Mike Looks Back: ’80s Atlanta Hawks

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On the Road with Mike: Philips Arena for Nets vs. Hawks

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Thanks to Moses Robinson of OPM Photography for sharing his photos. Photos © 2011 Moses Robinson.

Mike Looks Back: ATL HAWKS 1986-87

Head coach Mike Fratello of the Atlanta Hawks calls out a play and argues a call during an NBA game against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California in 1987. Photos by Mike Powell and Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Head coach Mike Fratello sees how he measures up against a Tree Rollins height chart during the 1986-87 season.

During the 1986-87 season, my fourth year as head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, we won 57 regular season games to finish first in the Central Division and second in the Eastern Conference behind the mighty Boston Celtics, who would ultimately lose to the Lakers in the NBA Finals.

That year we set the franchise’s best record for regular season wins, which has since been matched by the 1993-94 Hawks team, though it has not yet been surpassed. Dominique Wilkins was among the 20+ Hall of Fame players who competed during the “Golden Era” of NBA basketball. Nique made his second of nine total All-Star appearances that year.

I came across this New York Times article published on April 19, 1987 about our team: “Pro Basketball; Hawks Fulfilling Tall Order” by Ira Berkow

WHEN Mike Fratello – who says he is 5 feet 7 inches (though in a pinch could probably pass for 5-6), and is short enough to have once been turned down for a National Basketball Association head coach’s job because of his height – when Mike Fratello, now the coach of the Atlanta Hawks, stands next to Tree Rollins or Kevin Willis, both of whom are 7 feet tall, and gives them instructions, it looks as if he’s calling up to the second floor . . .

You can read the rest of the article here.

ATLANTA - 1987: Doninique Wilkins #21 of the Atlanta Hawks squares off against Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics during the 1987 NBA game at the Omni in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

That season I also made my first and only music video appearance. The local Atlanta band Tom Grose and the Varsity released a 45 rpm record for the Hawks titled “Nothing Can Stop Us, We’re Atlanta’s Air Force.”

Who knew I’d wind up joining my buddy Marv Albert in the broadcast booth for the NBA on NBC several years later.

Dominique Wilkins #21 of the Atlanta Hawks and his brother Gerald Wilkins #21 of the New York Knicks are interviewed by Marv Albert before a 1987 NBA game played at the OMNI Coliseum in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Hawks center “Tree” Rollins towered at 7 ft 1 inch tall, while point guard and 1986 NBA Slam Dunk champion “Spud” Webb stood only 5 ft 5 inches small.

Guard Anthony (Spud) Webb of the Atlanta Hawks leaps to victory during a game against the Los Angeles Lakers. Photo by Stephen Dunn /Allsport

Tree Rollins #30 of the Atlanta Hawks stretches by the bench during a game against the Lakers. Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Mike Looks Back: Still waiting for my invitation ‘Nique

This week my former player Dominique Wilkins celebrated his 50th birthday. We had a chance to catch up at the Nets game in Atlanta and had a laugh about one of Dominique’s birthdays that I remember very well. It was my second year with the Hawks and we were going into a game at home against the Celtics. Much like now, Boston was the team to beat in the East. It was a sell-out crowd but the stands would be full of Celtics fans wearing green jerseys.

At the morning shootaround I gave an impassioned pep talk about how this was our opportunity to win back the fans. I felt going into the game our team’s best effort could get us a win over the Celtics and start turning those green jerseys into red jerseys.

That night when I was in the locker room writing the notes for the game on the board, I happened to notice that each of the players walked in carrying garment bags to their lockers. I didn’t know why because we weren’t going on a road trip or anything but I didn’t pay much attention to it. Anyhow we went out, delivered a poor effort and were beaten resoundingly. So much for my pep talk.

I was so mad because the momentum and credibility we had worked really hard to gain over the last couple of weeks were conceded without much of a fight. Let me put it this way, after the loss I called for an 8 a.m. practice the next morning. Well, I don’t think any of the players had their eyes open when they arrived at practice on Sunday. I called the morning practice because I wanted the players to see the construction workers outside of the Omni Center parking garage with jackhammers repairing holes in the street.  And as they came into to the arena there were people upstairs cleaning and picking up the mess from the night before.

I asked the players, “How many of you people saw the guys out there repairing the streets on the way in? How many of you saw the people cleaning up the arena at 7:45 a.m.? That’s what life is about. That’s the real world. That’s when you’ve got to work to survive – when you’ve got to go out and earn a living to support a family. And we need to have a better effort. We can’t come out and perform like we did last night because that’s not what we’re about.”

We were a very young team and I wanted them to understand you can’t cheat our fans and cheat our team with that kind of performance. We were blessed to have the privilege of making a living in sports and getting paid to play the game we love and there was no excuse for mailing a game in, especially when we had the opportunity to prove ourselves against one of the best teams in the NBA. It should have been a “war.”

I quickly realized it wasn’t going to be a very productive practice. Once I made my point there was no reason to keep the guys there so I told them to go home. I wasn’t trying to punish them. I just wanted to turn a negative into a positive learning experience. That was it. What I found out later was that the day before was Dominique’s birthday. After the game the players all went to an elaborate private party – the reason for the garment bags. If I were a betting man I’d say that most of them came straight from ‘Nique’s birthday celebration right to practice.  And my speech was probably not the way they wanted to cap the evening.

Watch Dominique and Devyne discuss the Human Highlight’s NBA career and the events planned for his 50th birthday week in Atlanta.

Mike’s Memorabilia: Red Auerbach Trophy

Red Auerbach Trophy for Coach of the Year – 1986: One of the highlights and tremendous honors of my coaching career was being named NBA Coach of the Year for the 1985–86 season.

It was my third year as head coach and going into the season the outlook was bleak. We were the second youngest team in the NBA. We had only won 34 games the previous year and my contract was up at the end of the season. Somehow I had to convince our guys that we could bounce back and turn things around.

Led by NBA Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins and point guard Doc Rivers we went into the playoffs on the back of a hard-fought 50-win season. We beat the Pistons in the first round but unfortunately we were defeated by the Celtics in the second – they would go on to win the Championship.

Beyond our team’s success, Wilkins led the league in scoring with 30.3 ppg and made his first All-Star appearance. Spud Webb (one of the few players I could look in the eyes without a step stool) won the NBA Slam-Dunk Championship – becoming the shortest player ever to win the contest. I was named Coach of the Year and the Hawks signed me to a four-year extension. We went on to have three consecutive 50-win seasons. It was a magical year.

Check out this Hawks Highlight Reel from 1986.

Mike’s son admires his Coach of the Year trophy in 1986.