BIG BIRDS ON THE WING

The Atlanta Hawks have the size and subs to contend for the NBA title
April 19, 1987

Fortunately, Ted Turner does not have to colorize his Atlanta Hawks the way he has his super-station's library of old black-and-white movies. The Hawks are a collection of mostly tall (though one tiny) and talented Technicolor dunkers who are much more of a Lethal Weapon than, say, a Maltese Falcon. Further, they could present a formidable prechampionship-round challenge for the Boston Celtics, who haven't been knocked out of the playoffs before the finals since 1983. "We're not there yet," says Atlanta point guard Glenn (Doc) Rivers. "All we have is a good record, and the Celtics have all those rings on their fingers."

Ah, but the Hawks may have bells on their toes. For more than a month they have been the NBA's hottest team. Through Saturday they had won five in a row and 21 of their last 25 games. They've beaten the Celtics three times this season (albeit not at Boston Garden); they've dominated Western Conference teams (against which they are 19-5, including a 1-1 split with the Lakers); and they've apparently severed Milwaukee's six-year stranglehold on the Central Division. After a 101-99 victory over Detroit on Friday night in Atlanta, the 53-24 Hawks had the league's third-best record behind guess who and guess who, and were on the verge of clinching the Central Division title. Perhaps the Central at last has a June contender instead of just April pretenders.

At times, however, the Hawks display a disturbing capacity for self-destruction, blowing big leads or failing to put teams away when they've had them on the ropes. "Those are the type of games an L.A. or a Boston wins," said Rivers. Added John Lucas, of the Milwaukee Bucks, to whom the Hawks blew a big lead and lost two weeks ago: "Boston is a great basketball team. Atlanta is a great athletic team. There's a difference, particularly at playoff time."

But vive la diffèrence! The Celtics, all staid tradition; the Hawks, all rambunctious youth. Consider all the things Atlanta has that Boston doesn't:

1) A team music video, entitled Nothing Can Stop Us, We're Atlanta's Air Force. This particular piece of cultural schlock is harmless enough, and it provides an opportunity for Rivers to perform his Stevie Wonder impression.

2) The 1985 and '86 slam-dunk champions in Dominique Wilkins and Spud Webb, respectively.

3) A president-general manager, Stan Kasten, who actually knows Glenn Hubbard's batting average. Kasten, who like Celtic general manager Jan Volk has a law degree from Columbia, was named president of the Atlanta Braves five months ago.

4) A bench that does more than provide a place for its stars to rest their buns during timeouts.

Of the above, only No. 4 will be of primary importance in the playoffs. Atlanta may be the deepest team in the league. Its reserves are averaging 36.8 points per game and a league-leading 19.2 rebounds. When Randy Wittman went down with a sprained ankle for 11 games in mid-January, John Battle averaged 13.5 points and 3.9 assists in his stead. When Rivers needs a rest, Webb checks in and pushes the speedometer above legal limits. "I get my easiest baskets when Spud's in the game," says Wilkins. When power forward Kevin Willis sits down, Cliff (Good News) Levingston takes over Willis's relentless attack on the offensive boards.

When Wilkins starts forcing shots like a rookie, Antoine Carr enters and becomes the focal point of the offense. When the Hawks need a three-point shot, Mike McGee, an off-season acquisition from the Lakers, comes in and heaves up a couple, as he did against the Pistons last Friday. After only 71 games with Atlanta, McGee holds the team's career three-point record with 77. And when Tree Rollins went down on Feb. 11 with a broken right big toe, Jon Koncak, another seven-footer, played ably in his place.

Conventional wisdom dictates that a team with a Rollins or a Koncak as its starting center can't be a true contender. But this just might be the year that an outfit without a marquee pivotman wins the title. The Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is 40. Boston's Robert Parish, who's not getting help from the bench, is gasping for breath down the stretch. Moses Malone is laboring for the Washington Bullets, who will be on summer break by mid-May. "Between the two of them we have a pretty good center spot," says Hawk assistant Willis Reed. "That's the best we can hope for." With just five games remaining, Tree-cak was averaging 10.5 points and 12 rebounds, passable numbers with a monster power forward like Willis in the lineup.

To consider Atlanta, the NBA's youngest team after Cleveland, a title contender might be getting ahead of things. But the Hawks have been ahead of things for a while. They had 50 wins in 1985-86, which was coach Mike Fratello's third season, and came out of the gate this season with 18 wins in their first 22 games. Various medical problems, including arthroscopic knee surgery that sidelined Webb for 44 games, forced the Hawks to run in place in January and February (15-14), but now, says Rivers, "Mike is driving us to win the division. He will not let us fall short."

Indeed, Fratello, who was Coach of the Year last season, does not let himself fall short, even though, let's face it, he falls short. "I am absolutely not conscious of my height when I'm around these guys," says Fratello, who stands a Spudesque 5'7". "It's something only other people seem to notice." Those other people include at least one former NBA vice-president, Chicago's Jonathan Kovler, who, while interviewing Fratello for the Bulls' head coaching job in 1982, asked him how someone so short could expect to get respect from his players. "You don't get respect," replied Fratello. "You earn it." The job went to Paul Westhead, who lasted one season.

Height wasn't an issue by the time the Hawks were ready to replace Kevin Loughery following the 1982-83 season. Fratello had already served four years as an Atlanta assistant under both Loughery and Hubie Brown. He also had worked a year for Brown in New York. Fratello's intensity won Turner and Kasten over.

