ATLANTA – To be an Atlanta sports fan is to know the world’s pity. You mention that you pull for the Braves, you get caught in public outside of Georgia sporting a Falcons or Hawks gear, and you get the kind of looks reserved for someone who just dropped their phone down a sewer: I’m so sorry for you, and I promise I won’t laugh until you’re out of earshot.
Rooting for Atlanta teams has always been a tough go, but the degree of difficulty leveled up on Feb. 5, 2017.
That was the night when the Falcons, playing in their second Super Bowl, coughed up a 25-point third-quarter lead and lost to the New England Patriots, the night the phrase “28-3” entered the sports lexicon and branded Atlanta with the vilest label in sports: chokers.
Like the blood on Lady MacBeth’s hands, 28-3 is a stain that won’t ever wash out. It’s why Atlanta fans don’t feel comfortable with any lead, not until three or four days after the game is over. Can you blame them?
At least now, though, Atlanta fans have uncovered at least a tiny bit of redemption. Wednesday night, the Hawks overcame a 26-point deficit to knock off Philadelphia in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. (I said a “tiny bit.”) Atlanta has now been the cause of, and the victim of, two of the largest collapses in sports history, numerically if not significantly comparable.
What’s fascinating is how closely the Sixers’ self-destruction matched the Falcons’. Both teams had a 99.7 percent chance of winning late in the third quarter:
Both collapses unfolded the way that Hemingway wrote of bankruptcy: gradually, and then suddenly. The lead whittled away, from inside 20 points to inside 10 to Oh dear God no. Both the Sixers and Falcons puckered up the exact same way, making small mistake after small mistake even as the pursuers were executing with no fear ... and no misfires.
Both collapses even had a moment when the outcome became clear to everyone involved. For the Falcons, it was the moment Julian Edelman caught the ball in Atlanta territory with his fingertips with 2:28 remaining; the Patriots were still behind, but owned every ounce of momentum. For the Sixers, it was the moment Joel Embiid, an 86 percent free-throw shooter, clanged two off the rim in the dying seconds of the game. All hope was lost, and 10 seconds later, the Hawks had escaped with the greatest win in franchise history … which is saying something, but we’ll dwell on the positive for now.
Let’s be honest: this isn’t total redemption for Atlanta. Five Super Bowl rings wouldn’t erase the sting of 28-3. Winning Game 5 of an NBA semifinal series is a flickering match compared to the supernova that is losing the Super Bowl. The Sixers’ collapse could be a distant memory within just a few days, if Philadelphia pulls itself back together.
Just suppose, though, that the "Philly Phailure" is a pivotal moment for this team and this franchise. Suppose Atlanta gets past Philadelphia and somehow manages to upend Brooklyn. (This would probably involve locking Kevin Durant in a submarine.) Imagine if Trae Young, Clint Capela et. al. could take out whoever comes out of the West. Do what Atlanta fans no longer allow themselves to do: imagine a local team winning a championship. It could happen! It won't, but it could!
And if nothing else, Atlanta fans can at least wear the moment:
Of course, this could all be a setup; the sports gods could be waiting to drop the hammer until the Hawks have a 99.8 percent chance to win the Finals. When you’re an Atlanta sports fan, the worst possible outcome doesn’t even come as a shock anymore. But for a moment, at least, the city of Atlanta turned a narrative on its head.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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