Anthony Dirrell battled Anvi Yildirim in a scheduled 12-round super middleweight bout for the vacant WBC World Super Middleweight Title at The Armory in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on February 23, 2019. This fight was broadcast live on FS1 as part of the Premier Boxing Champions series. Dirrell won the fight via split decision.
The idea popped into Bria Janelle’s head in an unlikely place, but it didn’t come out of nowhere.
“I was in the shower one day and thought to myself, ‘WNBA Kicks,’ ” recalled Janelle, a former Division II college basketball player turned professional entertainment emcee and in-arena host. She envisioned a platform that, for some reason, had never been created — one dedicated to women, the WNBA and sneakers.
“People say out of frustration comes creation,” said Janelle, a native of Snellville, Georgia, which is about 35 minutes east of Atlanta. “I’ve always had an interest in shoes and the whole aspect of seeing what different outlets have done with sneakers. But I realized it was so saturated on the male side, and NBA side, of sneakers. I’m like, ‘Everybody is doing the same exact thing … how can I do something so far-fetched, so different that no one is even thinking about?’ ”
An injury ended Janelle’s playing career after three years at Mars Hill University in North Carolina, leading her to transfer to Georgia Southern University, where she graduated in 2011 with a degree in radio and television broadcasting. On-air campus appearances led to opportunities in Atlanta radio, and eventually a career. Over the past several years, Janelle has toured as emcee with WWE, worked with the Atlanta Hawks on a monthly web show and served as a host for the McDonald’s All American Game. Success in the field provided Janelle the means to grow her sneaker collection, which now checks in at about 130 pairs. Eventually, she wanted to find a way to represent a subculture of people like her: female sneakerheads.
Janelle was inspired by the WNBA’s biggest sneakerhead, Tamera “Ty” Young, who in 2008 became the first draft pick in the history of the Atlanta Dream franchise. Young, who now plays for the Las Vegas Aces but keeps her primary residence in Atlanta, has a massive sneaker collection that exceeds 600 pairs, even though she’s never had an endorsement deal with a sportswear brand.
“Ty Young being in Atlanta for years, you peep her at different events and it was like, ‘Yo, I’ve never seen her double up on a pair of sneakers,’ ” Janelle said. In the lead-up to the 2018 WNBA season, she ran into Young and told her she had something in the works. Janelle also hit up one of her close friends in the league, Alex Bentley, a member of the Connecticut Sun at the time who was playing overseas during the WNBA’s offseason.
“I never forget. It was like 3 o’clock in the morning in Russia and I said, ‘Hey, I got an idea. What do you think about this?’ ” Janelle recalled of her conversation with Bentley, who now plays for the Dream. “She said, ‘That’s dope. No one’s covered the WNBA’s sneaker culture. … Go for it. You’ve got my support.’ ”
But to make this thing work, Janelle needed help. So she reached out to Melani Carter, a sports producer who shared a similar frustration about the lack of WNBA coverage, having spent four years working at Turner Sports on NBA TV and NBA League Pass. The two friends remember meeting at a restaurant one night in Atlanta and talking for hours.
“As we started strategizing, I was saying, ‘This could be a segue into really showcasing women in another light,’ ” said Carter, who’s been collecting shoes since the early 2000s. “And what better way to start … than with sneaker culture?”
In February 2018, Janelle and Carter co-founded @WNBAKicks. And for the past year, the platform’s Instagram and Twitter accounts have served as the authoritative voice of sneakers in the WNBA despite not being officially affiliated with the league. Original video, interviews and, most notably, exclusive photos and videos of shoes players are copping and lacing up on and off the court — WNBA Kicks offers all this and more.
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A post shared by WNBA Kicks (@wnbakicks) on May 21, 2019 at 4:55pm PDT
“We’ve never really had anything like WNBA Kicks,” said Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird, a 17-year veteran and three-time league champion, in April at the 2019 WNBA draft. “Yeah, the WNBA page can post our shoes, but sometimes you need people on the outside, different voices, to show people what’s what. To have this separate page that’s completely independent, showing the sneakers that we wear and really our personalities, it’s crucial.”