Fratello is a demanding, chalkboard kind of coach, who is long on practice time and short on patience. "I tend not to throw a lot of flowers around," he says. But unlike, say, Brown, he appears to have learned that players can't be pushed all the time. "Mike was kind of uncompromising in his first two years," says 12th man Scott Hastings, "but he's become more flexible over the last two seasons, and I think we've responded to that."

It's no coincidence that Atlanta's front-office perspicacity in the draft and trade market suddenly improved after the return of Fratello, who has a strong hand in personnel decisions and tracks NBA personnel as well as anyone in the game. Of the 13 current Hawks (including Gus Williams, who is on the injured list), only Wilkins, Rollins and Hastings were acquired before Fratello took over. Willis, a relative unknown out of Michigan State, was the 11th pick in the 1984 draft. Rivers was the 31st selection in '83. That year the Hawks also got Wittman, a shooting guard who had been drafted by Washington, in exchange for Tom McMillen, who by then was doing more politicking than shooting. Serendipity played a role, too. No one—not even a soulmate-in-shortness like Fratello—knew that Webb would eventually become a real factor in the NBA.

Kasten, 35, should also take a bow. Though his legal background suggests starched shirt (Turner chose him to be general counsel of the Braves and Hawks in 1976), Kasten is more of a frayed-collar type. One day recently he was found in his office at the Omni knocking books and magazines off a crowded desk ("How do you like my elaborate filing system?"), while fielding telephone calls from both the baseball and basketball worlds. "How am I doing both jobs?" Kasten asked rhetorically. "I'm not sure yet that I can."

On his wall are depth charts of both the Hawks and the Braves. The Hawks' looks a lot better, primarily because of Wilkins. Kasten created the nucleus of the current team in 1982, when he gave Freeman Williams, John Drew and some cash to the Utah Jazz in exchange for Wilkins, a steal that would have gotten Kasten arrested in the real world.

Kasten has made Atlanta one of the most stable franchises in the league without spending all of Turner's money. Wilkins, Willis, Rivers, Wittman, Webb and Levingston all have contracts that extend at least three years, and Fratello is in the first year of a four-year deal.

But seriously...is the NBA's second-youngest team really ready to knock off the mighty Celtics? Let's consider a few key factors.

The Backcourt. Like Boston's Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge, Rivers and Wittman complement each other, though not in the same way that Ainge and DJ do. The Celtic duo is almost interchangeable; both can run the offense or play the off-guard position. On the other hand, the roles of Rivers and Wittman are clearly defined. Rivers is the slashing, penetrating point guard, while Wittman, as one would expect from a graduate of Bobby Knight U, specializes in Atlanta's confounding "fist" play—running defenders into bruising picks and scoring.

"Randy's the reason I have 10 assists a game this year," says Rivers. And Rivers, who delivers the ball to his running mate in good position, is one reason that Wittman is shooting 50.5% from the floor. Together, they average about 26 points. No, they're not as good as their Boston counterparts, but they rank with Detroit's Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars as the second-best backcourt in the East.

The Superstar. Wilkins's game continues to mature and so does Wilkins, who some observers thought would be a wildly uncontrollable and uncoachable NBA ego-tripper. Instead, he listens to Fratello and doesn't pout, even when he gets the hook after making bad plays. Wilkins has learned there are shots that even one scornful of gravity shouldn't take. His 29.1 scoring average isn't quite as high as his league-leading 30.3 average of last season, but he's taking fewer shots. He's also dishing out more assists—249 to 206—than in 1985-86.

While still prone to slumps—Wilkins had one stretch of 13 games in March when he shot only 40% from the floor—he gives Atlanta the "go-to guy" that every contender needs. However, Boston has at least two go to's (Bird and Kevin McHale), and the Lakers have three (Magic Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy). If Dominique has a poor playoff series, the only place the Hawks will go to is home.

The Intimidator. Willis is that rare seven-footer who handles himself like a smaller man. "Runs like a deer, jumps like a frog," is Hastings' scouting report. Willis has small hands and feet (size 12) for a man his size, but his athleticism and thirst for battle are extraordinary. "Kevin likes to go to war," says Wilkins. That will help the Hawks in the playoffs, as will Rollins, who understands his role as a 7'1", 250-pound roadblock.

Those three factors hardly guarantee victory over the Celtics or, for that matter, over the Pistons or Bucks. But stir Atlanta's deep bench and the deft coaching of Fratello into the pot and.... "Atlanta has to be the team that Boston is most scared of," says Milwaukee center Jack Sikma. "They have depth, size, ability. Yes, they're young, but they've been together just long enough to make a run."

"This year we've replaced words like might and should with will and can," says Rivers.

Which means the answer to the question of whether Atlanta will unseat the Celtics is a definite, positive and unqualified maybe.

PHOTOJOHN BIEVERLevingston is one of the scoring, soaring Hawks who make up the NBA's best bench. PHOTOSCOTT CUNNINGHAMA ferocious ball Hawk, Willis averages 16 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. PHOTOSCOTT CUNNINGHAMThe Hawks have reached lofty new heights under the wing of 5'7" coach Fratello. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERShooting less than last season, Wilkins is still pumping in 29.1 points per game.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)