Then there is his new contract extension, which begins next season. It is a four-year, $12 million deal replacing one that gave him a $760,000 salary for '91-92, which he considered too low. "That can nag at you," he says.
Finally, Willis wanted to prove his critics wrong. "I knew one day I would turn this around because of my work ethic, determination and willpower," he says.
What also can't be discounted is Willis's boards-by-numbers mentality. Before every game he takes note of the league's rebounding leaders and the number of their rebounds per minute. "You always try to get two to his one," says Willis. "That way you have to come out ahead."
After Otis Thorpe limited him to 13 in Atlanta's 109-97 win over Houston last Thursday—"When the shot went up, I wasn't looking at the ball or the basket, just at Kevin," said Thorpe later—Willis left the floor calculating. He needed 27 in his next game to average 20 for the two games. Against the New York skyline of Oakley and Patrick Ewing last Saturday, Willis grabbed 20 rebounds to go with his 20 points in a 137-128 double-overtime loss.
With rebounding, unlike with shooting, greed is good, and the Hawks are happy to oblige Willis. After recently contesting Willis for a rebound, Wilkins told him, "You can have the ball, just give me my arm back."
Says Atlanta assistant coach Johnny Davis, "Kevin has always played hard. Now he's playing with a purpose." That purpose has helped his total game. As of Sunday, Willis was averaging 18.1 points, had put together 18 straight double-doubles, was shooting 49.8% from the floor and was averaging a career-high 2.4 assists. The young Hawks, meanwhile, were 10-9 and third in the Central Division.
Since coming to Atlanta from Michigan State as the 11th pick in the '84 draft, Willis has been one of the Hawks' most puzzling players. After the '86-87 season, the Hawks thought they had something special, but the following year his scoring dropped by almost five points a game, and his rebounding fell by three per game. Willis then missed all of '88-89 with a broken foot, and during his recuperation he took a stand about his paycheck by not showing up for games. That cost him $50,000 in fines and created the perception that the hulking, sometimes sulking Willis was the same off the court as he was on it.
Which is not the case. He is generous with a smile, a "Hey, big fella" and, occasionally, a suit. He gave Weiss a double-breasted olive number—wool, not leather—to spiff him up for last season's playoffs. To Willis's chagrin, however, skinware isn't hot in Atlanta these days, so his design business is dealing more and more in wool and cotton. "When it comes to leather," he says, "I may be my own best customer."
On the court, though, Willis's best work is off the rack.