The Hawks are a mess, and the cleanup may begin with the firing of coach Lenny Wilkens
When hawks coach Lenny Wilkens boarded the team bus for practice in New York City last Thursday afternoon, he sat across from vice president and general manager Pete Babcock, grinning. "What?" Babcock asked. "Am I fired? Are you fired? Are we both gone?"
"No," Wilkens answered. "Didn't you hear? I'm getting a settlement from the team."
"And did you hear," Babcock replied, "I'm being replaced as G.M. by Dominique Wilkins?"
The two men laughed heartily, enjoying the gallows humor. What choice do they have? As the Hawks limp toward the conclusion of a disastrous season—they were 25-44 at week's end-rumors swirl about the futures of Wilkens and Babcock. The one about Babcock's successor, started by none other than Wilkins himself during a radio interview, is preposterous. An offer to buy out the last two years and $10 million of Wilkens's contract is plausible, though none was ever made. "There's been no deal offered to anybody," says the perturbed team president, Stan Kasten, the one member of the Hawks who surely will retain his job.
So will Wilkens be Atlanta's coach next season? "We need to get through the year first," Kasten says. "Have I thought about [ Wilkens's status]? I think about it every day. But I haven't made any firm decision."
That's hardly a ringing endorsement of the winningest coach in NBA history, who has earned a reputation for impeccable integrity. "It's certainly not flattering, but I'm not as emotional as other coaches," the 62-year-old Wilkens says. "I'm a secure person. I'm not a pompous ass, but I'm not going to get aflutter over this."
The amount of damage swingman Isaiah Rider inflicted on the Hawks before he was finally waived on March 17 can't be overstated. Rider's negative outlook and self-centered play were bad enough, but his blatant disregard of team rules—he was facing his third suspension in three months when he asked for his release-left Babcock and Wilkens at odds over how to respond. Babcock favored cutting Rider loose eight weeks earlier, while Wilkens gave him chance after chance. "I played him because I thought I could get to him," Wilkens says. "I wanted him to be successful because I thought if he tasted a little bit of that success, he'd come back for more."
The blame for the Rider debacle starts with Kasten, who pushed for the trade last summer that sent guards Steve Smith and Ed Gray to the Trail Blazers for Rider and guard Jimmy Jackson. But it was Babcock who pulled the trigger, despite dire warnings from his brother Rob, who as a Timberwolves' scout and director of player personnel saw Rider's corrosive behavior up close for three years. Wilkens, for his part, must accept responsibility for not reining in a player who was sucking the life out of the Hawks' locker room.
"I saw evidence of trouble early," Wilkens says. "Guys would stop running because they didn't think they were going to get the ball. Hell, I'm a coach. I know the signs."