The Other Guys

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Dear Atlanta,

Pretty much my whole life, I’ve been one of the “other guys.”

You know what I mean??? I wasn’t a childhood prodigy like some of these dudes. Wasn’t a phenom. Wasn’t a five-star. No blue-blood schools were coming knocking. No camp you’ve ever heard of had me on their list. Like, I think my first real mixtape might have had about 5,000 views — and probably half were from my mom. Hoop dreams??? Man, growing up, mine were just that: dreams.

And then I caught a break. It was my summer before senior year in high school — and it was one of those “I know a coach who knows a coach who knows a coach…..” type situations. Someone owed someone a favor, who owed someone a favor, or something. Not even sure how it happened. But I kind of hustled my way into an invite at this camp called the NBPA Top 100, one of the big national hoops showcases.

It was future NBAers left and right. Man, I remember De’Aaron Fox threw down one of the hardest dunks I’ve ever seen at this camp. It was like that. All the best players our age were there. All those guys, and then me — John. But I held my own.

Let me go ahead and repeat that, actually, because I’m still proud of it to this day: I held my own. I realized the camp was a rare opportunity — and I made that sh*t count. I competed like hell, man. I found a whole different gear. I played with the one thing in the world that I knew I had, and those five-star kids lacked.

Something to prove.

And here’s the funny thing about having something to prove: It never really goes away.

So now fast-forward seven years — and you put me on an entire team full of guys trying to prove themselves?? And we’re locked in on a common goal?? Well, let’s just say….. that’s not going to be some normal team.

And I wouldn’t want to be standing between them and their goal.

It’s been wild, over the course of these playoffs — just watching everyone try to figure out what to do about us. What to do about this Atlanta Hawks thing. We weren’t on national TV much during the regular season, so I think most people hadn’t really ever seen us play. And then add to that, we’ve never had a bunch of drama going on over here, so it’s not like we were getting talked about all the time either. It was the same old story: We weren’t the guys. 

We were the other guys.

John Collins | Atlanta Hawks | The Players' Tribune
Nick Wass/AP Photo

Round 1, Game 1, remember?? That was a crazy day. The Knicks are BACK that’s what I kept hearing. They had all this momentum. They had the Garden popping. They had the “F*ck you, Trae” chants. Definitely saw those “Knicks in 7” predictions. It was like: NEW YORK!!!!!!!!! (vs. Atlanta.) That was the energy. It was cool, man. Good for them.

And then we punched them in the mouth.

Round 2….. same deal. Saw a lot of talk, going in, about: What went wrong for the Knicks?? Saw a lot of talk, going in, about: Would Philly rather play the Bucks or BK next round?? Ha — okay. Again, it’s no problem. We snatched Game 1 and we told ’em, The South says hello.

Even going into this round — even after we bounced the #1 seed!! I think people still kind of assumed we were just “happy to be here.” So-and-so on Philly got injured, or so-and-so wasn’t shooting, those were the big conversations coming out of that series. And meanwhile we’re over here just minding our business, flying to Milwaukee, and winning another Game 1 on the road.

That’s what I love about this team.

We have a group that’s straight-up fearless. You might have more “stars” than us, or more hype than us, or more playoff experience than us, or whatever it may be. But you’re not going to scare us. You’re never going to scare us. And that’s because we just know, no matter what’s been happening in the game up to any point — at some point?? We’re giving you buckets.

Buckets and buckets.

It starts with Ice Trae, of course — you know the numbers. You know the résumé. But really it’s everyone, man. It’s myself, it’s K’Von, it’s CC, it’s Bogie, it’s Lou Will, it’s Gallo, it’s De’Andre when he’s back….. there’s just no one getting minutes for us who isn’t a weapon.

It’s everyone.

John Collins | Trae Young | Atlanta Hawks | The Players' Tribune
Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

And then there’s the final key ingredient to our system — one of the biggest reasons it works, I think, which is: We like each other. No, for real. It sounds simple but it’s true. 

We really do just like each other. 

