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ATLANTA -- A voice pierced the muffled music in a breezy, antiseptic tunnel beneath the stands at Philips Arena before its source arrived.

"How 'bout them Hawks!"

It was Josh Smith, bouncing with springy legs and the kind of exuberance that has mastered volume, but not tone. He is like one of those wide-eyed kids singing the national anthem, the ones who have all the gusto and expression and fearlessness of a Broadway performer but windpipes that'll never make it out of the dive bars.

Smith caught up with his coach, Mike Woodson, on the way to the locker room and extended his hand. Woodson shook it. It was one of many gestures the two exchanged during what was called "Dream Week" in Atlanta -- a week that yielded losses to San Antonio (without Tim Duncan) and Boston (without Kevin Garnett), followed by a win over the Lakers (with Kobe Bryant). Like the relationship between their star player and coach, the Hawks are a work in progress.

Having clinched a winning record and playoff spot before April 1 -- and no, that's not an April Fool's joke -- the Hawks haven't flown this high in a decade. Their revival took the national stage last spring, when they pushed the eventual champion Celtics to seven games in the first round, putting as much of a scare into Boston as any team in the East. This year, culminating in a streak of eight straight home wins before the Spurs and Celtics came to town, the Hawks have parlayed that success into one of the notable home-court advantages in the NBA.

That's right, a pro sports team in A-Town -- where A stands for Apathy -- finally seems to be getting some traction.

"We're a spinoff from last year's playoffs and our team has grown," Woodson said. "The guys in the locker room are hungry, because they're trying to get something accomplished here in terms of securing a spot that allows you to host the first round at home. And once you get that accomplished, it's a whole different ballgame. Until you get to that point, it's all-out work."

In case you haven't noticed -- and if you live in Atlanta, for the most part you haven't -- the effort has not always translated into results. Whatever fan base that was built under Mike Fratello in the '80s and Lenny Wilkens in the '90s has been chased away by years of rudderless, incompetent management. The personnel missteps and draft blunders are too numerous to recount, not to mention depressing.

Just a guess: 95 percent of Hawks fans who were among the arena-record 20,148 watching Atlanta beat the Lakers on Sunday weren't aware that All-Star Pau Gasol was drafted by the Hawks in 2001. Gasol, of course, was traded to Memphis for a rack of ribs, another in a long list of gaffes seemingly favoring the pursuit of doomsday cult status over admission to the NBA playoffs.

Joe Johnson, by far the Hawks' most accomplished player, has seen the worst of it. This is the first year the Hawks will have a winning record since Johnson arrived in a trade from Phoenix in 2005 -- and he almost wasn't here to see it. The Hawks' complicated, splintered, litigious ownership group went to court over the sign-and-trade that brought Johnson here in the first place.

"When I first got here, it was like this wasn't even the NBA," Johnson said. "Never anybody in the stands; it was brutal, man. It was tough. It was tough to play. But over the years, we've gotten better and better and the fan base has definitely increased. Last year in the playoffs was probably the best moment, with the sellout crowds and how it was very hostile. It was much needed. It was past due."

Given the Hawks' often disappointing and comical past, it should come as no surprise that even the current regime, led by experienced executive Rick Sund, has been hampered by past missteps -- not to mention the legal soap opera playing out among the team's fractured ownership.

A breakout season from Marvin Williams, ex-GM Billy Knight's No. 2 overall pick in 2005, has played out under the crushing weight of two potential Hall of Famers picked immediately after him: Deron Williams and Chris Paul. While current point guard Mike Bibby has legitimized the Hawks as a playoff team, his defensive liabilities and $15 million salary all but ensure he will either be gone as an unrestricted free agent after the season or at most re-signed for little more than the mid-level exception. If not, the Hawks will once again be in the market for a serviceable point guard -- Speedy Claxton, in whom Knight invested $25 million over four years to sit hopelessly on the bench, doesn't qualify -- when two immortal ones were right under their noses.

Sund, who brought 30 years of expertise and league-wide respect to Atlanta after he was purged by the ownership group that moved the Sonics from Seattle to Oklahoma City, was tested early in his tenure. He wisely held the line and allowed restricted free agent Josh Childress to bolt the NBA for Greece last summer. But as a result, Sund had no choice but to match Memphis' five-year, $58 million offer sheet for Smith, 23, an athletic shot-blocker whose graceful skills from the neck down are in constant conflict with poor decision-making from the neck up.

