Hawks History - I Think We'd Better Keep this One

I Think We'd Better Keep this One!
February 19, 2010

During an exhibition game of the 1984-1985 season against the Washington Bullets--now Wizards--Rick Mahorn and Jeff Ruland attempted to intimidate the entire Hawks' team with special emphasis on rookie center Kevin Willis. Physical enforcers like Mahorn and Ruland often established career long dominance over younger players by threatening to do physical harm if they were challenged.

During a free throw attempt, Mahorn hollered across the lane,
"Rookie, I will knock your head off."

Without hesitation, Willis stepped into the lane and shouted back,
"Do it now!"

Veteran guard Eddie Johnson, who had seen these very tactics work in the past, was impressed by the bravery and audacity of his new teammate. Johnson smiled broadly and exclaimed, "I think we'd better keep this one."

Little did Johnson or anyone else imagine that Kevin Willis would play more years, 21, of NBA basketball than anyone, other than Robert Parish who also played 21 years. The decision to keep the 11th player picked in the 1984 NBA draft was an easy one for Atlanta Hawks' management.

Willis arrived in Atlanta without tremendous fanfare, skills, nor basketball savvy; however, his work ethic, athletic abilities, and 7 foot frame endeared him to Coach Mike Fratello and his teammates. Willis became a ferocious rebounder and one of the strongest men in NBA history. The former Michigan State Spartan recalled his early development;

I always ran well even in high school. I continued that in college. That was my thing. I had some talent, but I knew I could always outrun a guy and outwork him. I had the record-that I believe still stands- for the Spartan Mile. We had to run a mile at the beginning of the season to test and encourage preseason conditioning; I ran that mile in 4 minutes and 51 seconds. I do not think they still run it now, but I don't believe my record from 1983 was ever matched. It was there that I got into lifting weights seriously. I would go and lift with the football players. They gave me pointers on how to get stronger without losing my basketball skills. When I got to Atlanta, I started working out with a guy they call "Rope Man." His name is Tyrone Felder and he trained with Lee Haney the 8 time Mr. Olympia. He helped a lot and so did Lee Haney himself. I knew I had to lift to hold my own. I was matched against guys like Maurice Lucas, Moses Malone, Darryl Dawkins, and Buck Williams. They were all bigger than me; I had to get stronger. After 7 or 8 years, I was one of the strongest guys in the league.

Willis is a current Hawks' fan and goes to games as often as possible. He acknowledges that the game has changed considerably and is no where near as physical as it used to be. He is very impressed with this year's team and their improvement.

Willis analyzed, "They have come together as a team and are playing with purpose and maturity. Josh Smith has matured and Joe (Johnson) is more vocal. (Jamal) Crawford is my guy. He has uplifted the team and is playing great. I call him a silent assassin. He is hungry. He has never been in the playoffs, and you can see his desire to get there."

Willis had many outstanding years in the NBA, but none were better than his 1991-1992 season where he averaged 18.3 points and 15.5 rebounds and made the NBA All-Star team and the All-NBA team. He credits his hard work, jump hook shot, and rebounding for that success. Willis recalls his time in college watching Caldwell Jones shooting jump hooks against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who countered with his great sky hook. Explaining his choice to emulate Jones rather than Abdul-Jabbar, Willis said, I chose the jump hook because it was more stylish. It was also unstoppable. When Willis Reed was here as an assistant coach, he helped me to polish my shot. It became my "Go-to move and my signature shot."

Willis recognizes some of the traits that extended his tenure and brought him accolades being displayed by current Hawks' center Al Horford. Willis admired, " I can tell he works hard. I can tell that his discipline is really good. You have to have that. He has gotten stronger, and I see the increased confidence. He made the all-star team, not so much for his numbers, but for his work ethic, attitude and team success. It was a great honor for him to make the all-star team. Josh should have been there, too. He is having an outstanding year!

When asked if nutrition and diet had anything to do with his longevity, Willis said, Well, I tried to eat right and stayed away from alcohol, but mainly I stayed in good shape and took care of my body." He laughed and recalled one other factor from his all-star season. "One game against the Lakers I ate pancakes before the game and had about 20 rebounds that night. I ate pancakes the rest of that season before every game." When asked if the pancakes were eaten in the morning, he said, "Not really, I ate them after shooting practice. I would tell the hotel they would have to fix them at that time or I would have to leave and go find them elsewhere. I ate them from a lot of different places." Even though he laughed out loud, he was dead serious about a routine that produced results.

Currently, Willis has a premium jeans clothing company that caters mainly to larger people. He says that he is bridging the gap for larger people who have been overlooked as far as fashion and fit are concerned. He has many NBA, NFL, and MLB players as clients. His special premium denim jeans with longer inseams and stylish design can be seen on Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Josh Smith, and Jason Collins. He was proud that his old teammate and front court partner, Dominique Wilkins had also supported him in his clothing venture. Willis was quick to explain that he is no fashion novice. He had declared Fashion and Textile as his major during his junior year at Michigan State and had started his clothing company in 1988.

Despite the demands of his second passion, Willis would like to spend more time with his first passion, basketball. He declared, "I would like to work in the front office of the Hawks or work with young talent immediately after they are drafted. I would like to guide them like a mentor. I could teach them how to be a pro and work within the structure of a team." If the young and developing Hawks were to work with Kevin Willis, on or off the court, they would surely conclude, "I think we'd better keep this one!"

During his ten year NBA career, Mike Glenn played four seasons with the Atlanta Hawks (1981-1985). He currently serves as postgame analyst for Hawks games on Fox Sports South. You can learn more about 'The Stinger" and his free basketball camp for the hearing impaired at his website MikeGlenn.com.