ATLANTA -- This is a strange town for sports, full of newcomers with old allegiances and locals who remain unconvinced. In Centennial Olympic Park on Friday afternoon, three hours before the Hawks opened their season, you could walk around looking for Hawks fans and find only a Dallas Cowboys fan in a Romo jersey talking big about Sunday's showdown with the Falcons. "All we need to do is throw pressure on Matt Ryan," he said, to anyone who would listen.
Across the street there was a sports-apparel stand operated for the last 13 years by an Atlanta native named Shahid Ahmad, and those 13 years gave him unusual insight on the demographics of sports fans on these downtown streets. He said it's very simple: Fans turn out in large numbers to watch superstars on the other team. He sells boatloads of Heat gear when LeBron is in town. Bulls gear when Derrick Rose shows up. Back in the old days, when Tracy McGrady was at his peak, he did a brisk business in Rockets apparel. It so happened that the Hawks would play the Rockets tonight, but he was not very excited, because he did not seem to know anyone on the roster.
He will soon. The Rockets do indeed have a superstar, and, despite the insanity of last spring, his name is not Jeremy Lin. Last season he was not even a starter, but in this new season he is averaging 41 points a game. He has a long beard and a relentless drive. His name is James Harden.
At first he looked beatable, and so did the Rockets. Josh Smith, the Hawks' best defensive player, lay in wait for Harden on his first two drives. He blocked a shot and drew a charge. Meanwhile Devin Harris threw in nine quick points for the Hawks, on one possession driving through all five Rockets for a layup. There is mild optimism surrounding the reconstructed Hawks this year, with eight new players and the promise of a wide-open attack, and they jumped out to a 10-4 lead. The notoriously late-arriving Atlanta fans did indeed arrive late, but there was plenty of noise coming from the five top rows of Section 118, the so-called Sixth Man section, where the more boisterous fans were sequestered as usual with their cowbells and ThunderStixx.
Both teams were sloppy for much of the first half. At times it looked like a pickup game at the YMCA -- wild shot, wild shot, wild shot -- so that Hawks All-Star Al Horford got entirely lost in the shuffle. Josh Smith shot an airball, which sometimes happens on his ill-advised outside shots, and a sort of shudder ran through the crowd, but then he ran a fast break and hit Horford for a thunderous dunk. And then he was called for traveling, and then he fired a pass across the court and out of bounds. The Rockets were coming together. There was Harden with a huge dunk and a four-point play to give them a 49-35 lead. By the time he hit another three to make it 66-52 in the third, it was clear that no one on the floor could match him as a scorer.
It can be awfully frustrating to attend a Hawks game as a Hawks fan. There's far too much cheering for the other team, especially when the Celtics and Knicks are visiting. Friday night was mild by comparison, with only a small showing for the Rockets, but one fan in Section 211 compensated for the lack of manpower by the sheer force of his personality.
When Hawks point guard Jeff Teague was knocked around and there was no whistle and the Rockets got a fast break and free throws, this Rockets fan jumped out of his chair and screamed with glee. He had white sunglasses dangling from his collar and a silvery watch on his wrist and he wore a No. 7 Jeremy Lin jersey. He was getting nervous. The Hawks were coming back. Their fans were bellowing. Josh Smith and Lou Williams were on fire. Rockets Fan pensively sipped his Bud Light.
Harden missed a pull-up jumper, and Smith made a fine drive and banked a shot off the glass to cut the Rockets' lead to 87-86. The chants of DEE-FENSE were very loud. Jeremy Lin drove and missed and Al Horford grabbed the rebound over his fallen body and Josh Smith drove and scored again and the Hawks led 88-87 and the fans exploded from their seats and waved their free white Hawks T-shirts like battleflags. Timeout. Smith swaggered off the court, gesturing passionately to the crowd. Rockets Fan somehow had a fresh Bud Light even though beer sales had ended long ago. He sat in dejected silence and took another long pull from his beer.
Smith threw down a two-handed jam to give the Hawks a 90-87 lead and it was getting pretty wild in Philips Arena but the Rockets made a three to tie it and that got Rockets Fan out of his seat, roaring again, and Lin drew a foul, and Rockets Fan held two fingers in the air and screamed, "TWO SHOTS!"
But it was not a shooting foul, and Zaza Pachulia made a layup to give the Hawks the lead again, and the Rockets tied it again, and Rockets Fan leaned over the railing and waved his hand and yelled for defense. The Rockets got the ball and got about five offensive rebounds on the same possession but then Omer Asik was called for an offensive foul. At that juncture he had zero points and 18 rebounds. Timeout. Rockets Fan seethed quietly in his chair as SkyHawk came out with the T-shirt gun. He took a long pull from the Bud Light, and another; it was nearly gone. Game tied at 92 with 4:18 left. Rockets Fan flashed a thumbs-up sign to some unknown party in the vicinity of the court.
The Hawks missed and the Rockets rebounded. Rockets Fan was on his feet. Harden drove and hit a jumper and was fouled, and Rockets Fan was bellowing, "AND ONE, AND ONE," and "SIT DOWN, SIT DOWN," and finally "M-V-P!" Harden missed the free thrown but the Rockets got yet another offensive rebound and Harden drove and scored again and got another foul and Rockets Fan was beating down some invisible barrier, golden beer nearly spilling on the corridor below. By then Harden had 38.
The Rockets took a 100-94 lead with 1:55 left, and Rockets Fan stood up and violently slapped five with his Rockets friend and turned to look up at the rest of Section 211 and waved his arms, asking people to stand, which the Hawks faithful did not appreciate. A serious woman tried to sit him down by brandishing a rolled-up program, and a man stood up and said harsh words. Rockets Fan was not deterred.
Teague drove and missed, and Rockets Fan stood again, yelling "YOU SUCK," and Pachulia missed, and Rockets Fan yelled "YOU SUCK," and Harden hit more free throws, sending Hawks fans to the exits. Rockets Fan was singing then, and Harden was making more free throws, eventually giving him 45 points, and the Hawks were losing, 109-102, and Rockets Fan and his friend were walking happily down the hallway past the concessions stands.
Well, sometimes you want to hate someone and you can't. It turned out that Rockets Fan was Steven Green, and his designated driver is Nathan Keller, and they had come up from Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins, Ga., and they had served their country in airborne military operations all over the world.
"People were threatening me," Green said, recalling the game, "but I loved it." And around him more fans gathered, seeing his Lin jersey, and together they sang a victory song.