Teamwork puts the Atlanta hawks in Superstar Company
The National Basketball Association likes to refer to itself as a Stars' League -- as if it might need a little help from Madison Avenue to sell its product.
No argument here. With superplayers like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Dennis Johnson, Larry Bird, etc., it certainly has a legitimate claim to the title. In fact, several times a game it all comes true on instant replay.
But if you happen to prefer good, solid, winning basketball, played under a coach who is part teacher, preacher, and screecher, the truck drivers in the ill-fitting tuxedos are the Central Division champion Atlanta Hawks.
They are coached by Hubie Brown, a man who can kick anyone's ego well into the middle of next month, has sold his scorers on the importance of defense, and gets as much consistency from his bench as he does from his starters.
There is talent on the Hawks, of course, so much that three of their players (John Drew, Dan Roundfield, and Eddie Johnson) score in double figures. However , there are eight others who don't.
Of the NBA's 22 teams, Atlanta is 19th in offense and second (behind Portland) in defense. If pro basketball were strictly numbers, with no room for intangibles, most of the Hawks would end up out on the street. Instead, they have fashioned a 48-29 record that is bettered only by the league's five top powers -- Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Phoenix.
Among the things Brown does best is assign his players well-defined roles. He has an offensive center in 6 ft. 9 in. Steve Hawes and a defensive center in 7-1 Tree Rollins, and he shuffles them beautifully.
"We like to use Hawes at the high post because his outside shooting has a tendency to keep the defense honest," Brown explained. "Steve may not be much for putting the ball on the floor and driving to the basket, but other teams still have to keep a man on him.
"With Rollins in there our whole situation changes. Tree gets down close to the basket, blocks shots, and forces other teams to make adjustments that can cause confusion. If he ever gets his offense together, he could be awesome."
Perhaps the closest thing the Hawks have to an offensive superstar is the 6-6 Drew, a wonderfully coordinated forward who has led the team in scoring for five consecutive years and seems likely to do so again this season.
The tough rebounding forward is Roundfield, who wins more than his share of hip-cracking duels under the basket and is also a consistent shot blocker and fine defensive player. If Dan were ever to go the free agent route, rival general managers would be lined up from Atlanta to Plains, Ga.
The Hawks have an underrated playmaking guard in Armond Hill and one of the League's better offensive guards in Johnson, who is effective with or without the ball. Johnson knows how to apply pressure so well against his opponents that last year he was named to the NBA's second All-Defensive team.
But the man who winds the Hawks' emotions is still Brown, who may have written the book on motivation, and who has proved that a team doesn't need so-called superstars to win. That is, providing it plays together.
Hubie, because of the way he feels about fundamentals and preparation, probably does more individual coaching than anyone in the NBA. When he yells, it is mostly to get attention, or wake up a few referees.
Brown's instructions are rarely complicated and usually relate to some breakdown on defense. Most players like Hubie because (1) he is always honest, and (2) he somehow manages to find floor time for all of them.
"You can always tell a good team from a poor one by watching what happens to both under pressure," Brown said. "The good team will consistently react and make the play, but the poor team will only get itself into more trouble."
While few people think the Hawks will be a major factor in this year's playoffs, Brown at this point probably likes it that way. It gives him another intangible weapon he can use in his never-ending fight against what always seem to be insurmountable odds.