We do not hate Atlanta nor its sports fans. We can’t even summon the old “Casablanca” line when Rick Blaine tells a petty thief, “If I gave you any thought I probably would [despise you].”
No. It’s not that. When it comes to Atlanta and its sports fans, we feel nothing. Maybe a little pity.
The Patriots are going to the Super Bowl in Houston Feb. 5, and they are going to play the Atlanta Falcons, and that takes a little fun out of the experience. It’s thrilling to see the Patriots get a chance to carry out their frontier justice on Roger Goodell. It will be sweet if Bill Belichick becomes the first coach to win five Super Bowls and Tom Brady ends the debate once and for all by surpassing Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana with five Super Bowl rings.
But Atlanta? Seriously? This will be like the Larry Bird Celtics winning two of their championships by beating the Houston Rockets instead of the Lakers. It’ll be like the Bruins beating the expansion St. Louis Blues to win the Stanley Cup. It’ll be like the Red Sox beating the Colorado Rockies to win the World Series.
I know this makes us greedy, but it’s real. A Super Bowl vs. the Dallas Cowboys or New York Football Giants or Green Bay Packers would have had so many more layers of story lines and history. Even a rematch with Pete the Poodle Carroll and the Seahawks would have drummed up some extra interest.
The Atlanta Falcons?
This is nobody’s fault. There is no need to insult the nice folks of Atlanta, where you can drive on Peachtree Street, go to Peachtree Plaza, and order yourself a Peachtree Margarita. Atlanta is a diverse and hospitable city with friendly folks and warm temperatures. You can always get a Coke and a smile.
But it is also a town with absolutely zero enthusiasm for professional sports. And the non-fans know it. They’ve been hearing it for a long time. The Falcons, Braves, and Hawks don’t win championships so they don’t get much love. Atlanta is a place where people play sports rather than watch them. Atlanta grows professional athletes. We produce Ordways and Massarottis.
The only two spectator sports that matter in Atlanta are college football . . . and spring college football.
I was in Atlanta to watch the Celtics play the Hawks in the first round of the NBA playoffs last April. There was zero local buzz about the Hawks or the playoffs. While the Celtics and Hawks warmed up for their postseason clash, all the televisions at Philips Arena were tuned into Georgia’s intramural spring football game, for which 93,000 fans were gathered in Athens. In the next day’s local paper, coverage of Georgia’s spring practice dwarfed that of the NBA playoff game.
Given the dearth of professional sports championships the city has produced, it’s hard to blame Atlanta fans for their abject apathy.
Atlanta has the Braves, the Hawks, and the Falcons. The Braves (born in Boston) came from Milwaukee, while the Hawks migrated from St. Louis. The Falcons were an NFL expansion team, born in 1966. Atlanta has had two NHL teams (Flames and Thrashers) and lost them both to cities in Canada — because of lack of support.
Meanwhile, two perfectly suitable “new” stadiums (Turner Field and the Georgia Dome, both built in the 1990s) have already come and gone as Atlanta teams search for support that never arrives.
Atlanta’s five professional sports teams have combined to win ONE championship in 168 seasons of competition. One. The Braves, winners of 14 consecutive division titles from 1991-2005, managed to win only one World Series, and that came at the expense of the Cleveland Indians (of course) in 1995.
Here in Boston, we’ve had an embarrassment of riches, witnessing nine championships since the turn of the century. Between February of 2005 (Patriots in Jacksonville vs. Eagles) and June of 2011 (Bruins in Vancouver), we watched a local team from each of the four major sports win a championship. That’s a span of just six years and four months. No city will ever do that again. Certainly not poor Atlanta.
There is sparse history of professional sports moments involving teams from Boston and Atlanta. Bird scored a Celtic-record 60 points against the Hawks in 1985, but the game was played in New Orleans because the Hawks couldn’t draw enough fans to see the Celtics in Atlanta.
The Patriots have played the Falcons 13 times since 1972. I challenge you to remember a single play from any of those games. Belichick and Brady are a perfect 4-0 lifetime against Atlanta.
The Red Sox have been playing the Braves on and off since the advent of interleague play, but nothing momentous has happened in the “natural rivalry” of Sox and Tomahawks. The Braves certainly didn’t get caught up in last summer’s David Ortiz Farewell Tour. Atlanta was the only franchise the 2016 Sox visited that did not present Big Papi with a token gift.
By my math, the most memorable Boston-Atlanta sports moment came when Hawks center Tree Rollins bit Danny Ainge’s finger while the two were rolling around the old Garden’s parquet floor in the 1983 NBA playoffs. That’s it. Tree Bites Man.
Now we’re going to get some real history. The final chapter of the most passionate and hate-fueled mission in the history of Boston sports will conclude in Houston Feb. 5, and the team standing in the path of the perfect ending is a team from Atlanta.