A lot of folks in Atlanta have become convinced that pro basketball is some damned Yankee game. And they know the Boston Celtics to be the damnedest Yankees of all. For a long time, there has been little that the hometown Hawks could do to show their fans otherwise. Boston has won 29 of the last 34 games played between the teams, including a five-game sacking in last season's NBA playoffs. But after heated home-and-home confrontations played last week, notice has been served: The Hawks are not about to back down. Not as long as power forward Kevin Willis lives and breathes and keeps on jumping as only he can.
The Celtics survived the 7-foot Willis, Dominique Wilkins and the rest of the red-hot Hawks 111-107 in Boston on Wednesday in just another game in which Boston coach K.C. Jones was ejected, Larry Bird arid Atlanta guard Doc Rivers very nearly came to blows, and Willis got 18 points and 8 boards, shooting 9 for 12 from the field, while yelling at Rivers to "take it to 'em. That's right. Take 'em every time!" "We've shown we can play with the Celtics," said backup center Jon Koncak afterwards. "Now we have to show we can beat them."
Show them the Hawks did. When the teams met again at the sold-out Omni on Saturday night, Atlanta won 97-96. The Celtics doubled and harrassed Willis into only 5-of-14 shooting, but he still had 13 rebounds in just 31 minutes to lead both teams, and Wilkins poured in 38 points, most of them coming from the high wire, but the last were two free throws with 24 seconds left. After center Tree Rollins swatted away the last Celtic shot, Wilkins fired the ball toward the moon and took Rivers in his arms. The Omni took off.
Bird had scored 18 before fouling out for the first time in 465 regular-season games. " Willis always was a good jumper," he said. "Now he's showing me more." Kevin McHale had fought through the Hawks for 25 points and 10 boards. He said, "They're the same. This doesn't mean anything."
"Well, it means something to us," said Willis. "We're 9 and 2. They're 8 and 3. That means something, doesn't it?" Indeed it does. "Losing to Boston can be like a disease," said Koncak. "Beating Boston takes maturity."
It also builds confidence, which is all that's needed when a team already has everything else. Willis and Rollins don't need to learn to be 7 feet tall. Nor does Koncak, who is but one man on a long bench of big leaguers Hawks coach Mike Fratello can call upon in a rotation that includes former Laker Mike McGee and tiny tower Spud Webb backing up guards Rivers and Randy Wittman. Cliff Levingston, 6'8", spells Willis or Wilkins. Atlanta is the second-youngest team in the NBA. Boston, meanwhile, with a pair of 34-year-olds, Bill Walton and Scott Wedman, nursing injuries, is only seven deep. Two of the starting five, Dennis Johnson and Robert Parish, have a combined 20 years in the NBA bank.
"They're getting older with every minute," says Hawks president and general manager Stan Kasten. Kasten is beaming like a department store Santa these days. He knows exactly what surprises he has in his bag; he put them there. "But you tell me, how do you match a Bird, a Parish, a Kevin McHale? You don't," says Kasten. "You try to emulate them as best you can. There's no one like them."
But there is also no one quite like Willis, the third-year man who is eating up the league in big bites. "Kevin's a big, strong moose," says Kasten. "Nobody runs like that at 7 feet. Look at that body. And he loves to play." Says former Hawk great Lou Hudson, " Willis is the reason this is the best Hawks team I've ever seen. They're 12 deep, and Willis has made the best improvement in his game of any player I've known. He's a moose, all right. A moose with touch."
Willis began impressing the NBA as a rookie, after suffering through a senior season at Michigan State marred by a badly sprained ankle. That explains why he was only the 11th player drafted. On Dec. 13, 1984, Willis found himself locked in the box with Houston's Ralph Sampson, who took umbrage and a couple of swings at Willis. Sampson ended up on the seat of his pants, yanked down by Willis, who also threw in a right hand for emphasis. "Ralph threw a slow punch," says Willis.
Willis and Koncak were the only Hawks to play in all 82 games last season, and even Willis's numbers—14.3 points, 10.7 rebounds over the last 28 games—were deceiving. Such blips as a 39-point night against Denver and two 21-rebound games ( Denver, Chicago) were glimpses of what could be. This season, Willis is averaging 17.6 points and 13 rebounds per game, leading a front line that could hold off an invasion. With Willis alongside Rollins and Wilkins, the Hawks need not back down to any team in a power game. Yet Willis doesn't play like a Twin Tower. He plays like a very tall forward and a general manager's dream, signed as he is through the 1993 season.