I have a knack for being off the grid, somewhere sort of weird, when history happens: I was waiting for the bathroom at a lesbian rager in Santa Fe, N.M., when Barack Obama was elected. I was in Japan, at a dark, labyrinthine Internet cafe, when Osama Bin Laden was killed. And I was on an old tobacco farm in Santa Fe, Tenn. - pronounced "Santa Fee" - last week, when the Atlanta Hawks effectively traded 31-year-old guard Joe Johnson and the $90 million or so they owed him over the next four years. (The trade was finalized July 11.) In return, the Brooklyn Nets gave the Hawks fiscal freedom, a future of possibility, and a handful of dudes you've never heard of whose contracts handily expire next year.
The trade gave me a tingly feeling and a bruised leg: Jumping up and down by myself, trying to convey the significance of this event to a nearby bull, I fell down on the farm in Santa Fe. The bull, whose name is Nostradamus, leapt over a fence within the hour and wasn't captured until the next day. Draw your own conclusions from these separate events, but it was an unusual moment for a lifelong Hawks fan susceptible to signs. A moment nearly impossible to imagine before it occurred.
The Hawks' new general manager, Danny Ferry - henceforth referred to as The GM Who Wasn't Foretold (TGMWWF) - also traded perennially underwhelming forward Marvin Gaye Williams Jr. and his cumbersome contract. But parting with Johnson - a quiet, likeable, and better-than-average but still-not-great basketball player being paid like Michael Jordan's ex-wife - was the unmakeable move. And two weeks into his new job, TGMWWF made it look easy: BOOM! FOR MY NEXT TRICK, I'LL MAKE JOSH SMITH STOP SHOOT- ING THREES! AND LARRY DREW LOOK WELL-RESTED!
Only a Russian billionaire with a pet NBA team in his portfolio would indulge such a transaction, of course. Fortunately, the Nets 6-foot-8 owner Mikhail Prokhorov, a gold baron and politician who does flips on a Jet Ski when he isn't toying with American basketball, was just such a man: a deep-pocketed, short-sighted accomplice of the win-now order.
But it's TGMWWF, the shiny-domed Dukie, who has given Hawks fans (and the legions of would-be fans) reason to hope again. To hope, in particular, for a superstar like Chris Paul to join the gang next season when he becomes a free agent. To hope, even without such an addition, for a young, fun team to watch. To hope for Hawks who (I'm sorry, but I'm getting emotional) soar.
As we tick back toward another presidential election, hope may not be as fashionable as it was four years ago. But I feel it now more than ever as a basketball fan. It's kind of awkward, like first love.
Just a few weeks ago, hope was especially low. Even for a Hawks fan. I went to Hawks Headquarters on Marietta Street, not long after a tough breakup, to watch a dreary annual rite: the NBA draft. (Dreary, mostly, for the NBA's lovelorn ornithologists.) A dozen young male cynics - local basketball writers, bloggers, reporters, etc. - were crowded into a room with two TVs and a variety of mediocre warm food items.
We waited three hours for the Hawks to pick an unheralded, skinny jump shooter named John Jenkins with the 23rd pick, even though he was supposed to go in the second round. And then some of us (not me) waited another two hours - urged on by some small amount of residual optimism, caffeine, free food, or, I guess, professionalism - for the Hawks to take someone named Mike Scott with the 43rd pick.
Neither drew rousing applause or provoked a tingly feeling. I didn't bruise my leg. It seemed like business as usual: The Hawks bungling another draft (though not as badly as when they took Marvin Williams ahead of Chris Paul in 2005). It seemed like we'd never learn from our mistakes.
Then TGMWWF flew in, fresh from Planet How Things Should Be, and unbroke our strange little hawkish hearts. Mine, at least. Can't wait to tell the therapist all about it on Thursday.