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The Sweeping Giant

Long one of the NBA's biggest underachievers, 7-foot Kevin Willis of Atlanta has awakened to become the league's top rebounder

Kevin Willis, the Atlanta Hawks' 7-foot power forward, is into leather. He has a clothing-design business in suburban Atlanta that specializes in leather garments, and his closets at home are multicolored shrines to bovines past. One day in his office last week, Willis wore pleated black leather overalls of his own design, and he proudly displayed a couple of new leather suits—one in purple, another in black patent with mustard swatches—that he's just aching to wear. Willis says he likes the "classy, clean" feel of skins. "When I go shopping and I see something unique in leatherware, I have to have it," says Willis, whose relatively small business specializes in custom designs.

There's nothing unique about the cowhide Willis has been working with lately. It is round, has SPALDING branded on it and caroms off the rims and backboards of the NBA. What is unique is just how much of it Willis has handled so far this season. Last season Houston Rocket forward Larry Smith led the NBA in 20-rebound games with nine. At week's end Willis already had that many and was pulling down 17.4 boards a game, an average that hasn't been seen around the league for an entire season since Moses Malone had 17.6 for Houston in 1978-79. Against the Dallas Mavericks on Dec. 3, Willis, opposed by 7'2" animal-rights activist James Donaldson, had 31 rebounds, the highest total since Charles Oakley, then of the Chicago Bulls, grabbed 35 in April '88. In scaling the Hawks' 103-99 win over Dallas with his 29th point, Willis nearly became the NBA's first 30-30 man since Malone had 38 points and 32 rebounds in '82 when he was with Houston.

What is equally unique is that all these stats belong to Willis, an eighth-year pro who has never been so hell-bent for you-know-what. In his previous seasons he gave little indication that he would become such a force. His best season was back in 1986-87, when he averaged 10.5 rebounds and 16.1 points. Since then he has labored under an onerous label: great dresser, curious underachiever. Last May he capped an All-GQ season by shooting 40.3% with 45 rebounds in Atlanta's five-game playoff loss to the Detroit Pistons. His running beefs with refs and periodic bad decisions at crunch time—"That's why coaches don't have guns," said Hawk coach Bob Weiss after one such lapse earlier this season—have prompted Weiss to bench Willis for entire fourth quarters. Weiss did it as recently as Nov. 15, during a 119-115 victory over the Phoenix Suns. That was one night after Willis helped doom Atlanta in a 98-96 loss to the Sacramento Kings by getting a technical with less than a minute remaining.

Since those two games Willis has embarked on what he rightly calls "my terror on the glass." Says Weiss, "The only difference between this year and last year is that Kevin is getting the minutes, and he's going after it."

Says Knick coach Pat Riley, "It's unbelievable; it's amazing. What Kevin is doing is surprising because it's so far beyond the norm."

Wilt Chamberlain (with a career 22.9 rebounds a game) and Bill Russell (22.5) rule the NBA record book, but their prime came in the 1960s. In '60-61, when Wilt snapped up a record 27.2 a game, teams averaged 109.4 shots and 64.0 misses. Last season, 30 years later, teams took 87.2 shots a game and missed 45.8. Credit the decrease in misses to players' far greater proficiency at jump shooting, more proficient post-up offenses and tighter pressure defenses, which create turnovers leading to layups and dunks.

After Willis was named NBA Player of the Week on Nov. 25, Hawk president Stan Kasten entered the locker room. "Eight——years," said Kasten. "And he had the talent to do this all that time."

Even Willis's biggest critics knew he had ability, because of his size, strength and speed. He does, however, have some physical shortcomings—a mere 37-inch sleeve and small hands, with which he can barely palm a basketball. But his lean, 235-pound frame packs biceps that are almost bigger than his calves, and he can bench-press 400 pounds. He also possesses endurance (he ran a 4:32 mile at Pershing High in Detroit) and excellent shooting skills (he shoots jump hooks with either hand).

Willis, 29, cites several factors for his elevated stats. One is the departure of the paint-dwelling Moses Malone, who signed with the Milwaukee Bucks in July as a free agent. "I became the focal point for rebounding," says Willis.

Second, some serious housecleaning by the Hawks after last season left Willis behind only Dominique Wilkins in team seniority. "You see the responsibility that's at hand," says Willis. "I had to mature, to lead by example."

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.



At 17.4 rebounds a game, Willis stands head and shoulders above the NBA's other boardmen.