The security guard walking the halls outside the Atlanta Hawks' office in the CNN Center thought he recognized the face. "Hey, you wouldn't be the coach of the Hawks, would you?" the guard said as Mike Fratello left his office late one afternoon last week.
"Last time I looked, I was," said Fratello, smiling, "but I'll be checking the papers tomorrow."
Yes, the humor around the Hawks these days is of the gallows variety. Fratello is working on the last year of a four-year contract, and Atlanta is in the midst of a mediocre season. That combination could spell arrivederci for the coach with the Italian suits and the volcanic temper.
At week's end, after a 108-98 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday, the Hawks stood at 23-27, good for eighth place in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta may have to battle the Cleveland Cavaliers (and probably the Indiana Pacers) the rest of the way for one of the last spots in the Eastern Conference playoffs. And this a team that just a few years ago seemed destined for greatness.
The Hawks badly need leadership from within but haven't gotten it, not from their three potential leaders—center Moses Malone (he might be looked up to for his experience), swingman Dominique Wilkins (for his star status) or point guard Doc Rivers (for his intelligence and popularity). Rivers was elected captain by the Atlanta players before this season, so perhaps he will do the job when his injured back heals. But for now the Hawks need a guy to set the tone, to kick an idle butt now and then. Rivers's replacement, Spud Webb, all 5'7" and 133 pounds of him, did exactly that at halftime of a Jan. 23 game at Charlotte when he blistered the 6'10", 255-pound Malone for not passing the ball. (Malone did in the second half, and Atlanta turned a 53-52 halftime deficit into a 106-101 victory.)
Too often, though, the only voice the Hawks hear is Fratello's, and as everyone knows, he's not afraid to use it, as he showed late in the first half of a 114-109 loss to the Knicks on Feb. 13 in Atlanta. On that occasion Fratello leapt to his feet and castigated John Battle after Battle failed to execute a play. "Run the——play!" Fratello screamed, after which Battle wore the expression of a chastened high school player.
As volatile as Fratello remains, he did make a conscious effort in the preseason to loosen up and accept more input from the players. "Mike was as calm as we'd ever seen him, and he really listened to us," said forward Cliff Levingston. "It helped out in the beginning. But then we started losing, and, well, it's back to pretty much the same as it always was."
Have the rumors of Fratello's dismissal affected the team? "When the coach is tight, the players are tighter," said Levingston. "Mistakes magnify. Everybody looks over his shoulder more." That would be a yes.
The Hawks have not surrendered, though. "We have more meetings than the president's men," said Levingston after another in a series of team powwows following a recent defeat.
In spite of all the negatives, the atmosphere in Atlanta early last week was one of hope. On Feb. 13 general manager Stan Kasten finally did what he had been trying to do for two years. To get another established guard and free up a logjam in the frontcourt, he traded forward Antoine Carr to the Sacramento Kings for Kenny Smith, an exciting playmaker who, of all things, finished second to Wilkins in the NBA's slam dunk contest. (Atlanta threw in guard Sedric Toney and a second-round draft choice in '91, and Sacramento threw in rookie forward Michael Williams.) The next day, former Denver Nugget executive Pete Babcock became the Hawks' new general manager, relieving the overextended Kasten (who is also president of the Atlanta Braves) of day-today personnel duties.
Will the new additions make a difference? Will Rivers and frontcourtman Jon Koncak (torn cartilage in left knee) be able to turn the season around when they return, possibly in two weeks? Maybe. But there is every possibility that the Hawks, however brilliantly and painstakingly constructed, are an example of a team that will have to be torn apart to be born again. And it is also time to consider that the word talent is sometimes overused when assessing the Hawks. Athletic, yes. Deep, yes. But they have serious deficiencies in two basic skill areas, passing and ball handling, and they will not suddenly improve them if one Michael Robert Fratello is sent packing.
•Malone. When Kasten got The Great Uncommunicative One in the free-agent market in August 1988, he was saying that the Hawks wanted to win a title right away. Malone and guard Reggie Theus, acquired in a trade at that time, were quick fixes, veteran players who might get it done, but who very well might wear out their welcome. Theus did just that—the Hawks left him unprotected in the expansion draft last June, and Orlando claimed him. Malone, meanwhile, has not exactly been Mr. Team Chemistry. He criticized Fratello after last year's first-round playoff loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, and did it again on Dec. 13 after Fratello benched him in Philadelphia. "He thinks I need him," Malone said that night. "Well, he needs me more than I need him." Lately, Malone has been uncommunicative on the subject of Fratello but has not been openly rebellious.
