It could be the hottest head-wear 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 finish."
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 to do."
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� 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 in life."
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.