WNBA Kicks has amassed more than 20,000 followers on Instagram and another 2,300 on Twitter. It’s an operation that quickly transformed into a legit media outlet after establishing a network of contributors in WNBA markets across the country and expanding its staff to include a head of marketing and digital strategist. Now, the start of the 2019 WNBA season brings the launch of wnbakicks.com, marking the next chapter for a platform that’s evolved from the unique vision of its two co-founders.
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A post shared by WNBA Kicks (@wnbakicks) on May 23, 2019 at 8:11am PDT
“WNBA Kicks has become that safe haven for WNBA players,” Janelle said. “We told them, ‘Trust us to tell your story and show how dope you are, and we won’t steer you wrong.’ … It’s not about athletic ability, sexuality or the themes you always see talked about surrounding the WNBA. It’s about the fact that these players have sneaker collections just as good as some of the guys, if not better. And here’s a platform — just for them.”
What makes WNBA Kicks so authentic is players in the league support the platform 100% by providing daily content.
“Whenever they need a photo of my shoes, I’m always open to sending it to them,” said Phoenix Mercury guard Essence Carson. “The check-ins, they’re great, especially when a lot of players are gone and playing abroad in the offseason. It’s a good way to keep the fans’ attention and have them interact with the players.”
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Oh this how you coming @pr3pe! Essence Carson on the #WNBAKicks check-in with a Mercury inspired Kobe A.D. Exodus PE! We see you #WNBAKicks #NBAKicks #Nike #Jordans #Kyrie #KobeBryant #Sneakerhead #Basketball #NBA #WNBA #KOTD @kobebryant
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When Young uploads a picture of the sneakers she’s wearing to her Instagram Stories, she often tags @WNBAKicks. Janelle will then reach out for the original image to post on the page. Sometimes, Young even sends photos to the account via direct message so the platform can exclusively share the latest shoes she’s picked up.
“The cool thing is you have players taking pictures and videos of their own shoes or their teammates’ shoes to post on that page,” said retired WNBA Hall of Famer and ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo. “It’s not like they’re always posting themselves. The players are doing it for WNBA Kicks. I think that’s a really, really cool thing. It’s a partnership in a way.”
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Sneaker culture in the WNBA has evolved quite a bit since Lobo played in the league from 1997 to 2003 and received her own signature shoe from Reebok, called The Lobo, during her rookie season.
“The only sneakers that were really covered back then were the Nike Air Swoopes, because Cheryl Swoopes was the first woman to have a signature shoe. That was a really big deal,” Lobo said. “In my generation, they didn’t even make women’s basketball sneakers. You figured out which men’s size you wore, because they didn’t even have them in women’s sizes. Sneakers in the WNBA weren’t really a thing. For the most part, everybody in the league wore the same style of shoe.”
The landscape has also changed since Carson and Young entered the WNBA more than a decade ago after being taken back-to-back with the seventh and eighth overall picks, respectively, in the 2008 draft. At the time, the WNBA was sponsored by Adidas, and strict uniform guidelines required players to wear league-approved shoes that were either predominantly white or black. Two years later in 2010, Instagram was founded as a social network that fostered creativity and expression while helping people transform into their own brands. And in the realm of style and fashion, Instagram became a place where both men and women could put on a display of their passion for sneakers.
“In previous years, women weren’t really looked at as sneakerheads,” Carson said. “But over the course of time, in the sneaker community, you’ve seen that change. As women move forward, so does the WNBA, because we’re women first and basketball players second. And now we have the platform to showcase that we can push sneaker culture even further.”
There’s a new era in the WNBA of players wearing whatever sneakers they want, whenever they want, due in large part to the emergence of WNBA Kicks in 2018.
“Last year, because of WNBA Kicks, people wanted to have more heat for games,” Young said. “They wanted to get that notoriety on social media. Like, ‘Oh, look what shoes she’s wearing!’ It made people who weren’t sneakerheads before want to bring out exclusive shoes or stuff that was more cool to show out. It became a popular trend, something to do.”
