Al Harrington knows what it's like to be a veteran in a locker room full of young players, each searching for answers during tumultuous times. He did it with the Hawks three years ago. Harrington was a team captain alongside Joe Johnson, who was in his first year with the franchise.
Now Harrington's at it again with the New York Knicks, in town tonight to face the Hawks at Philips Arena. The Knicks are his third team since leaving the Hawks in a sign-and-trade deal after the 2005-06 season.
"Honestly, to see that [Hawks] team now compared to where they were when I was here is remarkable," Harrington said Thursday after the Knicks wrapped up their practice. "Josh [Smith], Marvin [Williams] and those guys were babies back then. It was Joe's first year, too. It was a wild ride for everybody.
"So to see them fight through that and everything else they have since then says a lot about those guys and [Hawks coach Mike Woodson] and his staff. They've come a long way."
No one knows that better than Smith, the only player still on the roster from Woodson's first season. Smith realizes just how dramatic the growth has been from the Hawks' 13-69 team of his rookie season in 2004-05, to the 26-56 team he played on his second year with Harrington, to the playoff team of a year ago and now.
"Obviously, it took some time for us to get to where we are," Smith said. "You come in talented, but you have to know how to play the game."
That's where veterans such as Harrington, Antoine Walker, Tyronn Lue, Tony Delk, Anthony Johnson and several others came in over the past four seasons. Each groomed a spot that one of the Hawks' current young stars assumed later.
Harrington started at small forward during his final season with the Hawks, keeping the seat warm for Williams, who has held down that position since.
"It seems like a lifetime ago now," Williams said of his rookie season spent as Harrington's apprentice. "It really does to me. I don't know about everyone else. There was a lot of losing, but we're coming on with it now. We've come a long way.
"Personally, I feel like I'm a totally different person now compared to who I was then. A lot of times it's just about growth and maturity. I just think our entire team has made a quantum leap from where we were to where we are now."
The passing of the torch was never ceremonial.
"Three years is a long time, especially in the NBA ," Johnson said.
"These guys have seen the playoffs, so they have an idea now of what it's all about. And that's a big plus when you have three starters that are just 22 years old. I can't lie. It was a roller-coaster ride that first year for all of us. We got through it, though. And that's what's most important."
Woodson credits players like Harrington and others like him for helping the Hawks reach this point. Without them, he said, the Hawks wouldn't have been able to build their young core group.
"Al particularly was great for us and what we were trying to do," Woodson said. "He was a pro's pro, on and off the floor.
"He played hurt, and he always tried to give us everything he had during some pretty rough times. You can't ask for much more than that from a player."
NEXT FOR Hawks
* Who: vs. Knicks
* When: 7:30 p.m. today
* TV; radio: SportSouth; 790 AM