Well, do the Hawks need the 34-year-old Malone? Yes. He may look like a tugboat chugging up and down the court, but he can still carry Atlanta by himself on any given night. However, he is a human red light who brings all offensive movement to a stop because of his disinclination to pass the ball. Further, Malone does not like to be moved from his position on the left block, from which he has made a career out of snaring offensive rebounds. This sometimes creates a problem with...
•Wilkins. He has been up and down this season, which seems fitting for a player who can get up (in the air) and down (the floor) as well as anyone in the NBA. Wilkins, 30, is a fascinating study, a man of immense ego and talent who at the same time appears to be insecure on the court. He constantly rushes his shots and casts worried glances to the bench when things don't go right. He is comfortable only when he has the space to operate inside, space he has not always had since Malone came along. Only lately has Fratello devised a way to get both Wilkins and Malone inside, by having Wilkins post up quickly while leaving Malone on the opposite block for offensive rebounding.
Unsettled, too, is Wilkins's relationship with Fratello. Wilkins called it "just O.K." when asked about it last week. It's not an absolute necessity that coach and superstar be on the same wavelength, but it's helpful, particularly when things aren't going right and the team needs a jolt of leadership. The Hawks don't get enough of it from Wilkins.
•Kevin Willis. The drafting of Willis, a 7-footer from Michigan State, in 1984, appeared to be one of Fratello and Kasten's master strokes, especially during the '86-87 season, when Willis was a terror, averaging 16.1 points and 10.5 rebounds a game. But he wasn't nearly as effective the next season, and after missing all of '88-89 because of a severe fracture of the left foot, he has come back very slowly this season. At week's end, his numbers were 10.8 and 7.0. Willis attributes this to the long time needed to fully recover from a fracture like his, and the Hawks are, for the moment, subscribing to that theory too. But they desperately need their muscular enforcer to be in top form if they're going to make a run.
Everything else is not necessarily Georgia-peachy, either. Rivers was playing the best basketball of his career when his back problems set in about six weeks ago. The injured Koncak's numbers (4.0 points and 4.5 rebounds a game) are as staggeringly low as his contract numbers ($13.1 million for six years) are staggeringly high, but the Hawks need him in the lineup. Why? Because he plays solid interior defense and he's unselfish, a necessary counterbalance when Malone, Wilkins and Battle, reluctant passers all, are on the floor.
Then, too, some Hawk is always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. When Willis returned this season, for example, he didn't say he would do whatever was necessary to help the team—he said he was there to take the power-forward job from Koncak. Wilkins has openly admitted that he doesn't want to play guard because it reduces his chances of making the All-Star team. (He feels that Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas are Eastern Conference fixtures.) Malone goes off on the coach. And so on. The collective effect of all this is that, though the Hawks are good people and engaging personalities, an every-man-for-himself mentality seems to prevail. One of the things the Hawks' Soviet player, Alexander (Sasha) Volkov, likes best about the U.S. is its "smooth roads and highways." But the roads around Hawkland aren't always so smooth, eh, Sasha?
If the Hawks fail to fly, Fratello will be the obvious target for naysayers, his 5'7" stature notwithstanding. The Fratello decision will fall squarely—and heavily—on the shoulders of Kasten. He became general manager of the Hawks in 1979, when he was just 27, and for the first part of the '80s he couldn't brush his teeth without having someone telling him he did it like a genius. But nobody has been calling him a sage lately. No Atlanta draft choice since Willis in '84 has made an impact. Kasten, who became the Hawks president in 1986, let Golden State outbid and outhustle him for guard Sarunas Marciulionis, the Soviet he really wanted—as much as he likes Volkov's skills. And at least one Hawk feels that Kasten could have eliminated the uncertainty the players feel about Fratello's status by marching in early in the season and saying: "Look, Mike's the coach for the rest of the year. Play for him!"
Kasten argues that he has made that clear. He said last week that "Mike is one of the best coaches in the league. And I have no doubt that he is the hardest-working coach. He gets high marks for what he has done for this franchise."
The Hawks still seem to be playing hard for Fratello, though only they know in their hearts if they have tuned him out. The coach, for his part, has not been criticizing his players in public, nor ragging them from the bench any more than usual.
No one has ever questioned Fratello's technical grasp of the game. The issue is whether the zip has just plain gone out of the sleek-looking Hawk machine and, if it has, whether the spark plugs will have to be changed.
Levingston pondered that thought after practice one day last week. Directly in front of him was a chart showing the Hawks in eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
"I know exactly what those teams above us are thinking," said Levingston, "They're praying we don't start making a move. They know what we can do, and we know what we can do, if we get healthy and if we start playing together again. But right now those are big ifs. No doubt about it."