“The most unique thing we’ve did is attract the brands to the players,” Carter said. “So if brands said, ‘We don’t know if she has a following … we don’t know if she could help sell a product,’ we were showing them that they can. … It’s really about more than just sneakers.”
Janelle recalls a conversation she and Carter had with a sportswear company (the identity of which they chose not to disclose) in which they learned that the brand had sent out more pairs of sneakers to WNBA players last season than it did in the past 10 years. “Players were requesting shoes,” Janelle said, “because they wanted to be on the page.”
In the early days of the platform, Janelle and Carter wanted to ensure they acknowledged the players in the league with the hottest shoes. So last May, WNBA Kicks dropped its 2018 “Top 10 Sneakerheads List.”
“We really didn’t think it was going to be controversial,” Carter said. “It was more so like, ‘Let’s get this out there. Let’s let people know we’re here.’ When we released the list, people were like, ‘I didn’t make it? How am I No. 10? How am I No. 8? Why is she No. 1?’ Some players were mad. This was league news at this point. So it was like, ‘OK. This has to be our staple.’ That Top 10 list was the point that we can say the players really started paying attention, and the fans did too.”
The full list:
10. Monique Currie, Washington Mystics (now retired)
9. Elena Delle Donne, Washington Mystics
8. Breanna Stewart, Seattle Storm
7. Alex Bentley, Connecticut Sun (now of the Atlanta Dream)
6. Sue Bird, Seattle Storm
5. Erica Wheeler, Indiana Fever
4. Seimone Augustus, Minnesota Lynx
3. Epiphanny Prince, New York Liberty
2. Cappie Pondexter, Los Angeles Sparks/Indiana Fever (now retired)
1. Tamera Young, Las Vegas Aces
“When it got to No. 1, a lot of people didn’t expect it to be me,” Young said. “People didn’t know at the time how many kicks I had or how much I was into this. But it was a great feeling to know that something I’ve always loved I got notoriety for — even without having a shoe deal. I did this on my own. This is a hobby. I love sneakers. And I’ve always been that way, even since I was a little girl. I’m not just a collector. I wear all my kicks. So I thought it was superdope.”
Will she defend her crown in 2019?
“Of course. Not much has really changed. People have been showing all of their sneakers, but I don’t think anybody is topping me,” said Young, who in 2018, for the first time in her career, was posted on mainstream sneaker platforms such as @brkicks and @slamkicks. “WNBA Kicks started bringing different attention to us. I’ve never been a signed athlete, so people didn’t even know the type of heat I had.”
Hoping to capitalize on the trend of viral online challenges, the platform launched the #WNBAKicksChallenge, which encouraged players, broadcasters, coaches, fans and others to take a video showing off their collections, then dare others to do the same. The Minnesota Lynx’s Seimone Augustus, Indiana Fever’s Erica Wheeler, Chicago Sky’s Diamond DeShields and more active players partook, while retired WNBA stars such as Lobo, Tina Thompson, Dawn Staley and Lisa Leslie also got involved. ESPN sideline reporter Holly Rowe even did the challenge and showed off her favorite pair of sneakers, which were given to her by WNBA sisters Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike when Rowe was first diagnosed with cancer.
— Lisa Leslie (@LisaLeslie) December 1, 2018
“WNBA Kicks is showing we got sneakers like P.J. Tucker, James Harden or Kyrie Irving,” said Seattle Storm guard Shavonte Zellous. “To showcase what we have is a blessing, so everybody can stop putting us in a box and expand their brains a little bit.”
WNBA Kicks has even put the NBA on notice. Tucker, Harden and their Houston Rockets teammate Chris Paul have all been interviewed by the platform, and Irving has reposted one of its videos to his Instagram. Future NBA Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade posted a picture of Young after she became the first WNBA player to wear a pair of his signature Li-Ning Way of Wades, ending the caption with @wnbakicks.
“We randomly saw the page, and it was verified,” Carter said. “I was tryna figure out who made it, and if it was an independent site like ours.”
That’s right — @WNBAKicks launched nine months before @NBAKicks. “A coincidence? I don’t know,” Janelle said. “The NBA has been around for so long. We started WNBA Kicks, then NBA Kicks pops up. It was like, ‘All right, well, somebody’s paying attention.’ ”
Yet, Janelle and Carter truly knew they had created something special when Lobo showed WNBA Kicks some love live on air during the 2018 WNBA All-Star Game.
