A lot of folks in Atlanta have become convinced that pro basketball is some damned Yankee game. And they know the Boston Celtics to be the damnedest Yankees of all. For a long time, there has been little that the hometown Hawks could do to show their fans otherwise. Boston has won 29 of the last 34 games played between the teams, including a five-game sacking in last season's NBA playoffs. But after heated home-and-home confrontations played last week, notice has been served: The Hawks are not about to back down. Not as long as power forward Kevin Willis lives and breathes and keeps on jumping as only he can.
The Celtics survived the 7-foot Willis, Dominique Wilkins and the rest of the red-hot Hawks 111-107 in Boston on Wednesday in just another game in which Boston coach K.C. Jones was ejected, Larry Bird arid Atlanta guard Doc Rivers very nearly came to blows, and Willis got 18 points and 8 boards, shooting 9 for 12 from the field, while yelling at Rivers to "take it to 'em. That's right. Take 'em every time!" "We've shown we can play with the Celtics," said backup center Jon Koncak afterwards. "Now we have to show we can beat them."
Show them the Hawks did. When the teams met again at the sold-out Omni on Saturday night, Atlanta won 97-96. The Celtics doubled and harrassed Willis into only 5-of-14 shooting, but he still had 13 rebounds in just 31 minutes to lead both teams, and Wilkins poured in 38 points, most of them coming from the high wire, but the last were two free throws with 24 seconds left. After center Tree Rollins swatted away the last Celtic shot, Wilkins fired the ball toward the moon and took Rivers in his arms. The Omni took off.
Bird had scored 18 before fouling out for the first time in 465 regular-season games. "Willis always was a good jumper," he said. "Now he's showing me more." Kevin McHale had fought through the Hawks for 25 points and 10 boards. He said, "They're the same. This doesn't mean anything."
December 1, 1986
"Well, it means something to us," said Willis. "We're 9 and 2. They're 8 and 3. That means something, doesn't it?" Indeed it does. "Losing to Boston can be like a disease," said Koncak. "Beating Boston takes maturity."
It also builds confidence, which is all that's needed when a team already has everything else. Willis and Rollins don't need to learn to be 7 feet tall. Nor does Koncak, who is but one man on a long bench of big leaguers Hawks coach Mike Fratello can call upon in a rotation that includes former Laker Mike McGee and tiny tower Spud Webb backing up guards Rivers and Randy Wittman. Cliff Levingston, 6'8", spells Willis or Wilkins. Atlanta is the second-youngest team in the NBA. Boston, meanwhile, with a pair of 34-year-olds, Bill Walton and Scott Wedman, nursing injuries, is only seven deep. Two of the starting five, Dennis Johnson and Robert Parish, have a combined 20 years in the NBA bank.
"They're getting older with every minute," says Hawks president and general manager Stan Kasten. Kasten is beaming like a department store Santa these days. He knows exactly what surprises he has in his bag; he put them there. "But you tell me, how do you match a Bird, a Parish, a Kevin McHale? You don't," says Kasten. "You try to emulate them as best you can. There's no one like them."
But there is also no one quite like Willis, the third-year man who is eating up the league in big bites. "Kevin's a big, strong moose," says Kasten. "Nobody runs like that at 7 feet. Look at that body. And he loves to play." Says former Hawk great Lou Hudson, "Willis is the reason this is the best Hawks team I've ever seen. They're 12 deep, and Willis has made the best improvement in his game of any player I've known. He's a moose, all right. A moose with touch."
Willis began impressing the NBA as a rookie, after suffering through a senior season at Michigan State marred by a badly sprained ankle. That explains why he was only the 11th player drafted. On Dec. 13, 1984, Willis found himself locked in the box with Houston's Ralph Sampson, who took umbrage and a couple of swings at Willis. Sampson ended up on the seat of his pants, yanked down by Willis, who also threw in a right hand for emphasis. "Ralph threw a slow punch," says Willis.
