by Lang Whitaker

The Atlanta Hawks hired Mike Woodson as head coach a few days after July 4, 2004. I’d heard it was going to happen before it actually happened; coincidentally, I’d been hired weeks earlier by SportsIllustrated.com to write a weekly column. My editor at the time emailed and said the Woodson hiring seemed right up my alley for a column. You know as much about the Hawks as anyone else out there, he said, so tell us what you think about the Hawks hiring Mike Woodson as coach.

I didn’t know anything about his coaching philosophy or how he would fit with the team, but there was one thing regarding Woodson I felt strongly about. The column I wrote still lives today, and the gist of it was this…

What’s disconcerting is this: The Lakers needed a coach, so they went after Mike Krzyzewski. Yes, he turned them down, but the effort was there — they tried for the best person available. For all I know, Woodson could turn out to be an amazing hire and win 10 straight NBA titles — but hiring Woodson won’t get people in the South to stop talking about why Chipper Jones is flirting with the Mendoza Line or who Georgia will use to replace the injured Tony Taylor. The Hawks need a splash. Instead, we keep getting water torture.

As it turned out, Woodson lasted longer with the Hawks than I did with SI.com. The Hawks won 13 games that first season, and just kept getting better and better. Even this season, Woody’s last, the Hawks won 53 games, the most they’d won since 1997.

Even though I’ve written about the Hawks for years on Hawks.com, I’ve lived in NYC the entire time, so I was never around Woody for more than a couple of days at a time. Still, over the years we got to know each other a bit. One day I called him on his cell to get a quote for something I was working on, and he asked me to call back because he was walking his dog.

A couple of months ago when I got the great idea to embed with the team for a road trip, Woody signed off on the idea, although he required me to abide by the NBA dress code. My favorite part of the story was this, from the team meeting the morning of the game at Dallas, less than 12 hours after a home loss to the Knicks:

A few minutes after 11:00 AM, Woodson, wearing a gray Hawks sweatsuit and sneakers, stands and asks for everyone’s attention. He launches into a dissection of the Hawks poor defense against the Knicks that includes phrases such as “positioning,” “help defense,” “run and jumps,” “our greens,” “back screens” “nail guy,” “hard fouls” and “talking.” At one point, he mentions that the Hawks gave up 29 layups against the Knicks, repeats it and then pauses for effect. Everyone in the room knew they gave up many — too many — layups to the Knicks, but hearing the number 29 drives it home and grabs everyone’s attention, if not their pride.

“I want to see guys upset that they’re not switching picks correctly,” Woodson says, his voice steadily rising. “Hold each other accountable! When I was with Detroit six years ago, we couldn’t score like you guys can, but we could defend. Those guys took pride in their defense, not their offense. We challenged them to step up on their defense and they did. You guys don’t want to accept that challenge every night, and that’s f*cking sad.”

“This team has a chance to do something special if you believe in each other. If you feel like what we’re trying to do on the court isn’t going to work, speak up! I have zero ego as a coach, none. If you think you see something that’s going to work better than what we’re trying to do, speak up! Say something to me! But what I’m telling you guys is that if you guys will just consistently do what we’re asking you to do on defense, we’ll win games. I don’t give a sh*t about the offense; you guys can score more than enough points to win games. The offense isn’t the problem. But you have to get stops on defense, and if you’ll listen to what we’re telling you, I promise you’ll get stops. The sh*t works, okay? The sh*t works, but you guys just have to have the pride and the heart to buy into it and do what we’re asking you to do every time down the court.”

After the story came out, a lot of Hawks fans and bloggers seized upon that quote about defense above as evidence that all Woodson cared about was defense, to a detrimental extent. And hey, I was around him for 24 hours and all I heard him talk about was defense. Later, I asked a couple of players if this was representative of Woodson’s coaching style — is he really all defense, all the time? And they said no, I must have just caught him on a defense-heavy day. Honestly, it was ridiculous to think a coach could completely ignore defense and still win two-thirds of his games.

But the fact that Hawks fans could believe it might have been telling enough. Woodson drew up great plays out of timeouts, and while the Hawks would occasionally hit upon offensive sets that worked wonders for weeks at a time (the Bibby/Joe two-man game that the Hawks ran throughout the second half of 2008), sustained offensive innovation was never Mike Woodson’s strong suit. Couple this with the Hawks’ players tendency to allow the offense to devolve into glorified pick-up games, and it became clear that for the Hawks to become a better team than they were, something significant was going to have to change. Either Woodson was going to have to make a sea change from the way he’d coached for six years, or the Hawks would have to find someone else to coach and make that change for themselves. And the Hawks seemed to decide it was just easier if they made the change themselves.

