Category Archives: Sports

Ice Trae 2, the Shimmy, and the Frozen Pond

I reported two weeks ago that Atlanta’s NBA Hawks were still playing in June, having made it to the second round of the playoffs. Now, for only the second time in the franchise’s 53-year history, the Hawks have made it to the Eastern Conference finals, 1 of only 4 teams still standing.

I promise that this is not going to turn into a permanent sports blog, but what the Hawks have accomplished thus far is worth a longer look. On March 1, the Hawks were 14-20, 6 games under .500. The underachieving team fired head coach Lloyd Pierce and replaced him with then-assistant coach Nate McMillan. The team caught fire. Since then they’ve won 35 out of 50, tied for the best record in the league over that stretch.

In the first round the #5 seed Hawks beat the #4 seeded Knicks in 6 games, twice on the road in Madison Square Garden before a decidedly hostile Gotham crowd. In Round 2, the Hawks beat the top-seed Philadelphia 76ers three times in Philly to win the series in 7 games. Long-suffering Hawks fans remember the 1988 NBA playoffs, when Atlanta led Larry Bird and the top-seeded Boston Celtics 3 games to 2 in the second round, only to lose Games 6 and 7 to fall just short. Not this year, and not this team.

Next up: the #3 seed Milwaukee Bucks and their All-World center, the Greek Freak Giannis Antetokounmpo. True to form, the Hawks won Game 1 on the Bucks home floor—only the 4th team in NBA history to win three Game 1s on the road in the playoffs, matching the ’99 Knicks, the ’89 Bulls, and the ’81 Rockets. Also true to form, Ice Trae scored 48 points, tying Lebron King James for most points in the conference finals by a player 22 or younger. And he’s not called Ice Trae for nothing: He even did a little shimmy before making a 3-pointer.

Pundits are picking the Hawks in 6 games. No predictions here, just enjoying this ride for as long as it lasts. And when we’re not watching the Hawks, let’s flip over to….

The frozen pond? Yes, the National Hockey League.

To the uninitiated, it’s not unusual for the NBA and the NHL to be playing in June. Though both basketball and hockey are considered winter sports, both leagues usually crown their champions in June. The pandemic delayed the start of both seasons last fall, so the NBA Finals and the Stanley Cup will be decided this year in July. And if you’re paying attention to the playoffs in both sports, it’s a feast.

The conference championships are already underway in hockey, and traditionalists are celebrating the return of both the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Islanders to prominence. When I was growing up as an Atlanta Flames fan in the 1970s, Montreal won 6 Stanley Cup championships in that decade, while the Islanders won 4 in a row between 1980 and 1983. That’s dominance and consistency on a rare scale. To see them both back in the championship semi-finals is a treat. Watching them play each other in the Stanley Cup Finals would be unbelievable. Talk about flashbacks: cue “My Sharona.”

In those halcyon days in the late 1970s when the Braves and Falcons were dismal, my great friend Randy “The Big Man” Guillebeau and I were Atlanta Flames fanatics. We tuned in to hear Jiggs McDonald and fellow announcer Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion call the games on the Superstation. We bought street hockey sticks and played in the driveway with tennis balls, with The Big Man playing the part of Flames goalie great Dan Bouchard. We even hopped the Marta train down to the Omni to watch games in person.

The Flames came to Atlanta in 1972 and made the playoffs 6 times in 8 years, but apparently The Big Man and I didn’t buy enough tickets to keep the financially struggling franchise in town. I’ve been a Calgary Flames fan ever since. The team finally won a Stanley Cup in 1989 though not, alas, for Atlanta.

Being a NHL fan in the Deep South has always been a lonely avocation, but less so now with many teams in the region. Charlotte, Nashville, Tampa, and Miami all currently have NHL teams.

But not, alas, Atlanta. As we pointed out in the episode on the Atlanta Thrashers for Today in Georgia History, if Atlanta loses one more hockey franchise we’ll score a hat trick.

It’s doubtful that the NHL ever returns to Georgia, but hope springs eternal.

Speaking of: I’ll take the Hawks in 7. If I’m right, see you back here for more in two weeks.

Ice-Trae in June

It’s the second week of June, and let’s pause our perusal of history for a moment to praise Atlanta’s National Basketball Association team. Wait, we’re paying attention to the Hawks in June? In the immortal words of Bud Robertson, Oh my yes.

Long-suffering readers of this blog recall that a little over 6 years ago I wrote about the historic season the Atlanta Hawks were having in the 2014-15 season. Those Hawks had a remarkable 19-game mid-season winning streak and finished with a mark of 60-22, a franchise record for wins. As the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Hawks made it to the conference finals before being swept by the Lebron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers, who lost the NBA Finals in 6 games to the Golden State Warriors.