Willis and Koncak were the only Hawks to play in all 82 games last season, and even Willis's numbers—14.3 points, 10.7 rebounds over the last 28 games—were deceiving. Such blips as a 39-point night against Denver and two 21-rebound games (Denver, Chicago) were glimpses of what could be. This season, Willis is averaging 17.6 points and 13 rebounds per game, leading a front line that could hold off an invasion. With Willis alongside Rollins and Wilkins, the Hawks need not back down to any team in a power game. Yet Willis doesn't play like a Twin Tower. He plays like a very tall forward and a general manager's dream, signed as he is through the 1993 season.
"He comes in an hour before practices, two hours before games," says Kasten. "I said, 'Kev, don't you have any hobbies?' He said, 'The game is my hobby.' " Willis does have a penchant for watching Bugs Bunny cartoons in his few hours away from the court. "Bugs is my man," he says, " 'cause Bugs kills time between games."
Willis is the first Hawk into the weight room, onto the bus, into the locker room and out on the court. Such dedication has paid off. "I started that my rookie year. I come early to get into it mentally."
Willis does not engage in the tension-releasing locker room banter before games. He stays tense, or, rather, intense. At those times, his teammates leave him alone. "Kevin is known to get serious," says Rollins.
"You just don't see 7-footers with his kind of body definition," says Hawks trainer Joe O'Toole. But Willis's deltoids and biceps and abdominal grid are only the most obvious traits of a remarkable athlete. "I was a distance runner in high school [Detroit Pershing]," says Willis. "I like long hauls. I can wait for my satisfaction." Willis lives in an apartment in an Atlanta suburb and has bought his mother, Hattie, a seamstress, and older brother Robert, a policeman, adjoining homes in Southfield, outside Detroit. Willis's father, James, is a 6'6" civil engineer, and his mother is 5'11". His sister, Lynette, is 6 feet. "But I was never pushed into basketball," Willis says. "I didn't play until 11th grade. My father says you have to be the kind of person you want to be before you're any kind of player."
On one trip downcourt in last week's game in Boston, 6'10" Celtic Fred Roberts went up for a high rebound. He was immediately superseded by Wilkins, who went six inches higher. Then came Willis, six inches higher than that. Willis yanked the rebound around, knocking Wilkins to the floor, before firing an outlet pass to Rivers and then flying down to convert a return pass with a chunk of a dunk. Between the Boston games, Willis got 20 rebounds and 18 points in a 108-89 win over Cleveland on Thursday. Said Cavs rookie Brad Daugherty, "I had heard Kevin Willis was a dirty player. All he showed me was ability."
More and more, the Hawks and Celtics look like teams made for each other. If Willis vs. McHale is an attractive matchup, how about Bird vs. Wilkins? "Ooo, they're so cocky—the Celtics make me so mad," says Wilkins, whose game these days is more wicked than ever. He shot only 24 for 58 for his 67 points in the two Celtic games, but just as there is only one Bird, there is only one Dominique. They personify their respective teams—Bird's superior smarts and abundance of talent against Wilkins's equally formidable talent and tempestuous nature.
"We get excited," says Wilkins. "Real excited. We know we're not as smart a team yet as we're going to be. I know I get carried away sometimes. But nobody wants the Celtics worse than I do. We match up with them, and they know that. So they have to respect us. Kevin takes the pressure off me, so later in the year I'll be stronger. Kevin goes after every board. The Celtics have had us for dinner quite a few times. It's time for things to change."
Hawks owner Ted Turner is so pleased with his team's collection of talent that he decided to make Kasten the president of the Atlanta Braves baseball team as well. "The boss is happy," says Kasten. So now that he has the Hawks rolling, will Kasten give them up to concentrate on baseball? "No way," says Kasten. "I'm not forgetting what the Celtics have done to us. I ain't giving this up, and I ain't sharing with nobody." Kasten speaks colloquially merely to show off his versatility. He has a law degree from Columbia to fall back on, just in case.
As for Turner, these days he sits courtside for Hawks games. And when 'Nique wins free in the open court and explodes into another one of his gym-busting signature slams, Turner rises from his seat, closes his eyes, clenches his fists and holds them close to his temples before shooting both hands toward the Omni ceiling. Hallelujah. Now this is what the man paid to see.