— #WNBAKicks (@WNBAKicks) July 30, 2018
“I’d been following them for a while and really enjoyed their content,” Lobo said. “In a production meeting, we said we were gonna come out of a commercial break and show some of the players’ shoes … so I knew I was gonna give them a shout. It feels to me that they’re the ones leading the charge in terms of exposing the fans to what the WNBA women are wearing. It seemed fair and only right that we let people know about them.”
So, heading into season two, what’s next for WNBA Kicks? The strategy seems to revolve around the platform’s newly launched website.
“Being a social media page is only going to get you so far,” Janelle said. “For us, the dot-com is what everyone respects. It was about wanting to have that next level. We wanted to be able to explain that we’re not just a fan page. We’re a full-fledged, running site.”
WNBA sneakerheads such as Young and Wheeler hope to see a stronger backing of the platform from the league.
“I don’t think the WNBA shines a light on WNBA Kicks as much as they should. I don’t think they give them enough credit,” Wheeler said. “WNBA Kicks knows what they’re doing. They’re up to date, they’re with the times. And they’re with us as players.”
WNBA Kicks has come a long way since Janelle paired those two words.
“To this day, I tell Bria, ‘Keep this going,’ ” Zellous said. “It’s really helping us … and it’s crazy because it’s kicks that are helping people get in tune with our league.”
Yet, if there’s one thing that the two co-founders of WNBA Kicks have never seemed to lose sight of, it’s that the platform is about much more than sneakers.
“Our whole purpose is to leave the league better than we found it,” Janelle said. “If we do our part, then we’re on the right track. How do we get more fans into seats? How do we get arenas full? If sneakers is the way, or at least a starting point, I think we can feel like we did something right.”
Milwaukee Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon played a big role in the team’s Game 2 win on Friday night with 14 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds off the bench.
But after the game he was more excited about a larger contribution.
On the set with TNT’s Inside the NBA crew, Hall of Famer Charles Barkley made a surprise $45,000 donation to Brogdon’s Hoops2O initiative, which raises funds to build water wells in East Africa. With Barkley’s contribution, Hoops2O has now raised $274,200 in less than a year.
“It’s extremely generous of [Barkley],” Brogdon told The Undefeated. “Not only does his donation significantly help my cause and thousands of people get access to clean water, but his interest creates a buzz that will magnify the addition that this initiative will get.”
Brogdon spearheaded the launch of Hoops2O on Oct. 29, 2018. Atlanta Hawks guard Justin Anderson, Brooklyn Nets guard Joe Harris, Los Angeles Clippers guard Garrett Temple and Minnesota Timberwolves forward Anthony Tolliver were named as part of Brogdon’s “Starting Five” in the Hoops2O Ballin’ for Buckets campaign. Hoops2O was born under the umbrella of the Waterboys initiative started by Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long, who got 29 players to commit funding after his foundation debuted in 2015. All the money raised through Hoops2O goes toward the building of solar-powered deep borehole wells in East African communities.
“What Malcolm and the Starting Five have accomplished since October is impressive,” said Long. “They set a lofty goal to bring Waterboys to the NBA and raise over a quarter of a million dollars in the first season. … Their involvement means that we will reach our shared goal of providing water to 1 million people that much faster.”
This offseason, Brogdon, Anderson and Harris are slated to go to Tanzania for a Hoops2O project.
“Hoops2O is an amazing initiative that Malcolm brought me into,” said Temple, who plans to make a Hoops2O trip to Africa next year. “When he asked me to be a part of the Starting Five, I jumped at the chance. Water is easily one of the most vital components of life. It feels good to be able to provide that to an area that really needs it.”
Brogdon’s initial goal of raising $225,000 for Hoops2O this season has already been surpassed. Three wells are under construction, two more will begin construction next month and another pair will begin construction in the coming months. Each well provides fresh water for more than 13,000 people in each East African community. Waterboys and Hoops2O have combined to fund 61 wells in Tanzania and Kenya.
