Hawks’ 6th Man tryouts underscore city’s growing NBA interest

The Atlanta Hawks' 6th Man held its annual tryouts on Monday at Philips Arena.

Brett Davis/Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA – There’s an elevator that runs up the southwest corner of Philips Arena, from the service level up through the main concourse and into the arena’s upper levels where banners commemorating division titles, Ted Turner and Widespread Panic concerts sway in the air conditioning. On Monday evening at Philips, as Zamboni machines paved a frozen surface on the arena floor for an upcoming "Disney On Ice" event, shouting could be heard after departing the elevator at the main concourse level.

The 6th Man was assembling.

The Atlanta Hawks’ raucous fan section was holding its annual tryouts around the corner, just inside the CNN Center entrance. On the building’s exterior Dominique Wilkins’ new statue dunked on passing traffic, but there was perhaps no greater tribute to the city’s reinvigorated embrace of the NBA franchise than on the wide stairwell inside. Fans — the uninhibited type, dressed to the nines in the franchise’s new color schemes on an otherwise quiet weeknight — lined up in disorganized droves for the opportunity to come unhinged. And they brought all the necessary accessories and eclecticism to pull off the trick.

There were cut-out big heads of Kyle Korver, Mike Muscala with antlers, T.I. and Hawks radio broadcaster Steve Holman. There were Spud Webb uniforms and Hawk-themed Zorro costumes. There were Shrek masks and human-sized wings. The weird was welcomed. There were also adults in formalwear fit for the city’s midtown law firms, waiting patiently in line. The mundane, as it turned out, was also welcome.

Participants arrived from downtown offices, Marietta and the outer suburbs. More would flock in throughout the night. Mike Muscala himself even made an appearance:

The 6th Man tryouts have adopted the form and function of American Idol auditions. Men and women loiter outside the Comcast Business Zone. Four judges wait inside. A Hawks employee, Donald, holds a clipboard and directs participants by number when it’s time to enter the room, wherein the personalized bedlam ensues. On the fifth or sixth page of the clipboard, the final number is shown. The 6th Man organizers, led by game presentation assistant Drew Frank, who can be found wearing a Hawks sombrero, are expecting 193 auditions this year.

"In the beginning it was on the practice court," Donald says, "and you would do your routine in front of everyone. That was kinda nerve-racking. It’s just grown from there."

The group was founded back in 2010 when Frank, who was working as an intern at the time, wanted to mimic the Milwaukee Bucks’ Squad 6 section. He reached out to friends at local colleges and debuted the group, appropriately enough, against Milwaukee during the 2010 playoffs.

The section picked up steam from there. More organization was required.

The auditions started in 2011, and now those invited are fit into 30-minute time slots and expected to present a memorized cheer, their own scripted show of support and answer questions regarding their fandom and game-to-game availability. One participant was asked to knock out three pushups. Others have been in the section for five years now and are simply following through with the annual formality. Attendance and demand have risen with the tide of a 60-win season and title aspirations.

MCCARTNEY: A Night With The 6th Man

As one of the judges advised the crowd, "Tip: Come in making noise."

If they pass the audition round, prospective members are expected to attend one of two Hawks preseason games where Frank and his fellow organizers will evaluate their efforts, particularly those of the newcomers. Invites are sent out accordingly.

The perks are obvious: Lower-bowl tickets to one of the NBA’s top teams, a road game and membership in a growing group that shares at least one common interest. With those advantages come responsibilities. Members are required to help with maintaining a certain atmosphere and attendance is tracked — higher attendance numbers lead to playoff tickets and so on.

It’s club with an established set of rules, an intern’s idea that has almost taken on a life of its own.

On Monday, this movement worked itself into fever pitch. Noise from the auditions reverberated out into the high-ceiling corridor, finding the participants waiting on the steps and, perhaps unknowingly, upping the ante. The average audition’s volume level rose at a gradual pace, until at the hour-mark a grown man dressed as Jeff Teague with wings sprinted into the audition room cawing and flapping his wings, as if Michael Keaton’s character in "Birdman" was instead an out-of-work energy drink salesman desperate for a career revival.

Two slots before him, a middle-aged woman exited the room shouting, "They call Kyle Korver ‘Threezus,’ right? Well, Hawk-allujah. Hawk-allujah."

This is communal fandom at its most extreme, and the Hawks’ franchise has fully embraced the unrestrained show of support.