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The Hawks: Could this be the worst franchise in pro sports?

    ATLANTA — Joe Johnson averaged more than 20 points last season. He played on the U.S. team at the world championships. And he can still walk the streets of Atlanta without being bothered.
    ‘‘I love to go out in the city and have nobody recognize me,’’ he said. ‘‘If I could have it like that throughout my career, I would love it.’’
    Such are the perks of playing for the Atlanta Hawks, the city’s forlorn NBA team and perhaps the worst franchise in all of pro sports.
    Granted, there’s stiff competition from teams such as baseball’s Tampa Bay Devil Rays and football’s Arizona Cardinals. But the Hawks can make a pretty good — or should we say bad — case for themselves in several key categories:
    —Seven straight losing seasons. The Hawks haven’t made the playoffs since 1999, the second-longest drought in the league behind the Golden State Warriors. Two years ago, they managed to win all of 13 games, the worst season in franchise history. Heck, the expansion Charlotte Bobcats have won more games in their first two seasons than Atlanta during the same span.
    —Lack of tradition. Since moving to Atlanta in 1968, the Hawks have never gotten past the second round of the playoffs. The franchise’s only championship came in 1958, while still based in St. Louis during Eisenhower’s second term. No other NBA team has gone so long — 48 years — without a title.
    —Apathetic fan base. The Hawks usually rank at or near the bottom of the league in attendance. Former owner Ted Turner once tried playing home games in Charlotte, Louisville and New Orleans, hoping to boost the number of folks cheering for his team. It didn’t work. Last season, only woeful Portland drew fewer fans at home than the Hawks, who often announce turnouts that are in no way reflective of how many people are actually in Philips Arena.
    —Ownership mess. A group known as the Atlanta Spirit, which bought the team in 2004, seems to have spent as much time in court as at the court. The unwieldy partnership collapsed when one of its members, Steve Belkin, refused to approve the sign-and-trade deal for Johnson. The other owners went to court to push it through, then agreed to buy out Belkin’s share. But Belkin claims they reneged on the deal, so he’s asked a judge to let him buy out the others. Stay tuned.
    —Bad luck, bad karma, bad trades. Did you know that Julius Erving once suited up for the Hawks? Dr. J played for the team during the 1972 preseason, but a legal injunction forced him back to the American Basketball Association and the rest is history. The Hawks lost first-round picks David Thompson AND Marvin Webster to the ABA in ’75 — one year before the upstart league was absorbed by the NBA. And let’s not forget that Atlanta willingly dealt for troubled Isaiah Rider, who didn’t even make it through one season before he was let go, having repeatedly showed up late for practices and games.
    With that sort of track record, it’s little wonder that the Hawks are dribbling through life with hardly anyone paying attention. Even in a city that has become a Mecca for pro athletes with its large, affluent black population, few of the NBA’s biggest stars have shown the least bit of interest in playing for the home team.
    ‘‘Nobody likes a losing team,’’ Johnson said bluntly. ‘‘The Hawks haven’t made the playoffs in who knows how long. It’s tough. Nobody likes to really root for a losing team. We’ve got to develop some respect. You don’t get respect just on paper. We’ve got to come out and start winning some ballgames. Then we’ll start filling the arena.’’
    Don’t bet on it. Since the beginning, Atlanta has never shown much promise as an NBA city.
    After leaving St. Louis, the Hawks played their first four seasons at Georgia Tech’s 7,000-seat arena but couldn’t even fill that tiny building, averaging less than 4,500 their first season despite sending out a high-scoring playoff team led by Lou Hudson and Zelmo Beaty.
    The following year, the Hawks won the first of four division titles they’ve captured in Atlanta, but the city let out a collective yawn; there were still plenty of good seats available with attendance increasing to just 5,200 per game. The move to the twice-as-large Omni didn’t help much, as the Hawks cracked 10,000 in average attendance just once in their first 18 seasons.
    The Hawks draw far more fans these days, though the official numbers — last year, it was 15,068 — reflect ‘‘tickets distributed’’ and not how many people actually show up. A few years ago, the turnout was so pathetic for one game that everyone was invited to sit in the lower deck, leaving the upper level completely empty for the second half.
    Back in the 1980s, the Hawks seemed on the verge of carving out a lasting legacy.
    Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins led the team to four straight 50-win seasons, attendance soared over 15,000 for the first time and the city went wild for the Hawks during a classic 1988 playoff series against Larry Bird and the powerful Boston Celtics.
    After a stunning Game 5 win at Boston Garden, Atlanta returned home with a chance to wrap up a spot in the Eastern Conference finals. But the Celtics escaped with a 102-100 win at the Omni, then returned to Boston for another two-point victory in Game 7, best remembered for the back-and-forth shootout between Wilkins and Bird.
    The Atlanta star poured in 47 points but Bird countered with 20 of his 34 points in the final quarter, including a long 3-pointer over Wilkins with less than 2 minutes remaining that helped secure a 118-116 win.
    The Hawks never really recovered from that loss. They did win another division title in 1994, but the season was marred by the unpopular trade of Wilkins for Danny Manning. Atlanta was knocked off in the second round of the playoffs, Manning left as a free agent and the franchise is still feeling the impact.
    ‘‘They had some good years here during the ’Nique era,’’ third-year coach Mike Woodson said. ‘‘Sure, they never won a title, but they were in some playoff games. My whole intention in taking the job was to try to get this team back to the playoffs. Once you get in, anything is possible.’’
    It’s been a long, still-to-be-completed road back to the playoffs.
    The current woes began after two more 50-win seasons during the late ’90s, each followed by playoff flops. The Hawks made an ill-fated attempt to get younger and quicker. The Rider trade was the most glaring mistake during that overhaul, which sent the team into a tailspin that it’s still trying to recover from.
    Atlanta has collected some promising young players — Johnson, Josh Smith and Marvin Williams — who talk hopefully of leading the team back to the playoffs.
    ‘‘This is the team of the future,’’ Smith said. ‘‘We can’t look in the past.’’
    Of course, that’s wishful thinking. No matter how good these youngsters are, it’s going to take a while to escape the dark cloud that has hovered over this franchise for nearly four decades.
    ‘‘When you put on that Hawks uniform, you’re part of the history,’’ Johnson said. ‘‘We’ve got to pick this franchise back up.’’

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