That’s why Red Velvet can go off for 27 in one game, and then Trae can go off for 48 in the next….. and you probably wouldn’t even know which game was which, just from looking at them. That’s also why you’re seeing these great bonds between our vets and our young guns, to be honest. Like one of the big topics that’s come up in this run, it’s how it could be Clint’s first trip to the Finals, or Gallo’s, or Tony’s, and so on. Or how we could get Lou his first ring, or Solomon his. Might just be a comment here and there. But I think that tells you something.

And it’s also why, as the Hawks’ unofficial Senior Chief Executive Vibes Officer, I have a highly personal, highly elaborate, double-secret handshake with each of my teammates. (Except for the rookies….. you have to earn your handshake here, it has to be real.)

So like me and Cam, we're always talking about social media and stuff — did you see this video, that video, etc. — so in our handshake now we’ve got the “SHEEEEEEESSHHH!!!!” yell from TikTok going. Or me and Kevin, every time we dap, I’m asking him, like, What are we smelling tonight?? We smellin’ victory?? K’Von, what’s that smell??? Man, here’s how deep it goes: I even have a shake now with each of the coaches. Like Coach Marlon, he can shoot it and his name starts with M, which means of course his nickname has to be Money. So with Marlon, it’s a dap, it’s the whole thing, and then it’s the hand signal like we’re making it rain dollar bills.

I don’t know….. it’s just stuff like that. Vibes Officer things. Morale things.

All of that matters.

I guess it’s kind of like a reminder, you know?? That we’re in this together. That our sh*t only really works as a UNIT….. and that ultimately, as a unit, we’re each sharing in the other’s success.

And to me that goes for y’all as well — for all of you Hawks fans reading this.

Because nothing from this moment right now would hit even close to the same, for me, if it wasn’t feeling like it was part of a larger moment. If it wasn’t feeling like, together as a community, we were reaching for some type of larger success with this.

And I feel like that’s happening here.

I feel like what’s happening is, we’re bringing the REAL Atlanta back out. 

Like….. it’s not just my neighbors, who I never knew were hoop fans, putting a big-ass Hawks flag out on their doorstep. (I love it, it looks great.) It’s not just my guy who works at the gas station I go to, after four years of “hey have a good one,” now all of a sudden he’s giving me “beat the Knicks!!” when I come up to pay. It’s not just these meme kings on Hawks Twitter, coming up with the — man, I can’t even keep track of all the memes anymore.

It’s like, we love those fans to death….. but we’re also going deeper than that.

We’re bringing the faithful back out.

We're bringing the base back out. We’re bringing Zone 3 out, Zone 6 out, Zone 1 out, Zone 4 out.

We’re bringing Quavo out, we’re bringing 2 Chainz out. We’re putting the culture back into it. We're bring the A back out.

And I will promise you something else about this moment: We’re bringing men’s and women’s basketball out. To me, so much of what we’re doing, it’s riding a wave that goes back into late last year — when the players of the Dream went out and did what they did. When they stood their ground, and made sure that everyone knew….. there’s no version of hooping in which Black lives don’t matter. Shoutout to them.

Shoutout to every single one of y’all representing basketball in Atlanta.

John Collins | Atlanta Hawks | The Players' Tribune
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Anyway, that’s a wrap pretty much on what I wanted to say here — but I’ll just put one more thought down, real quick, ahead of tonight.

Yeah….. we lost Game 3.

Yeah….. we’re down 2–1. 

We’re probably still the “other guys” in this story. We’re definitely still the underdogs in these playoffs. And honestly, let’s face it: My mom is still making up about half of my mixtape views. Some things never change. 

But I feel like that’s also a part of what makes this run special. We’re doing it OUR way, the Atlanta way, you know what I mean?? We’re doing it with originality, and with hustle, and with the culture lifting us up and vice versa. We’re doing it with nothing to fear….. and something to prove.

We’re not just winning for this city.

We’re winning as this city.

Thanks for reading — I’ll see y’all at Game 4.

John Collins | Atlanta Hawks | The Players' Tribune