“I feel like it’s my calling and my passion in life,” said Brogdon. During a trip to Malawi at the age of 14 with his grandparents, he learned that many Africans do not have clean water. “I’ve always viewed it as my dream and something that I love to do. I view it as a tool, something I can gain resources, gain access, money and all these things that can influence and empower other peoples’ lives. Clean water is the way I wanted to go, and Africa is the place I am starting.
“I am very happy with where I am now and the work that is getting done.”
Brogdon, 26, went to Tanzania last offseason in his first efforts to learn about the need for water wells in East Africa. In July, the Atlanta native will fly into Kilimanjaro before he goes to visit wells that have been built as well as sites under consideration. The former University of Virginia star also plans on visiting several elementary schools that are in need of water.
Brogdon said he was heartbroken and further inspired to create Hoops2O after visiting elementary schools in Arusha, Tanzania, last year.
“They brought buckets from home to get water for themselves and their classmates. And there was a little river behind the school,” Brogdon said. “And behind the river there were shantytowns where people lived very poorly. They were littering into the river, and you could see all the drainage, all the trash, dirt and all types of stuff. Everything was running through the river. Ten or 12 feet up the river you could see a line of sewage going across it. All the water was filtering through it, so you knew all the water was bad.
“You could see the kids getting water with their buckets, drinking it and then handing it to their classmates. And after a while after they get to their teens, you can see their teeth rotting and decaying because … the water was so contaminated. It was so unbearable to see. There is so much we take for granted here in the States.”
Brogdon and the Bucks will play Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals in Toronto on Sunday. They are now two wins away from Milwaukee’s first NBA Finals appearance since 1974. No matter the outcome, Brogdon is already viewed as a champion in East Africa.
“They see me as a humanitarian. I’m so big that people wonder and ask if I play basketball. But it is not like people over there are following the NBA really hard,” Brogdon said. “Their worries are bigger than basketball. It’s clean water. It’s living. It’s necessities that they’re looking for. Not celebrities. …
“Basketball is my job, I love it. It’s the dream. But honestly, my life passion is not basketball. It’s helping people and using my resources that I have gotten from basketball.”
Don’t try to tease Atlanta with a good time. It is, after all, the city that birthed the phrase “turn up.” Whose residents bear the name of a genre-shifting rap album (ATLiens). Where the nightlife has long been the script of urban legends. Come Tuesday evening, the city will await the results of the most important non-Powerball sweepstakes in recent memory: the NBA draft lottery — or, as it’s otherwise known, the right to draft Zion Williamson.
Landing Williamson is a long shot. (The Atlanta Hawks have a 10.5 percent chance of acquiring the top pick, good for fifth behind New York, Phoenix, Cleveland and Chicago.) That hasn’t stopped ATLiens from wishing upon a lemon pepper wet wing, of course. But Williamson and Atlanta differ from, say, LeBron James and Cleveland because Atlanta doesn’t need Williamson to reroute the city’s future. Atlanta is the best cultural destination for Williamson because this majority-black metropolis is already the mecca for black excellence, a modern-day mashup of the Harlem Renaissance and Sweet Home Chicago.
“Cleveland had their moment with LeBron. New York’s always had [the hoopla]. But it’s Atlanta’s time. We’re welcoming of new, young and talented people,” said Larry Luk, a Hawks enthusiast and head of brand at Localeur, a crowd-sourced recommendation platform for travelers. “Zion Williamson fits that mold.”
Williamson’s pedigree is public knowledge. He was a high school cheat code whose mixtapes gave him a Lil Wayne-like aura. His one season at Duke University only added to the anticipation and debate surrounding his future. He was the talk of the town at this year’s NBA All-Star Weekend. He’s been compared to James in terms of hype and to Charles Barkley, Blake Griffin and Larry Johnson as far as body type and athleticism. By season’s end, Williamson became only the third freshman to win the John R. Wooden Award, given to the country’s best player, and the third freshman in the last 20 seasons, along with Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis, to amass 500 points, 50 blocks and 50-plus steals. Williamson’s every step (and shoe explosion) is a modern-day Truman Show.
