As everyone out there who has ever been traded for Pete Maravich knows, there are two species of Atlanta Hawks. One is the old craggy type—not really a hawk at all, but more like a buzzard—who comes with patched-together elbows, a blond twin brother and fond remembrances of playing days with the Pittsburgh Rens. Now that's old. The other type is the Youngblood Hawk, exemplified by infants who are still so fresh, new and unwary that their coach, Cotton Fitzsimmons says, "They weren't in college long enough to learn how to eat." In truth two of Cotton's men (boys? children? Hawklets?) should still be in college, and a third never did make it there from high school.
This disparity in age groups becomes apparent during periods such as a practice session the other day when the semi-legendary Hawk himself, Connie Hawkins, who is either 31, 33 or 74, depending on whether you believe the man, the record book or the occasional creaky effort, fed a pass to the equally wizened Lou Hudson for a whirling, running hook shot. "Cliff Hagan! Cliff Hagan! Dance on 'em, Cliff," Hawkins roared. After which he realized that half his teammates had no idea who Cliff Hagan was.
"Cliff who?" said Mike Sojourner, who is playing out his senior year at the University of Utah as a Hawk center.
"I know Cliff Hagan. He plays in the ABA," said John Drew, who is playing out his senior year at Gardner-Webb as a Hawk forward.
December 22, 1975
Bill (Don't Call Me Poodle) Willoughby, who is sitting out his college freshman year on the Hawk bench, was unavailable for comment.
"I'm surprised they don't think Cliff Hagan's some disease," said Fitzsimmons.
No disease has yet hit the Hawks. Their 13-9 record through last weekend was the best in the Central Division and represents a splendid turnabout from last spring, when they finished somewhere in underground Atlanta, searching for the draft rights to David Thompson.
Such improvement without the aid of Thompson or the other turncoat draftee, Marvin Webster—both of whom were waylaid by Denver—can be attributed to the quick blending of the young and the old, the thoughtful platooning of the strong and the lame and the individual skills of the greatest tattooed offensive re-bounder in the history of the world.
"It is true that nobody has ever seen a player like John Drew before," says John Drew in a customary outburst of humility. Drew has a heart on his leg, the name "Joe" on one arm, the initial "J" on the other—all tattoos done up just so by a young cousin when Drew was eight years old. "India ink and a needle," Drew says. "An amateur job. I wanted 'Boss' over the heart, but the needle hurt so bad."
Lately Atlanta has hurt the NBA's best teams likewise so bad. While displaying the aggravating habit of losing to weak clubs, the Hawks have beaten Golden State, Philadelphia, Detroit, Boston and Washington; in other words, all of this year's and last year's division leaders except Chicago, whom they haven't played yet and who don't count anyway.
None of this was exactly anticipated. Upon the return of Hudson from elbow surgery and the acquisition of Hawkins from the Los Angeles branch of Rent-A-Relic, Fitzsimmons took a calculated gamble and decided to start the veteran pair, bringing the spectacular Drew off the bench in a sixth-man role. While Hawkins has exploited the passing talents he first displayed about two centuries ago, and Hudson has worked his shooting arm back into shape, Drew has been acquiring some impressive offensive statistics. In his 28-minutes-a-game playing time the 6'6" second-year man has averaged 21.5 points and nine rebounds. Among NBA forwards he is second only to George McGinnis in scoring, and third in steals and shooting percentage.
Hawkins calls Drew "the best offensive player in the game." At the defensive end of the floor, however, Drew is out to lunch. "The cat can't guard my house," says Atlanta's backcourt leader, Tom Henderson.
In a woeful exhibition against Kansas City early last week, Drew's explosive game was running on all its chaotic cylinders. After scoring 16 points in the first half, Drew opened the second in catatonia as Scott Wedman scored three quick baskets off him. In the midst of this, he also threw away the ball, and KC went ahead by 10 points, so he sat down fast.
When he reentered the contest, Drew immediately scored twice to give Atlanta the lead, but down the stretch he committed a traveling violation and a charging foul at important points, and the Hawks lost 100-94.