The decision to keep Smith followed closely on the heels of extending Woodson's contract through 2009-10. In concert, those two moves have provided as much tension off the court as stability on it.

After their histrionics were chronicled in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution nearly two weeks ago, Woodson and Smith seem to have reached agreement on one thing: They'll no longer air their grievances in public. All it took was one question to Woodson about his relationship with Smith last Wednesday night -- "How are things with Josh?" I queried -- to send a routine pregame briefing in the coach's office careening into a silent abyss.

"I'm not talking about Josh," Woodson sniped. "If you want to talk about basketball, let's talk about the game tonight, that's what's important."

Within seconds, Woodson was refusing to entertain questions from a local columnist who couldn't even remember what he'd written to set Woodson off.

Woodson was MVP of the Big Ten for Bob Knight at Indiana in 1980, and as such was raised in the tough-love school of coaching. His demanding, fastidious nature has been appreciated by some -- Johnson said Woodson was the biggest reason he pushed for the sign-and-trade to Atlanta -- but loathed by others. After the Spurs' Manu Ginobili struggled to a 1-for-7 shooting night Wednesday in his first game back after missing 19 with an ankle injury, one player assigned to him openly vented in the locker room the next day about how dissatisfied Woodson was with his effort. "He shouldn't even catch the ball," Woodson had barked in the film session.

At times, Woodson's hardscrabble approach has connected, making the Hawks look like a tough out on their home court once the playoffs start. At other times, such as inexplicably passive defensive efforts against the undermanned Spurs and Celtics last week, the chasm between players and coach has been exposed.

"Sometimes when things get rough," Bibby said, "we don't play together. And it shows."

Nowhere has the tension been more obvious than in the unstable relationship between Woodson and Smith, who is among the league leaders in shot-blocking but alone at the top in coach-dissing. Two years ago, Woodson suspended Smith two games for insubordination after the player cursed him in the huddle during a dispute over a play Woodson called. Earlier this month, Woodson benched Smith for the second half of a game in Charlotte following a halftime shouting match in the locker room.

Last week, Smith described their relationship as "pretty good" and said, "The media always tries to blow it up." Asked if he and Woodson share any common ground, Smith said matter-of-factly, "We agree to disagree."

While he's at it, Smith might just want to borrow against the $48 million he's owed and become yet another member of the Hawks' ownership group. He would fit right in. There are board members in three cities -- Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Boston -- and the factions have been sparring for years. The latest imbroglio is a legal dispute over how much Boston-based Steve Belkin should receive in a buyout of his 30 percent stake in the Hawks and the NHL's Thrashers. A favorable ruling for Belkin could cripple the remaining partners, who according to court documents have lost $50 million in the past two years.

Even if the ownership group, Atlanta Spirit LLC, had unlimited funds, its complicated business arrangement wouldn't make it any easier to compete in the cutthroat NBA, where personnel decisions require swift action and consensus. Even minor moves -- like whether to match offer sheets for Childress and Smith last summer -- have to be approved 2-1 by the three ownership factions. Though telecommunications entrepreneur Michael Gearon Jr. has taken a leadership role among the Atlanta contingent, people inside Philips Arena can't even tell you with certainty how many owners there are, much less whose marching orders they should be following. And until Belkin's lawsuit is resolved, his vote still counts.

As for Woodson and Smith, their differences appear to have calmed from a boil to a simmer as the Hawks inch closer to their second consecutive playoff trip -- something that hasn't happened in a decade. But they can't hide the body language. Smith's alternately dominant and puzzling on-court exploits evoked the full array of Woodson poses last week -- hands on hips after Smith misfired on a pull-up 3-pointer against Boston on Friday night, arms folded after Smith dribbled the length of the court following a Boston turnover and didn't look to pass. (He got fouled and made both free throws.) When Smith blew a breakaway dunk against the Lakers on Sunday, Woodson stood in horror with one hand affixed to the top of his shiny dome. Then, signs of a possible détente. Woodson subbed for Smith and put his arm around him as he headed for the bench, and later reached back to shake his hand on their victorious walk to the locker room.

"I just try to help Josh understand that nobody is against him, and you've got to keep working," Johnson said. "It happens. When you're a family, everybody doesn't always see eye to eye. But in the end, they always come together."

Sometimes, despite all the history, even the most dysfunctional families get it right.

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