For decades, New York was the most important place for America’s black culture, the site of the Harlem Renaissance, home court to both Malcolm X and Dapper Dan and the birthplace of hip-hop. But from Atlanta’s role in the civil rights movement to its rise to the apex of hip-hop’s leaderboard in the late ’90s and early 2000s, “The A” has reached a cultural zenith. LaFace Records, which introduced household names such as TLC, Usher, Jermaine Dupri, Ciara, Outkast and others, helped craft the sounds of both rap and rhythm and blues not in New York or Los Angeles. Andre 3000’s proclamation, “The South got something to say!” at the 1995 Source Awards is widely accepted as the most prophetic statement in rap history. Freaknik, the Atlanta-based spring break phenomenon, became black America’s most fabled party.
“It’s funny answering [why Williamson fits culturally],” said longtime Hawks fan and Atlanta hip-hop historian Maurice Garland, “because Atlanta’s culture is already pretty solid.”
Tory Edwards is an Atlanta-based filmmaker whose credits include work on Selma, Being Mary Jane, the Raw Report street DVDs and the 2014 documentary ATL: The Untold Story of Atlanta’s Rise in the Rap Game. He’s also one-fourth of 404-derived civic and content collective Atlanta Influences Everything. He says bringing Williamson to Atlanta makes sense for one symbiotic reason: The city has always had one constant in its pursuit of cultural dominance — disruption.
“Just like Atlanta, who he is and what he represents is disruption,” Edwards said. Williamson is “something fresh and aggressive, and I believe Atlanta is going through its own renaissance.”
The city’s music scene reads like a list of high school superlatives: The aforementioned Ciara, Outkast, Dupri, Usher and TLC, plus Dungeon Family, Monica, T.I., Gucci Mane, Childish Gambino, Travis Porter, The-Dream, Goodie Mob, Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz, 21 Savage, Pastor Troy, Ludacris, Future, Young Jeezy, Young Thug, 2 Chainz, Migos and countless others.
The film industry, in almost a reverse gold rush, has planted flags in Atlanta. ATL, which starred natives T.I. and Big Boi as well as Lauren London, was a 2006 coming-of-age-in-Atlanta film that used one of its storied landmarks, the Cascade Skating Rink, to establish its local legitimacy nationwide. In 2016, more feature films were shot in Georgia than in California — Time magazine dubbed Atlanta Hollywood’s “Southern campus.” More recently, Donald Glover’s Atlanta, in just two seasons, is already a generationally important series. Its nightlife scene, spearheaded by strip clubs such as Magic City and Blue Flame, has given the metropolis an independent identity.
But beyond that, and perhaps what Edwards sees as a natural fit for the Southern-born Williamson, is its youthful energy. From black painters such as Fahamu Pecou to Orchestra Noir (which held court at Cardi B’s baby shower), an active and aggressive arts scene not only lives in Atlanta, it’s thriving.
“I think Atlanta just continues to disrupt culture and influence the world,” Edwards said. “I think Zion is a perfect match.”
“From an art and fashion standpoint, we haven’t really had a guy in town that had a signature sneaker that anyone cared about wearing since [Deion Sanders’ Nike Air Diamond Turfs],” said Luk. “Zion’s signature shoe in Atlanta would be worn by everyone if he was a Hawk, including myself.”
With a 1,000-watt smile and a forthcoming sneaker deal that’s expected to shatter anything before it, Williamson is already his own economy. And if there’s one city that appreciates the black dollar, it’s Atlanta.
“What I’ve noticed is a lot of young black entrepreneurs budding in Atlanta,” said ATL-based blogger and Spelman alumna Jameelah Johnson. “There’s so many ideas and so many young people. It’s the colleges that are here, like Spelman, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta,” as well as Georgia State and Georgia Tech. “It’s just amazing how much talent and knowledge there is for young people.”
