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Hawks forward Christian Laettner felt sick. "I don't think I'm going to dress tonight," he said, turning to his backup, Alan Henderson. With one hour left before the tip-off on Feb. 10, Henderson had little time to fret over or prepare for his first start of the season. "I do remember thinking, This is what I've been waiting for," says Henderson, 25. "A chance to play a lot of minutes. A chance not to look over my shoulder every time the horn sounded, which in my case usually meant, Time is up."
Henderson piled up 19 points and 15 rebounds in the Hawks' 108-100 victory over the Bucks that night. He played so well in the next four games that when Laettner returned a week later, he found he had lost his place in the lineup. Through Sunday, Henderson had averaged 17.2 points and 7.8 rebounds as a starter. "If Christian never got the flu," says Henderson, "I never would have been given the chance to show what I can do."
Atlanta coach Lenny Wilkens had been increasing the 6'9", 235-pound Henderson's minutes before Laettner caught his bug. "I like Alan's quickness," Wilkens says. "He's strong enough that power forwards have to guard him, but he can get to the basket like a small forward. And he gets a lot of tips."
Both Henderson and Laettner will be free agents this summer, and league and team sources say Henderson will be the object of Atlanta's affections. That's a huge change from last July, when Henderson, who had averaged 6.4 points and 4.3 rebounds in his first two seasons, turned down a contract extension that averaged less than $3 million a year. Henderson felt he was worth more but had been unable to prove it last season because he missed 31 games with viral pancreatitis, an infection that nearly cost him his life.
In October 1996, just before he was to begin working on a community service project, Henderson began running a fever and experiencing stomach pains. His teammates joked that he was looking for an excuse to skip out on the charity work, but when Henderson's symptoms persisted for three days and he was unable to keep down food, the kidding ceased.
After being examined by doctors in Atlanta, he was admitted to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where a feeding tube was inserted and he was subjected to a battery of grueling tests. "It was incredibly stressful," Henderson says. "They'd come in and say, 'Good news. You don't have cancer. Now we're going to test you for AIDS and hepatitis.'"
The questions didn't end after three weeks in the hospital, when he finally received a diagnosis of pancreatitis, which is prevalent among alcoholics and drug users. Neither of those factors was relevant in Henderson's case. (He still doesn't know what caused the illness.) "I didn't spend a lot of time wondering how I got it," he says. "I was too busy saying a lot of prayers that it wasn't a lasting thing."
After dropping close to 30 pounds during his hospitalization, Henderson was sent home. He spent another six weeks in bed before he even considered lifting a basketball. By then Atlanta was struggling without him, with critics citing a thin bench as one of the Hawks' biggest weaknesses. Henderson wound up playing just 30 games. "I kept telling everyone we were missing a key guy," says Wilkens. "They'd look at me like I was crazy, then they'd ask, 'Who?'" Now they know.
Issue date: April 6, 1998
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