Every 20 games during the NBA season, Atlanta Hawks general
manager Pete Babcock meets with his coaching staff and other
members of the team's front office. Over the years the meetings,
held in Babcock's office at CNN Center, have served as progress
reports for the franchise. In addition to discussions about
stats and trends and hot players around the league, team
executives would sometimes spend entire days pondering the
Hawks' multitude of troubles. Now, though, with Atlanta off to
the best start in the franchise's history, you've got to wonder
what exactly they'll be talking about at Babcock's first meeting
this season. The unusually cold weather? The standoff in Iraq?
Anybody seen any good movies lately?
The Hawks stood at 10-0 after Sunday's 89-83 win over the Los
Angeles Clippers and were looking down at everyone else in the
Eastern Conference, including (if they squinted) the defending
world champion Chicago Bulls. Center Dikembe Mutombo, the NBA's
Defensive Player of the Year last season, is scoring with the
ferocity he normally reserves for blocking shots. Temperamental
forward Christian Laettner, who became a father for the first
time in June, seems almost serene. The team, once plagued by fan
apathy, is setting attendance records playing in the 71,228-seat
Georgia Dome while a new arena goes up across the street.
In an 80-78 win on Nov. 7 against the Bulls, the team that
knocked the Hawks out of the playoffs in the second round last
spring, a franchise-record 45,790 fans showed up--just 228 fewer
than the NFL Falcons had drawn to the dome on the previous
Sunday. Let's face it, Babcock's first quarterly get-together
this season should be a meeting even Dilbert couldn't screw up.
"We are a team that's operating at very close to maximum
efficiency," says coach Lenny Wilkens, who is getting so much
productivity from his reserves that all of his starters were on
the bench with 2:12 left to play in a 104-103 win over the
Sacramento Kings last Friday night in Atlanta. "I see a team
with character and confidence, one that's very much like the one
I coached in Seattle when we won the [1978-79] championship."
The key, says Wilkens, is continuity. His entire starting
lineup, including four former first-round picks--Mutombo (Denver
1991), Laettner (Minnesota '92) and guards Mookie Blaylock (New
Jersey '89) and Steve Smith (Miami '91)--is back from a team
that won 56 games last year. "The Hawks definitely have the
talent to handle the Bulls," says Seattle guard Hersey Hawkins.
While your typical NBA roster might have one or two players who
can take over a game, the Hawks have four. That makes it hard
for opposing teams to figure out whom to stop down the stretch
in close games. Perhaps that has contributed to the five games
the Hawks have already won by three points or less. "They're
aggressive from the very beginning, and when you do that, refs
will give you calls late in the game," says Indiana Pacers coach
Larry Bird. "It's how you're supposed to play."
Because his system was already in place and in veteran hands,
Wilkens was free during training camp to work on
conditioning--"He was trying to kill us with sprints," says
Mutombo--and on individual instruction. No one benefited more
from Wilkens's attention than Mutombo, who at week's end was
averaging 16.2 points, 12.4 rebounds and 4.1 blocks while
sinking 80.0% of his free throws. On Sunday night the Clippers
threw three different centers at him, yet Mutombo still helped
push the streak into double digits with 19 points and 14
rebounds. Against the Pacers on Nov. 12 he had perhaps his best
game as a pro. With a soft touch and a strong drop step Mutombo
pumped in 25 points to go along with his 15 boards as the Hawks
beat Indiana 89-86 for win number 8. "We're all kidding Dikembe
now," says Smith. "Last year he won the Defensive Player of the
Year Award, so now he must be trying to win the offensive player
of the year award."
Since leaving Denver in 1996 Mutombo has been working on his
positioning and footwork in the paint and has developed an
effective hook shot, though he still sometimes holds the ball
too long, missing opportunities to pass to open teammates.
Oddly, Mutombo has improved despite playing very little
basketball during the off-season. Instead, he says, a trip home
to Kinshasa, in the Republic of Congo, and time spent "spinning"
(using a new, technologically advanced stationary bike,
recommended by his friend Alonzo Mourning of the Miami Heat)
kept his knees and spirit fresh. "I stayed away from basketball
as much as I could," says the 7'2" finger-waving post man. "On
offense the only thing I know is that I feel more patient.
Patience comes only with experience. You can't teach it."
That's something Babcock, 48, has learned since taking over as
general manager in 1990 and slowly molding the team into a
contender. "All everyone in sports wants now is instant
gratification," says Babcock. "So people have been very critical
of us for not making this move or that move. But all along we
have looked at building this team a little differently, with
some stability. You don't always have to go to the bottom before
you get better in this league."