As good as that team was, Hawks brass broke it up completely within a couple of years. Coach Mike Budenholzer is now coaching the Milwaukee Bucks (who are getting destroyed in this year’s playoffs by the Brooklyn Nets), and not one player remains from that amazing team.

To repeat, I’m telling you all this because it’s now the season in which Atlanta sports fans are traditionally focused squarely on the Braves and anticipating the start of college football in a mere 3 months. But this year the faithful are again watching the Hawks do something special.

Last year’s squad lost 47 games and didn’t make the playoff bubble. This year’s team improved by 21 games over last year and finished as the 5th seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs—much higher than anyone expected during what was supposed to be another rebuilding year.

Far from rebuilding, these Hawks are actually just built. They have literally grown up before our eyes. Led by rising superstar “Ice” Trae Young (just 22 years old) and a great supporting cast, the underdog Hawks knocked off the hated New York Knicks in the first round, driving Spike Lee and Knicks fans crazy in the process. They’re currently in the conference semi-finals, one of 8 teams total still standing, having beaten top-seeded Philadelphia in the first game of the series. How bad was it for Philly? 76’ers fans were reduced to chanting, “Trae is bald-ing” during the Game 1 beatdown. This series is far from over, but already the Hawks have vastly over-achieved.

What next? Even if the Hawks should knock off the Sixers to make it to the conference finals, they would in all likelihood face the stacked-from-top-to-bottom Brooklyn Nets, whom they’re not likely to beat four times—are they?

NBA basketball in Atlanta in July? 

To quote Goethe: Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.

Podcast S4E7: Item! Stan Lee and the Golden Age of Comics

Stan talks about This Week in History (including King George III, AIDS, RFK, Mount Everest, & Charles Dickens), remembers a record-breaking baseball player, highlights new additions to the Off the Deaton Path bookshelf, and spotlights an incredible and historic collection of golden-age comic books about to hit the auction block–and the influence of comics in his own life.

Where Wood Meets Cowhide

It’s Opening Day of the 2021 Major League Baseball season, and the first pitch is at 3:00 this afternoon, so this blog will be short, though the season won’t be, thank goodness. 

You will remember that this time last year, we didn’t get to celebrate the return of baseball because the pandemic shut down the MLB season, as it did all other major sports, at least for a time.  I lamented the loss of our national pastime and commemorated the anniversary of Henry Aaron’s 715th dinger in one of my Dispatches. Baseball eventually played a 60-game season, which was better than nothing, but it felt like the campaign ended before it even got started. This year’s season, barring an unforeseen catastrophe, will be a full 162-game swing, complete with playoffs and World Series.

Long-suffering readers of this blog well know that I’ve been a life-long baseball fan and have shared that love here many times, dating back to the blog’s earliest days. I swooned over watching Hank Aaron hit home run #713 at the very first Braves game I attended in 1973; lamented the retirement of Yankee great Derek Jeter, who exemplified the way the game is played; and celebrated the heroic Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947. What memories await us this season?

Last year our beloved hometown team made it all the way to Game 7 of the National League Championship Series (blowing a 3-1 series lead along the way) before losing to the eventual champion and much-hated Dodgers.

This year’s version of the Atlanta National League Baseball Team Known As the Braves should be even better. Ian Anderson, last year’s rookie phenom will be pitching a full season. Mike Soroka will soon return from a gruesome Achilles heel injury and join young Max Fried and veteran Charlie Morton in a solid starting pitching rotation that will be backed up by one of the best bullpens in the majors (even if it does still include Luke “Serve ‘Em Up” Jackson, who is singlehandedly the cause of more airborne TV remotes than the entire Atlanta Falcons team combined, no small feat).

National League MVP Freddie Freeman anchors the infield, and with the re-signing of Marcell “Ledbetter” Ozuna, the Braves’ offense is solid and loaded with young talent all over the diamond—including Christian Pache, Ronald Acuna, Jr., Dansby Swanson, Austin Riley, and Ozzie Albies. And though the Braves will miss the retired Nick Markakis, they should get some much-needed veteran leadership off the bench with the addition of the Kung Fu Panda, the three-time World Series champion Pablo Sandoval.

We’ll never take Opening Day for granted again. It’s an old cliché, but it’s still true: Wherever you are and whatever the weather, it’s a beautiful day for baseball.

Podcast S4E6: The Stamp Act, Houdini, & Spike Lee

Stan talks about This Week in History (the Stamp Act, James Jackson, Spike Lee, the first Black graduate of West Point, the Masters, Tomochichi, & Houdini), says goodbye to a pathbreaking historian and actor, spotlights new additions to the Off the Deaton Path bookshelf, and welcomes the opening of Major League Baseball.