- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2004

ATLANTA — When Lou Hudson joined the Hawks in 1966, they were a perennial playoff team and only eight years removed from an NBA championship.

They kept winning after a move from St. Louis to Atlanta two years later, at one point reaching the playoffs 18 times in 22 seasons — under seven different coaches.

“When we first came to town, we were one of those teams that everybody worried about,” Hudson said. “We played for the conference championship several times, and we always did real well.”

That certainly isn’t the case now.

The Hawks are in the midst of their worst run in about 30 years, a sad era for a franchise that dates to the beginning of the NBA. The Hawks were 18-38 after Sunday’s triple-overtime loss to Houston, and haven’t reached the playoffs since the strike-shortened season of 1998-99.

And they’ve even drawn comparisons to that other Los Angeles team, the one long considered the worst in the league.

“They’re the Clippers of the East,” Hudson quipped.

The Hawks twice have set new lows for victories since moving to Atlanta, winning a mere 28 games in 1999-00 and only 25 the next season.

The current state of the team bothers Hudson, who returns to Atlanta a few times a year to watch a game. His No.23 jersey is one of only three retired numbers by the franchise — Bob Pettit’s No.9 and Dominique Wilkins’ No.21 are the others.

“It’s a source of pride with me,” Hudson said in a phone interview from his home in Park City, Utah. “You’d just like to be associated with a team that’s doing well.

“A lot of teams go through a series of cycles. This just happens to be a down time for the Hawks. The moves they have made to get better just haven’t paid off.”

The Hawks finished either first or second in the division during the first six seasons in Atlanta, and reached the postseason five times. After a four-year absence, they returned in 1978 under coach Hubie Brown, and the streak continued for the next four coaches.

“It seems like we always were in the playoffs,” said Wilkins, who joined the team in 1982.

The player known as “the Human Highlight Film” missed the postseason only three times in 11 full seasons with the Hawks, but he never got past the second round.

Three times, those seasons ended with losses to the Boston Celtics and Larry Bird, including a memorable series in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 1988. Atlanta lost the first two games, then won the next three and returned home for a chance to advance.

But the Hawks lost the final two games by a total of four points.

“I played with some guys who were warriors, guys that did everything they could to win,” said Wilkins, now a special assistant to the Hawks’ executive vice president. “Unfortunately, we came up short.”

That usually seems to be the case with the Hawks. The team that won the title with Pettit broke up a run of nine championships by the Bill Russell-led Celtics, and Wilkins always had to go through Bird and Boston. Those losses probably helped keep Wilkins off the league’s list of top 50 all-time players.

“There’s no shame in losing,” Wilkins said. “I bet Charles Barkley and Karl Malone would tell you the same thing. Only one team every year can win the championship, and it just didn’t work out for me.”

The streak of playoff appearances ended in 1999, and since then, the Hawks are 139-244. After so many years of winning, the losing seems to have taken over.

When Atlanta announced a trade that sent leading-scorer Shareef Abdur-Rahim and two other players to the Portland Trail Blazers for Rasheed Wallace and Wesley Person earlier this month, general manager Billy Knight and coach Terry Stotts seemed resigned to finishing out another awful year.

On the day of the trade, the Trail Blazers were four games out of a playoff spot, while the Hawks were only five out in the mediocre East. And Atlanta had won three of its past four games, too.

“I’m happy for ‘Reef,” Stotts said then. “He’s going to a very talented team that has a great shot to make the playoffs, and I know that’s something that’s important to him.”

Even with Abdur-Rahim, Knight said: “I just didn’t think we could continue playing that way for the rest of the season.”

So Knight essentially blew up the roster, eventually sending Wallace to Detroit and Nazr Mohammed to the New York Knicks. Now, Atlanta has only four players under contract beyond this season, leaving the team about $20million under the projected salary cap in 2004-05.

Maybe this time, the Hawks will rebuild correctly. By then, they should have new ownership — a group of nine investors led by Steve Belkin agreed in September to buy the team from AOL Time Warner.

Wilkins is banking on the new guys to turn around the franchise.

“I think we’ll get that respect back from around the league with these new guys,” said Wilkins, who likely will have a prominent role in the new regime. “They want to see this team succeed, and I think you’ll see a whole new attitude around the city and around the league about the Hawks.”

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