By Charles Odum
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
ATLANTA _ The Atlanta Hawks hope a sellout in Saturday night’s home opener against Indiana will show the team is moving past off-season controversies in ownership and management.
Standing-room tickets were sold Friday. CEO Steve Koonin is hoping for an attendance record at Philips Arena.
“I think 20,000 people being in this building tomorrow says we’re on the right road,” Koonin told The Associated Press on Friday.
Atlanta fans will have their first look at more than a slightly tweaked Hawks roster. There is a new court, new high-definition scoreboard, new sound system, new uniforms and new marketing philosophy.
Koonin said this is the unveiling of an invigorated fan experience that will continue after opening night.
“This is the new normal, and the new normal is fun and exciting,” Koonin said.
The Hawks were rocked by racially charged comments from co-owner Bruce Levenson and general manager Danny Ferry disclosed in the off-season. Levenson is selling his majority share of the team. Ferry has taken an indefinite leave of absence.
Rapper Tip “T.I.” Harris, an Atlanta native, will perform before the game, at halftime, and following the game.
T.I.’s performances will reflect the marketing direction being taken by the team, especially following Levenson’s email written two years ago and made public last month in which he said “the black crowd scared away the whites” at games. Levenson has apologized for the email in which he also noted most of the team’s cheerleaders were black and hip-hop music was played.
Koonin has had to confront what he said was the “brand crisis” resulting from Levenson’s email and Ferry’s inflammatory description of NBA player Luol Deng.
“We have very targeted promotions to young urban professionals, targeted to Millennials, targeted to African-American families,” Koonin said. “We know who we’re after. That’s the brilliance of television. It tells you who the audience is.”
Koonin spent 14 years as an executive with Turner Entertainment Networks. He oversaw programming for such networks as TBS and TNT.
He said Atlanta ranks as the nation’s No. 5 market “for overall television for NBA.”
“Now just because you love the NBA, it doesn’t make you a Hawks fan,” Koonin said. “It’s not a default business.
“My job, our job, is to make them fans of the Atlanta Hawks, and that’s what we’re going to do. Will it happen overnight? Absolutely not. But a journey starts with a first step, and tomorrow night is the first step.”
The Hawks lost 109-102 at Toronto in their season opener on Wednesday.
Al Horford’s successful return from a torn right pectoral muscle gives the Hawks optimism they can improve on last season’s eighth-place finish in the Eastern Conference. Horford played only 29 games last season, and the Hawks lost ground in the conference standings following his injury.
Horford, who had 12 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks against Toronto, said the sellout has added to his anticipation for the home opener.
“It’s exciting,” Horford said. “You definitely want to come out and have a good showing for our fans and let them know that we’re here to play hard and show them that we have a good team and show them how we want to play.”
Horford was wide-eyed after players were given a private preview of the arena’s new high-tech toys, including a 3D projection system, to be used during pregame introductions.
“It was pretty unbelievable,” Horford said. “I don’t think anybody in the league has anything like that. It was very well done.
“I don’t want to spoil it. I don’t want to make it more than it is, but I was pretty impressed by it.”
That’s the kind of review Koonin is hoping to hear from fans.
“I’m hoping tomorrow night a record crowd has the time of their life and they can’t wait to come back _ and back and back,” he said.