In August the Hawks locked up Blaylock with a four-year, $18 million contract even though he had a year remaining on his old deal. It was an act of good faith that calmed and motivated the occasionally sour guard. This season the eight-year veteran is serving as mentor to rookie guard Ed Gray, the team's first-round pick out of California. In win number 7, an 89-87 squeaker over the SuperSonics on Nov. 11, Blaylock volunteered to sit out most of the final 6:14 so Gray could get some work during crunch time. The sometimes spectacular Gray scored five points as Atlanta came back from 14 down to win on a 15-foot jumper by Smith with five seconds to play.
Despite signing Blaylock, Babcock was widely criticized this summer for not signing a free-agent small forward like Chris Mills or Rick Fox. "That was my summer failure," he says. "I dropped the ball on that one, I admit it." But now, with third-year forward Alan Henderson back in top condition after battling viral pancreatitis for most of last season, Babcock's fumble may turn out to be a blessing.
Last Friday night Henderson came off the bench in the second quarter and went on an 11-point tear, highlighted by three thunderous dunks that left no doubt that he has regained the strength he lost last season. He finished with 17 points and four rebounds. "That was the Alan Henderson we drafted," says Wilkens. Already Henderson has shown himself to be an emotional catalyst and an effective sub for the streaky Laettner.
Five months ago Laettner's wife, Lisa, gave birth to the couple's first child, Sophia. Since then, he has sometimes had a hard time focusing on basketball, and his play during the streak has reflected that. "Fatherhood has changed my life," says the guy who has a shark for a pet. "Family is the most important thing to me now. And it gets harder to leave her every day and come here. But we've got a very hot team right now that's playing at a high confidence level. We're all just trying to enjoy it."
No one is doing that more than Henderson, the 16th pick out of Indiana in the 1995 draft, who returned from his illness with a joy that has energized the Hawks and helped them relish the streak rather than chafe under its pressure. He is constantly pumping up his teammates during practices and games, and hollering so loud after dunks that his mouthpiece keeps flying out. He clearly is enjoying the game again, perhaps for the first time since high school. "Alan was always a fun-loving boy," his mother, Annette, said after watching the Hawks beat the Pacers in Indianapolis, the Hendersons' hometown. "He was happy and enthusiastic all his life. Then, when he got to Indiana, well, sometimes you have to adapt and control your emotions."
Henderson and four other reserves were on the floor last Friday night when, with the Hawks up 95-87 and less than two minutes to go, the fans at the Georgia Dome began brandishing the yellow signs emblazoned with the message 9-0 that had been given out in the fourth quarter. This did not exactly please the Kings, who stormed back to within a point. Atlanta held on, and a public relations disaster was narrowly averted. Still, someone might want to consider reworking the club's policy on fan giveaways.
Maybe Babcock can squeeze that topic into his next meeting.
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