sort of disappeared. The concern that they showed for bridging the gap between blacks and whites in this community seems not to be a part of the mode of operation these days.
“I think it is reflective of what we see in the country these days. We are caught up in a mood that is so unfortunate and a behavior that shows complete disregard for the feelings of people that was very much a part of this city.”
Understand what Mrs. Aaron is saying. She is not laying all the blame for a schism 100 percent on the Braves, nor should she. There was a lack of leadership downtown, too, among the civic leaders. Indeed, there were suggestions the mayor’s development team taunted the Braves with, “Where ya gonna move to?” when the team was looking for a partnership in developing the Turner Field site. The city didn’t think the Braves had a Plan B. Sometimes I wonder if the downtown leaders didn’t even want the team badly enough.
Mrs. Aaron, of course, wanted a reinvestment in the Braves, by both parties. Obviously, she feels the city of Atlanta community has been disrespected.
This fracture is painful. The red carpet rolled out by Ted Turner to all people when he owned both teams by now has more holes than a yard-sale blanket. It is not the true spirit of Atlanta, said Bob Hope.
“In Atlanta, more so than any place in the country, there has been a tradition of all races working together in a comfortable way,” Hope said. “Like any town there are tough parts of town, but that is not as much a race issue as it is an economic issue. Here in Atlanta people have always gotten along.
“Georgia was the last colony established by Great Britain, and one of the tenets was there would be no slavery. So right up until the start of the Revolutionary War blacks and whites lived as equals here. That’s part of the heritage of this city. There is a tremendous harmony that has existed here. Anything that says otherwise is worthy of addressing and can be painful to overcome.”
Can the Braves overcome, the way the Hawks overcame? If they do, the city can build on the lasting legacy of Hank’s home run.