A former high school coach in Phoenix who worked his way up in
the pros from scout to assistant coach to two-time runner-up for
the NBA Executive of the Year Award, Babcock landed Wilkens in
1993. Then, through a series of player moves, Babcock engineered
the deals that ultimately landed his four stars, who--as an
added bonus--all get along. That camaraderie and the team's
stability, two words that go largely unused in the NBA today,
may be the real secrets to Atlanta's quick start. "It's unheard
of in this day and time to have so many great players and have
none of them caught up with their own stats or contract
figures," says forward Tyrone Corbin, the team's fifth starter.
"To me it means that this team has all the pieces in place to
win it all."
In August the Hawks locked up Blaylock with a four-year, $18
million contract even though he had a year remaining on his old
deal. It was an act of good faith that calmed and motivated the
occasionally sour guard. This season the eight-year veteran is
serving as mentor to rookie guard Ed Gray, the team's
first-round pick out of California. In win number 7, an 89-87
squeaker over the SuperSonics on Nov. 11, Blaylock volunteered
to sit out most of the final 6:14 so Gray could get some work
during crunch time. The sometimes spectacular Gray scored five
points as Atlanta came back from 14 down to win on a 15-foot
jumper by Smith with five seconds to play.
Despite signing Blaylock, Babcock was widely criticized this
summer for not signing a free-agent small forward like Chris
Mills or Rick Fox. "That was my summer failure," he says. "I
dropped the ball on that one, I admit it." But now, with
third-year forward Alan Henderson back in top condition after
battling viral pancreatitis for most of last season, Babcock's
fumble may turn out to be a blessing.
Last Friday night Henderson came off the bench in the second
quarter and went on an 11-point tear, highlighted by three
thunderous dunks that left no doubt that he has regained the
strength he lost last season. He finished with 17 points and
four rebounds. "That was the Alan Henderson we drafted," says
Wilkens. Already Henderson has shown himself to be an emotional
catalyst and an effective sub for the streaky Laettner.
Five months ago Laettner's wife, Lisa, gave birth to the
couple's first child, Sophia. Since then, he has sometimes had a
hard time focusing on basketball, and his play during the streak
has reflected that. "Fatherhood has changed my life," says the
guy who has a shark for a pet. "Family is the most important
thing to me now. And it gets harder to leave her every day and
come here. But we've got a very hot team right now that's
playing at a high confidence level. We're all just trying to
No one is doing that more than Henderson, the 16th pick out of
Indiana in the 1995 draft, who returned from his illness with a
joy that has energized the Hawks and helped them relish the
streak rather than chafe under its pressure. He is constantly
pumping up his teammates during practices and games, and
hollering so loud after dunks that his mouthpiece keeps flying
out. He clearly is enjoying the game again, perhaps for the
first time since high school. "Alan was always a fun-loving
boy," his mother, Annette, said after watching the Hawks beat
the Pacers in Indianapolis, the Hendersons' hometown. "He was
happy and enthusiastic all his life. Then, when he got to
Indiana, well, sometimes you have to adapt and control your
Henderson and four other reserves were on the floor last Friday
night when, with the Hawks up 95-87 and less than two minutes to
go, the fans at the Georgia Dome began brandishing the yellow
signs emblazoned with the message 9-0 that had been given out in
the fourth quarter. This did not exactly please the Kings, who
stormed back to within a point. Atlanta held on, and a public
relations disaster was narrowly averted. Still, someone might
want to consider reworking the club's policy on fan giveaways.
Maybe Babcock can squeeze that topic into his next meeting.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Thanks to a low-key summer and Wilkens's tutoring, Mutombo has dominated at both ends of the floor. [Dikembe Mutombo in game]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO A renegotiated contract has made Blaylock a happier camper this year. [Mookie Blaylock in game]
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT CUNNINGHAM/NBA PHOTOS After ailing last year, Henderson is back at full strength, giving the Hawks a potent weapon off the bench. [Alan Henderson in game]
The NBA teams that have gotten off to the best starts without a
defeat have usually taken that momentum deep into the
postseason. This review of the hottest starts suggests that the
Hawks, who had broken out of the gate at 10-0 through Sunday,
should have an extended run of success.
START TEAM YEAR FINAL PLAYOFF RESULT
15-0 Washington Capitols 1948 38-22 Lost in Finals
15-0 Houston Rockets 1993 58-24 Won championship
14-0 Boston Celtics 1957 49-23 Lost in Finals
12-0 Seattle SuperSonics 1982 48-34 Lost in first round
12-0 Chicago Bulls 1996 69-13 Won championship
11-0 Boston Celtics 1964 62-18 Won championship
11-0 Portland Trail 1990 63-19 Lost in conference
10-0 Boston Celtics 1972 68-14 Lost in conference
10-0 Seattle SuperSonics 1993 63-19 Lost in first round
10-0 Atlanta Hawks 1997 To be determined
Source: Elias Sports Bureau