It could be the hottest headwear in Dallas since the 10-gallon
hat. We're talking, of course, about those ubiquitous headbands
popularized by Mavericks forward Chris Gatling. Before a game at
Reunion Arena last month, golfer Fred Couples was seen sporting
a blue terry cloth number while seated at midcourt. "I'm a big
Gatling fan," says Couples, who lives in Dallas. "Even before he
got here, I used to check his box score every morning to see how
he did. I just always liked his game."
If Couples liked the 29-year-old Gatling's game before this
season, he must be loving it like a six-inch eagle putt now. A
6'10" forward who was signed as a free agent from the Heat last
summer, Gatling has emerged as the front-runner for the 1996-97
Sixth Man Award. At week's end he was leading the Mavericks in
scoring (19.5 points per game) and rebounding (8.1), and ranked
ninth in the league in field goal accuracy (53.2%). More
impressive, he was putting up those numbers in just 27.2 minutes
a game. The last NBA player to lead his team in both points and
boards while averaging less than 28 minutes was Hall of Fame
center Harry (the Horse) Gallatin with the 1956-57 Knicks. "If
he's not the best sixth man right now," says Vancouver general
manager Stu Jackson, "then I don't know who is."
Before this season Gatling was known mainly for being the
league's only player with a steel plate in his head. His
appearance and style made him seem even more unusual. With his
headband, lefthanded jumper and gangly 230-pound frame, Gatling
looks as if he's first team All-Gawky. But on the court he has a
sneaky arsenal of spin moves and head fakes, surprising
quickness and a reliable hook shot that often leaves defenders
weak-kneed. "To me, he looks kind of frail," says Grizzlies
swingman Blue Edwards. "But with his athletic ability he's able
to take that giant step across the lane and throw up that ugly
hook. He can get to the basket on anybody, and he's able to
Gatling's awkwardness often causes opponents to underestimate
him. While their guard is down, he's playing heads-up defense,
collecting floor burns with gusto and snaking his way inside for
easy baskets. He led the league in field goal accuracy (63.3%)
in 1994-95. "You can look at Gat and be fooled because he puts
that headband on, and right away you think 'old-timer,' or
something," says Dallas point guard Derek Harper. "But he gets
the job done."
"I'm not the best player, but I'm feisty," Gatling says. "I'm
like a pebble in somebody's shoe."
Gatling takes particular pride in providing a spark off the
bench, which is why he had Energizer bunnies tattooed on his arm
and back. When he resins his hands at the scorer's table, slips
on his headband--or his hard hat, as he calls it--and takes the
floor, a power surge seems to follow. "When we're a little flat,
a little lackadaisical, I come in and get guys motivated," he
says. "I don't mind coming off the bench. That's what I'm paid
On the rainy night of April 13, 1985, Gatling nearly had the
game taken away from him. A junior at Elizabeth (N.J.) High who
was already being recruited by Division I schools, he was
stretching to wipe the windshield of a van owned by his father's
office-maintenance company when he slipped and struck his head
on the pavement.
The fall left him with a subdural hematoma--a blood clot in the
brain--and he underwent emergency surgery. He spent 2 1/2 weeks
in a coma after the operation, and when he awoke, his speech was
slurred and the right side of his body was paralyzed. Though he
would bounce back quickly enough to be named the state's Player
of the Year as a senior, over the next four years at Pitt and at
Old Dominion, he would continue to experience headaches,
disorientation and problems with coordination. In the summer of
1989, he had a second operation, which included the implantation
of a linoleum and steel-mesh plate. Since then he has only
occasionally suffered from slurred speech.
"The whole experience was scary," says Gatling, who has two
scars on the left side of his head--one four inches long, the
other X-shaped--to remind him of his operations. "I really
didn't know what was happening to me, whether I'd ever play
basketball again or not. I think I appreciate things more now
because of it. I feel blessed, like I've been given two chances
Gatling has even learned to laugh about the ordeal. In
discussing how his head swelled to nearly twice its size after
his first surgery, he says, "I looked like the Elephant Man."
And while playing at Golden State he bought a barbershop in
Oakland. Its name: Cut Me Twice.
Although many assume Gatling started wearing headbands to cover
those scars, that's not the case. He began using them in 1995,
four years after the Warriors drafted him with the 16th pick.
Golden State had just faced the Trail Blazers and their
headband-clad forward, Cliff Robinson, and Gatling slipped one
on as a gag for his teammates. "I was just trying to be like
Cliff," Gatling says. "But I started playing so well, the guys
wouldn't let me take it off."
Gatling's easygoing manner and whatever-it-takes attitude made
him attractive to the Mavericks, who were trying to rebuild a
team racked by bickering among its stars last season. Although
eyebrows were raised when Dallas made him the highest-paid
free-agent acquisition in team history with a five-year, $21
million deal, the move has proved sound. Gatling has provided an
emotional lift since the season opener, when he hit the decisive
layup in a 92-91 victory at Denver.
Aside from the Mavericks' disappointing 10-19 record and the
squabbling that led to the recent trade of All-Star point guard
Jason Kidd to Phoenix, the season has been like one long dream
for Gatling. While he once worried about whether he would ever
play the game again, he now worries about whether he has brought
the right colored headband for Couples. "Fred's a lot of fun,"
Gatling says. "He'll come to our practices, or he'll show up at
a game, and say, 'Gat, I need a white one tonight,' or 'Gat, I
need a blue one.'"
And Gatling is quick to oblige. As the NBA's best sixth man
knows, it always pays to be ready.
For the week of December 30-January 5
"There are going to be two teams that make the playoffs that
don't deserve it, and I wouldn't mind being one of them."
--Denver coach Dick Motta, whose team, despite being 8-23, was
within five games of gaining the eighth and final Western
Agent Dwight Manley has the Clippers talking again about
re-signing free-agent center Brian Williams. The hard-line
stance of Fred Slaughter, Williams's former agent, had stymied
negotiations. Now the Bulls, the Mavericks, the Jazz and the
Pacers are interested in trading for Williams once he's under
The Magic is 7-16 and averages 85.6 points without point guard
Penny Hardaway; with him, Orlando is 4-1 and scores 96.2.
Hardaway is scheduled to return from an injury to his left knee
What's wrong with Houston? After Rocketing to a 20-2 start, Sir
Charles and Co. have dropped six of their last 10, including
back-to-back home losses to the Trail Blazers and the Clippers.
And Houston has a problem: the Bulls. The Rockets travel to
Chicago on Saturday for the teams' first matchup of the season.