Rooting for Atlanta sports teams hasn’t been the easiest job in the world. The city is still haunted by the Falcons’ Super Bowl loss in 2017. (Seriously, don’t say, “28-3” in many places. It’s still too soon.) In the 1980s, Dominique Wilkins, “The Human Highlight Film,” was one of the most exciting players in the NBA. But the team hasn’t won an NBA title since 1958, when it was based in St. Louis. In the ’90s, Deion Sanders and Andre Rison made the Falcons the hottest ticket in town (although the team finally advanced to its first Super Bowl in 1999 with Jamal Anderson and Terance Mathis). The Braves had a majority-black infield and outfield in the ’90s that was hugely popular in Atlanta’s black community.
The city has been brutally criticized for its sports apathy. But that narrative is being rewritten by the new MLS franchise with its attendance numbers north of 70,000, recruitment of fans of color and a commitment to LGBTQ inclusivity. Last year, Atlanta United FC captured the city’s first professional title since the Braves won the 1995 World Series.
Even the slim chance of the Hawks landing the top spot in June’s draft is building Hawks fervor. “This city is dying for a superstar,” said DJ X-Rated, who works at several spots, including Allure, Magic City and XS.
“If Zion were to come to the Hawks, that would probably be the biggest thing since Dominique as far as a real star is here. Not just a good player, but a person that has real star power,” Garland agreed. “To a degree, Trae Young is that right now. This is the most I’ve ever seen Hawks basketball talked about in a long time, and we didn’t even win a damn thing.”
The Hawks finished this season 29-53, a five-win improvement over last year’s campaign. Young, a Rookie of the Year finalist, and second-year forward John Collins are already one of the league’s more exciting tandems, with both averaging nearly 20 points per game for the season. Kevin Huerter, who also just completed his rookie season, shot 38 percent from 3-point range — and won the respect of the recently retired Dwyane Wade.
A different energy pumped through the veins of State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta this season. Part of it had to do with the commitment to providing a different experience, with restaurants such as the city’s famed J.R. Crickets, a courtside bar and even Killer Mike’s barbershop. At the base of the excitement, though, was the product on the court.
“It’s like, ‘Oh … we got [one of] the leading scorers from college last year on the team [in Young]. It was exciting things happening,” said Garland.
“When [the Hawks] started clicking at the end of the season, it got crazy. They would lose games, but it wasn’t like they were really losing. You could see what they were putting out there,” said Johnson. “You’re like, ‘Wow, this team could actually do something. And they’re still young.’ So to see something like that is just inspiring.”
In an Atlanta version of utopia, Young leads fast breaks for years to come with Huerter sprinting to the corner, Collins flanked on one wing and Williamson on the other. “How do you defend that?” Johnson said with a laugh. “No, seriously, where do you go?”
The answer to that last question for Atlanta fans is easy: to the game. Not since James in 2003 has there been a player with more intoxicating potential and every-household marketability. Williamson is the first high school megastar of the Instagram era to surpass the unrealistic level of expectations — at least so far. College basketball ratings were up 15 percent this season on ESPN and 30 percent for Duke, in large part because of Williamson. Jay-Z, James and former President Barack Obama were all seated courtside within a month of each other to see the show in person.
“He’s the first athlete to really grow up like that in the social media spotlight from a young’un. If you’re on Instagram, you were like, at one point, ‘Who’s this dude dunking on all these little white kids, man?!’ ” said Garland. “Even rappers that may not even be big sports fans, they know who dude is. This is the dude Drake was riding hard for.”
Even those just marginally attracted to the pageantry will be tuning in Tuesday night. It’s not a matter of getting too excited before an inevitable letdown. With potentially two top-10 picks this year, Atlanta is in perhaps the best win-win scenario in the lottery. But the ultimate prize is No. 1 — Williamson’s jersey number and the draft position. “If [Williamson] comes here, everybody is gonna come,” says Edwards. “The city’s coming up.”
Still, it’s not as if Atlanta needs Zion Williamson to establish itself. And it’s not as if the Hawks need Zion Williamson either. ATLiens acknowledge what he can do for them. But they also know what the city, the culture and the creativity here can do for Williamson.
“Atlanta is the perfect breeding place for young talent,” Johnson said. “You just have people here trying to start new things. It’s the perfect place for someone like [Williamson] to come and to start his career.”