In the next two games at home, against Buffalo and Kansas City again, Drew rehabilitated himself simply by jumping all over the place. In 53 minutes of playing time he made 23 of 35 shots, scored 60 points and contributed 17 rebounds as well as a pair of surprisingly fine defensive jobs (shared with Hudson) on Jim McMillian and Wedman in Atlanta's 122-99 and 115-101 victories. Hudson's 29 points in the two games meant the Hawks got 89 out of the quick forward position, an indication that Fitzsimmons' platooning strategy was functioning the way he expected it to.
Moreover, the Buffalo game marked the 11th time the improved Hawk defense had allowed an opponent fewer than 100 points; Atlanta's yield is a fat six points a game below last year's team, which finished with the third-worst defensive record in the league.
In addition to getting mileage out of the ancient cornermen, Fitzsimmons has a third war-horse, Guard Tom Van Arsdale, in the starting lineup, after which Dean (the former Dream) Meminger comes in to get the break moving. Henderson, a second-year man out of New York City and the University of Hawaii, stays in because of his stability and intelligence.
Atlanta's frontcourt substitutions are plain and simple. Hawkins, Hudson and starting Center Dwight Jones are three finesse operators. When, as Assistant Coach Gene Tormohlen says, "We need some gorilla work," in come third-year Forward John Brown, Sojourner and the deceptively powerful Drew.
"There's no mysteries in this league," says Henderson, who has already become all-star material. "We're better simply because we've all been together for a while. On defense we help each other—except Drew. Offensively, it's all more comfortable. For one thing, the Hawk hits the open man. Last year I was always cutting around picks—for nothing. I never saw the ball again."
At the time the Hawklets were trying to learn the NBA ropes, Atlanta management resembled a game of executive musical chairs. As Fitzsimmons says, "Presidents and GMs were flying out of here like paper clips." The coach acknowledges that it is a miracle he is still around.
Before last season Fitzsimmons traded Maravich to New Orleans for 37 players, 26 draft choices and a partridge in a pear tree. His front-office troubles were thereafter compounded by the natural coaching hazard of controlling spirited youth. While Henderson impresses NBA observers with his maturity, he is, like Drew, no shrinking violet. "I was excited about coming into this league," Henderson will say, "until I realized half the players don't know anything about the game. We got vets who can't even stand up.
"Hawkins an inspiration? An idol?" he will say. "The trouble with the Hawk is he thinks he's 21. It's the night life. The Hawk's head gone Hollywood."
Last season Henderson and Fitzsimmons clashed over the coach's "cussin' out" of the rookie; at times Henderson stuffed a towel in his mouth on the bench to keep from laughing at his team's inept play. On the floor he never did figure out his young teammate, Drew.
"I hate the man's game," says Henderson, "but I encourage him. Once last year, on the break, he pulled up in front of the Philly bench and fired. Nearly kicked Gene Shue in the face. A 40-footer! I say, 'Hey, try and take it in closer.' Drew tells me what I can do. Against Houston I was running a play, and he bumped into me and called me a 'dumb nigger.' I wanted to kill the turkey on the spot. But he's better now."
For his part, Drew at 21 remains the same naive, effervescent and immensely likable kid he was last year when he debuted with 32 points and immediately told everybody to be sure to spell his name right on the hall of fame plaques.
When he can tear himself away from holding court with writers about his desire to star in an autobiographical movie, Drew waxes philosophical, in the third person, about his loss of the Rookie of the Year award (to Golden State's Jamaal Wilkes) and about his new playing schedule.
"Drew almost quit the game when he didn't win best rookie," Drew says, "because Drew deserved it. Then he felt, well, he just have more to prove this year. Now the fans, they get upset when Drew don't get enough time because they come to see Drew. It's like if you bought tickets to a Stevie Wonder concert and the Wonder Man didn't come on for an hour, you'd be mad, too.
"As long as we're winning, though, the man can get away with not playing Drew enough," he says. "Drew go along. Drew no fool when it come to winning."
Drew no fool when it come to talking, either.