ATLANTA — Atlanta fans love a big winner, and they love big stars.
So the stage is set — the NBA’s biggest star playing in the biggest series in Atlanta Hawks history. The party invitations have been sent, and the infamously fair-weathered ATL fans should quickly RSVP.
The top-seeded Hawks are hosting LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night in Atlanta’s first Eastern Conference finals.
Not unexpectedly, Hawks fans are casting aside their usual naysayer expectations.
Longtime season-ticket holder Randy Kessler said in the past he’d root for the Hawks to face James in the playoffs so he’d catch a glimpse of the star while expecting an early exit for the Hawks.
Not this time. Kessler believes Atlanta has a real chance to win a championship. This year, the Hawks have the best record. James and the Cavaliers are No. 2.
“I’m happy LeBron is coming,” Kessler said. “It’s fun to watch him. But … the chance to go to the (NBA) Finals is much bigger.”
Atlanta grinded out wins against the Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards to set up the showdown, a matchup that has the city buzzing.
Fans want to see if Atlanta’s cast of relative no-names — albeit a lineup with four All-Stars — beat the player many consider the world’s greatest in a seven-game series.
With the Hawks’ ascension to the top, the anticipation has been building all season.
Often criticized for their apathy, Hawks fans set a franchise record with 25 sellouts this season at Philips Arena. The average attendance of 17,412 ranked 17th in the league — up from 28th last year at 14,339. The increase in actual turnout appeared to be much greater.
It’s not as if the Hawks are newcomers to the playoffs. This is Atlanta’s eighth straight postseason appearance, the longest streak in the East. But the setting has changed for the Hawks and their fans.
Before this season, the Hawks were only sparring partners for true contenders, always falling in the first or second round.
“It’s been tough, always seeming to fall short, even when we had Dominique (Wilkins),” said another longtime fan, John Bednarski. “They never could make it to the Eastern finals. I always supported them and I’m just glad to see they finally broke through.”
Hawks forward Paul Millsap said he understands the team’s poor record in past postseasons.
“Personally, it means a lot to be a part of this,” Millsap said. “Atlanta has a lot of history and to give this to them … it’s great. We’re not just out there playing for ourselves.”
Bednarski, his wife Joni and 12-year-old son Mark are examples of the energized fan base. They made the four-hour drive from the Savannah area for four games this season, even though the commitment required hotel reservations.
“That is dedication and we love it,” said Joni Bednarski, who says Hawks games have become must-see TV events in her home.
“We don’t miss a game,” she said. “One time, we had to be somewhere when a game was on and we recorded it. None of us would look at any scores until we got home and then we all sat down and watched it together. We love it.”
SportSouth, the Fox Sports regional television home of the Hawks, reports viewership grew by 120 percent — from a 1.0 rating to 2.2 — this season.
Kessler said he has been a season-ticket holder since Philips Arena opened in 1999. Before this year, he said it was difficult to find friends who would share his seats. Now the bandwagon is filling.
“I actually feel bad because all the people I’ve invited all the years would say no, I don’t want to come downtown,” Kessler said. “Now they’re all calling. It’s unbelievable. But I don’t rub it in and say you should have done it before. I get it.
“Now, it’s a fun time.”