"He comes in an hour before practices, two hours before games," says Kasten. "I said, 'Kev, don't you have any hobbies?' He said, 'The game is my hobby.' " Willis does have a penchant for watching Bugs Bunny cartoons in his few hours away from the court. "Bugs is my man," he says, " 'cause Bugs kills time between games."
Willis is the first Hawk into the weight room, onto the bus, into the locker room and out on the court. Such dedication has paid off. "I started that my rookie year. I come early to get into it mentally."
Willis does not engage in the tension-releasing locker room banter before games. He stays tense, or, rather, intense. At those times, his teammates leave him alone. "Kevin is known to get serious," says Rollins.
"You just don't see 7-footers with his kind of body definition," says Hawks trainer Joe O'Toole. But Willis's deltoids and biceps and abdominal grid are only the most obvious traits of a remarkable athlete. "I was a distance runner in high school [Detroit Pershing]," says Willis. "I like long hauls. I can wait for my satisfaction." Willis lives in an apartment in an Atlanta suburb and has bought his mother, Hattie, a seamstress, and older brother Robert, a policeman, adjoining homes in Southfield, outside Detroit. Willis's father, James, is a 6'6" civil engineer, and his mother is 5'11". His sister, Lynette, is 6 feet. "But I was never pushed into basketball," Willis says. "I didn't play until 11th grade. My father says you have to be the kind of person you want to be before you're any kind of player."
On one trip downcourt in last week's game in Boston, 6'10" Celtic Fred Roberts went up for a high rebound. He was immediately superseded by Wilkins, who went six inches higher. Then came Willis, six inches higher than that. Willis yanked the rebound around, knocking Wilkins to the floor, before firing an outlet pass to Rivers and then flying down to convert a return pass with a chunk of a dunk. Between the Boston games, Willis got 20 rebounds and 18 points in a 108-89 win over Cleveland on Thursday. Said Cavs rookie Brad Daugherty, "I had heard Kevin Willis was a dirty player. All he showed me was ability."
More and more, the Hawks and Celtics look like teams made for each other. If Willis vs. McHale is an attractive matchup, how about Bird vs. Wilkins? "Ooo, they're so cocky—the Celtics make me so mad," says Wilkins, whose game these days is more wicked than ever. He shot only 24 for 58 for his 67 points in the two Celtic games, but just as there is only one Bird, there is only one Dominique. They personify their respective teams—Bird's superior smarts and abundance of talent against Wilkins's equally formidable talent and tempestuous nature.
"We get excited," says Wilkins. "Real excited. We know we're not as smart a team yet as we're going to be. I know I get carried away sometimes. But nobody wants the Celtics worse than I do. We match up with them, and they know that. So they have to respect us. Kevin takes the pressure off me, so later in the year I'll be stronger. Kevin goes after every board. The Celtics have had us for dinner quite a few times. It's time for things to change."
Hawks owner Ted Turner is so pleased with his team's collection of talent that he decided to make Kasten the president of the Atlanta Braves baseball team as well. "The boss is happy," says Kasten. So now that he has the Hawks rolling, will Kasten give them up to concentrate on baseball? "No way," says Kasten. "I'm not forgetting what the Celtics have done to us. I ain't giving this up, and I ain't sharing with nobody." Kasten speaks colloquially merely to show off his versatility. He has a law degree from Columbia to fall back on, just in case.
As for Turner, these days he sits courtside for Hawks games. And when 'Nique wins free in the open court and explodes into another one of his gym-busting signature slams, Turner rises from his seat, closes his eyes, clenches his fists and holds them close to his temples before shooting both hands toward the Omni ceiling. Hallelujah. Now this is what the man paid to see.