One year ago, Atlanta Hawks General Manager Stan Kasten was answering some pointed questions that usually went something like this: Since your team isn't very good, anyway, would it not mind losing a few extra games to secure a place in the draft lottery?
That was charitable compared to the things that were being said about his coach, Mike Fratello. So with the announcement that former New York Knicks great Willis Reed had been hired as an assistant coach during the offseason came speculation that the Hawks had better be winners by January or Fratello would be gone.
When asked about those days, now that his Hawks are one of the toasts of the National Basketball Association, an exciting team with a record of 47-30 and a probable coach of the year award just months away, Fratello just smiles sardonically. He can afford to, of course, as the Washington Bullets learned Tuesday night here when they lost to the Hawks, 107-91; the teams meet again Friday at Capital Centre.
"Even before the year began I felt we were capable of winning some games," Kasten said. "But that was a few years from now, after projecting some people having their best years. That we're doing it now surprises me. You're not supposed to win at all in this league when you're young. We're the youngest team in the league and we're on the verge of winning 50 games."
As their zero-for-six mark against the Boston Celtics would suggest, the Hawks aren't quite ready to be regarded as the league's finest, but if nothing else, they have provided more than a breath of fresh air to the league.
That much was at least ensured back on Feb. 8, when 5-foot-7 guard Spud Webb bested teammate and defending champion Dominique Wilkins in the NBA slam-dunk contest. The proof that there was more than a good show to the Hawks came the next day, when Wilkins participated in the All-Star game as a member of the Eastern Conference team.
"That was important to me because the coaches voted me on the team and it showed that they respected me," Wilkins said.
Averaging almost 30 points a game and being the league's third-leading scorer is regarded as a plus for Wilkins. It was previously thought that the higher his individual numbers, the worse his team would be. Now, the still-flamboyant forward is being recognized as making his teammates better.
But, said Wilkins, the talent on the team is much better than in his previous three years in the league, which is a valid point. In 7-foot forward/center Kevin Willis and guard Glenn Rivers, the Hawks have two of the more aggressive players in the league. Tree Rollins is a defensive anchor and Webb, who averages seven points and almost five assists a game, has nearly turned the corner from novelty to player.
The Hawks' youth is precisely why they are so fresh, fun to watch and dangerous to opponents. One of the top five rebounding teams in the NBA, Atlanta has three 7-footers and five men at least 6-9. "We said we wanted to be the best team we could but a real close second was that we had to be fun to watch," said Kasten. "I think it's starting to come together pretty well."
*Celtics 122, Pistons 106: Robert Parish, Larry Bird and Kevin McHale scored a total of 83 points and Boston set an NBA season record with its 28th straight home victory by beating Detroit tonight.
Parish had a season-high 30 points, Bird 29 and McHale 24 as the Celtics stretched their overall winning streak to 13 games, tying their mark for the longest in the NBA this season. Parish also had 18 rebounds.
The Celtics erased the 36-year-old league record of 27 straight home victories in a season set by the Minneapolis Lakers in 1949-50. Philadelphia holds the mark for more than one season with 36 starting in 1966-67 and ending in 1967-68.
*76ers 93, Knicks 87: Charles Barkley had 18 points and 19 rebounds and Philadelphia handed visiting New York its sixth straight loss.
Julius Erving scored 23 points and rookie Terry Catledge 19. Maurice Cheeks had 14 points, nine assists and seven steals.
*Suns 110, Warriors 101: In Phoenix, Larry Nance scored eight of his 31 points in the fourth quarter and Alvan Adams had eight of his 19 in the same period as the Suns beat Golden State and moved within 1 1/2 games of idle San Antonio in the race for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff berth.
*Clippers 97, Jazz 94: Rookie Benoit Benjamin scored 18 points, including the go-ahead basket late in the fourth quarter, and had 16 rebounds and five blocked shots to lead Los Angeles over visiting Utah -- its fourth straight win.
Norm Nixon (17 points), the league's leading active assist maker, had 11 assists to become only the eighth player in NBA history to exceed 6,000.
*Trail Blazers 121, SuperSonics 109: Kiki Vandeweghe scored 10 of his game-high 36 points in the fourth quarter to lift Portland, ending a 13-game losing streak on the road.
The Trail Blazers won five of six games against Seattle this season.