I’ll miss Coach Woodson. His predictability was in some ways reassuring, providing a certain consistency for us Hawks fans, who’d grown used to wildly inconsistent performances. And his woodybrowsoccasional public attempts at motivation — shaving his head for the Playoffs a few years ago, the weird eyebrow incident –  were humorous and endearing. But at the end of the day, I was right all along. Mike Woodson just wasn’t able to inspire enduring confidence, probably from his players, possibly from Hawks management, but most demonstrably from Atlanta’s sports fans.

If the Hawks want to go from appealing mostly to Atlanta’s hardcore basketball fans to regularly drawing a larger cross-section of Atlanta’s sports fans, they have to make those fans believe they are a team with a real chance at winning a Championship. That hasn’t always been the case, even this season when the Hawks went 34-7 at home. Hawks fans mostly just believed at some point the offense was going to slow to a crawl and opposing defenses would be able to get stops.

What are the Hawks going to do next? People keep mentioning Dwane Casey, a longtime assistant (who played at Kentucky) who got fired from his previous head coaching gig Minnesota. I don’t know how Casey would be as the Hawks coach, but I do know that he wouldn’t immediately inspire a groundswell of support from casual basketball fans in Atlanta. There are tons of big names still out there — Avery Johnson, Byron Scott, Mike Fratello — but the common perception being floated is the Hawks wouldn’t hire one of those guys because the ownership doesn’t want to pay a salary commensurate with someone who’s a proven winner.

This might shock you to find out, but I’m no economist. That said, Woodson was making $2 million a year. Paying one of the bigger names $4 million a year means having to find an extra $2 million a year somewhere. For a professional sports franchise, finding an extra $2 million somewhere seems like me finding an extra $20 in an old pair of jeans. It doesn’t seem like it should be a big deal, does it?

Hiring one of the bigger names doesn’t guarantee the Hawks would become a Championship contender. But whomever the Hawks hire, he faces a tough task. Winning 53 games is no easy feat, regardless of which Conference or division you’re in.

And more than wins and losses, the new Hawks coach is going to have to get the city of Atlanta to believe in something bigger than just a team that can win more basketball games than they lose.

• Got the feeling last night that the Suns didn’t win so much as the Lakers just lost it. The way for L.A. to beat Phoenix is so obvious — use their size advantage, pound it inside, take it to Amar’e and get him in foul trouble — and last night they never really committed to doing this. It didn’t help that Bynum was in foul trouble the entire game and had 1 shot attempt, or that Gasol only had 14 FG attempts (he made 11 of them, BTW), or that Kobe started off hot and broke the triangle early on. L.A. should win this series, and I think they will win this series and, eventually, the Championship. But it’s losses like last night, where they just don’t do what they obviously need to do, where I just don’t understand this Lakers team. Really great teams don’t mess around, they do what they need to do. So far, the Celtics are the only team playing every night like they want to win a title, though I don’t think they’ve got enough juice left to outlast L.A. in the Finals. The Lakers seem to lack that killer instinct, and I think it’s too late to develop it. Again, I still think they’re going to win it all. But it’s almost like they’re going to win it by default.

• When the Suns/Lakers game ended last night I flipped over to ABC to watch the last 20 minutes of “Lost.”

Now, I should probably point out that I’d never watched the show at all, other than bits and pieces on the internet when people linked to clips. When the show debuted, I downloaded the first episode and started watching it on my iPod, but I was in the air flying across the ocean, and wasn’t really feeling watching a show about a plane crashing while flying across the ocean.

Even though I haven’t watched the show, it’s been impossible to miss all the talk of smoke monsters and Locke and submarines and the Dharma Initiative, so just for the heck of it, I watched the end of the series finale last night. And I didn’t understand anything. At all.

I was OK with that, because I didn’t invest the time necessary to have all that stuff make sense. But what’s surprising to me today is to read people who watched the entire series writing about the finale who still didn’t understand what happened. Even the New York Times review of the finale today has more questions than answers. Is that why people watched the show? Because they wanted to have questions? Because they didn’t understand what they were watching?

Flash-forward to my own sideways universe: Last week I saw this movie “Exit Through The Gift Shop.” It’s allegedly a documentary by Banksy, the British street artist, about the worldwide street art movement over the last decade, which has been headlined by Banksy and Shepard Fairey. But the film quickly becomes the story of a different street artist named Mr. Brainwash, who may or may not be an actual artist but who definitely put on an art show a few years ago in L.A. and made a ton of money.

Here’s the trailer…

It’s a wild movie that I really enjoyed watching. Like “Lost,” I suppose, it leaves the viewer with as many questions as answers. But I invested a total of 85 minutes of my life in it. If I’d watched it for six years and still didn’t understand what I’d just invested so much time into, I’d be pissed.

Howard Stern said this morning that he watched “Lost” for about a season before giving up, because he already had enough questions in his life. I guess I’m just the same way. The thing I love so much about sports is that when the games are over, we have a clear winner and a clear loser. We know what happened and why it happened. Sports gives us absolutes and answers where life rarely does.

Disposable entertainment, too, apparently.