The security guard walking the halls outside the Atlanta Hawks' office in the CNN Center thought he recognized the face. "Hey, you wouldn't be the coach of the Hawks, would you?" the guard said as Mike Fratello left his office late one afternoon last week.
"Last time I looked, I was," said Fratello, smiling, "but I'll be checking the papers tomorrow."
Yes, the humor around the Hawks these days is of the gallows variety. Fratello is working on the last year of a four-year contract, and Atlanta is in the midst of a mediocre season. That combination could spell arrivederci for the coach with the Italian suits and the volcanic temper.
At week's end, after a 108-98 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday, the Hawks stood at 23-27, good for eighth place in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta may have to battle the Cleveland Cavaliers (and probably the Indiana Pacers) the rest of the way for one of the last spots in the Eastern Conference playoffs. And this a team that just a few years ago seemed destined for greatness.
The Hawks badly need leadership from within but haven't gotten it, not from their three potential leaders—center Moses Malone (he might be looked up to for his experience), swingman Dominique Wilkins (for his star status) or point guard Doc Rivers (for his intelligence and popularity). Rivers was elected captain by the Atlanta players before this season, so perhaps he will do the job when his injured back heals. But for now the Hawks need a guy to set the tone, to kick an idle butt now and then. Rivers's replacement, Spud Webb, all 5'7" and 133 pounds of him, did exactly that at halftime of a Jan. 23 game at Charlotte when he blistered the 6'10", 255-pound Malone for not passing the ball. (Malone did in the second half, and Atlanta turned a 53-52 halftime deficit into a 106-101 victory.)
Too often, though, the only voice the Hawks hear is Fratello's, and as everyone knows, he's not afraid to use it, as he showed late in the first half of a 114-109 loss to the Knicks on Feb. 13 in Atlanta. On that occasion Fratello leapt to his feet and castigated John Battle after Battle failed to execute a play. "Run the——play!" Fratello screamed, after which Battle wore the expression of a chastened high school player.
As volatile as Fratello remains, he did make a conscious effort in the preseason to loosen up and accept more input from the players. "Mike was as calm as we'd ever seen him, and he really listened to us," said forward Cliff Levingston. "It helped out in the beginning. But then we started losing, and, well, it's back to pretty much the same as it always was."
Have the rumors of Fratello's dismissal affected the team? "When the coach is tight, the players are tighter," said Levingston. "Mistakes magnify. Everybody looks over his shoulder more." That would be a yes.
The Hawks have not surrendered, though. "We have more meetings than the president's men," said Levingston after another in a series of team powwows following a recent defeat.
In spite of all the negatives, the atmosphere in Atlanta early last week was one of hope. On Feb. 13 general manager Stan Kasten finally did what he had been trying to do for two years. To get another established guard and free up a logjam in the frontcourt, he traded forward Antoine Carr to the Sacramento Kings for Kenny Smith, an exciting playmaker who, of all things, finished second to Wilkins in the NBA's slam dunk contest. (Atlanta threw in guard Sedric Toney and a second-round draft choice in '91, and Sacramento threw in rookie forward Michael Williams.) The next day, former Denver Nugget executive Pete Babcock became the Hawks' new general manager, relieving the overextended Kasten (who is also president of the Atlanta Braves) of day-today personnel duties.