Tree Rollins Still Has to Defend His Game, 1986

[In 1984, back when a gallon of gas coast a buck 13, journalist Mark Bradley joined the sports desk at the then-Atlanta Constitution. Now, aalmost 39 years later, Bradley is going strong at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, weighing in most recently on the fate of the 2022 NFL Falcons and the national-champion University of Georgia Bulldogs. (Go Dawgs!) But when Bradley was still just getting started in Atlanta, he wrote a nice profile of Hawks’ center Tree Rollins, which I’ve transcribed below. I’ll leave it to Bradley to fill you in on Tree, then in his ninth season in Atlanta. But I will just add that Bradley’s story ran on January 23, 1986. Enjoy!]

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He hears it still. Almost a decade in the NBA, after making the league’s All-Defensive team, after all the nights of bumping with Kareem and grinding with Moses . . . after all that, people still accost Tree Rollins in the checkout line and say, “Tree, why don’t you shoot more?”

Tree Rollins shakes his head. “That happened at Kroger just this week,” he says. “I get it all the time.” And not just from outsiders. His coach wonders. Sometimes even Rollins wonders.

No kid ever lifts a basketball and trudges to the schoolyard to practice blocking shots. The game’s lure is shooting—jump shots, push shots, layups, dunks. Tree Rollins was a normal kid. Growing tall in Cordele, Ga.—so tall he was dubbed Tree by a chum known as Teeny Man—Rollins cared nothing for defense. “I never thought about it until I got to Clemson,” he says. Now he thinks of nothing but.

Over 623 games as an Atlanta Hawk, Rollins has averaged 5.9 shots. Dominique Wilkins takes 5.9 shots in a slow quarter. And Rollins plays center, the position usually geared most to points. “But I can score,” Rollins says, protesting, and indeed, he has a nice hook and a fair jumper. “If we need me to score, I know I can.”

For his lack of offense, Rollins points to the system, tailored for the small forward and the off guard. Yet Hawks coach Mike Fratello suggests that if Rollins deigned to shoot more, nobody would mind. Indeed, everybody would cheer. “I sure would love it,” Fratello says. “It would distribute our offense better, would put more pressure on the defensive center.”

So, Tree Rollins hears it still. He has stopped counting the number of times his name was mentioned in a possible trade, has long since stopped reading the sports section. He simply does his job as he sees, does it as best he can, and doesn’t waste breath trying to convert those who see him as the Hawks’ weakest link.

But the man has his pride, and if he’s not Kareem, Jr. or Hakeem, Sr., he’s indisputably having his best season of the past three, doing more than keeping a spot warm for Jon Koncak, the center of the future. Shouldn’t that count for something?

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Among NBA centers, only Alvan Adams of Phoenix has stuck with the team that drafted him longer than Wayne Monte Rollins. Adams went to the Suns in 1975, Rollins to the Hawks in 1977. 

“Talking to fans around town,” Fratello says, “you always hear people saying, ‘Go get so-and-so to play center; Tree’s not scoring 25 a night.’ The trouble with that is the teams who have a center scoring 25 a night aren’t gonna give him up. 

“So then, you compare Tree to other guys in the league, and you get a different perspective. And maybe you think, ‘Let’s be happy with what we have.’”

Pulling a file from a metal cabinet, Stan Kasten, the Hawks general manager, points to a graph of the 1982-83 season. Of the 18 games Rollins played at least 37 minutes, Atlanta won 15. Of the 11 games he played fewer than 19 minutes, the Hawks won none. 

“That’s a perfect gradient,” Kasten says. “The more minutes he played, the more we won. Our problem was what happened when he wasn’t on the floor.”

By Rollins’ admission, the years following 1983 weren’t so good. The fight with Boston’s Danny Ainge took its psychological toll. Rollins wasn’t as aggressive, wasn’t as good. “He had a different attitude, a different mood,” Fratello says. “His competitive edge wasn’t the same.”

And now? “His attitude is much better,” Fratello says. “He has taken over a lot of the leadership responsibilities.”

If he still doesn’t score much—he averages 4.7 points; Spud Webb, 18 inches shorter, averages 6.1—Rollins does play hard (so long as his sprained foot doesn’t flare up), does block shots and rebound, does clog the lane, does allow the rookie Koncak to tour the NBA without the pressure of starting. Not coincidentally, the Hawks are winning,

Says guard Doc Rivers: “I think Tree’s the reason we’re playing well. He’s rejuvenated, a new man. He allows the guards to pressure the ball, and if our man gets around us . . . well, I wouldn’t want to drive on that man.”

The previous two seasons, Rollins had hovered near the level of mediocrity. From 343 blocks in 1983, his total fell to 167—a 51 percent reduction—last year. Rollins blames Ainge, Larry O’Brien, referees at large.

During the Hawks’ final game of 1983, a playoff loss in Boston Garden, Ainge tackled Rollins, who’d hit him with a forearm. The two ended up rolling around on the deck, Ainge allegedly trying to gouge Rollins’ eyes, Rollins biting Ainge’s finger. For that, Rollins was fined $5,000 and suspended for the first two games of the next season without pay. He claims it cost him $40,000 in cash, more in grief.

It wasn’t Rollins’ first scrap, a reason O’Brien, then the NBA commissioner, gave for suspending Rollins and not Ainge. There was the fight with Dave Cowens in 1980 (Rollins was fined $1,500), the flagrant elbow to Jeff Cook’s gut in 1982 ($750), the elbow to Kenny Dennard’s chin in 1982 ($1,500), and the rumble with Lionel Hollins in the 1982 playoffs ($2,500). This doesn’t include the disputed M.L. Carr knife-pulling incident after a game in Boston in 1983, over which Rollins filed a $4 million lawsuit (later dropped).

“I went into the (1983-84) season thinking I couldn’t get in another fight or I’d be kicked out of the league,” Rollins says. “The Ainge thing sort of burst my bubble. I found out about the politics of the league, how cold this league is. It was like they didn’t see the film. They may be looked at it one second max. It was, ‘Rollins initiated it, so Rollins is out.’

“I’m not a really violent guy, but I felt the officials watching me. When something happens on the court, coaches tell you not to leave your teammate alone out there. But with me, they said, ‘Don’t do anything; just come and sit somewhere.’ Something like that happened just last week. (Bill) Laimbeer walked toward Eddie Johnson, and the official grabbed me. I said, ‘Hey, I’m not fighting!’”

He laughs now, a little. He didn’t before. “That whole business did affect me,” Rollins says. “I wasn’t as aggressive. If I’d played like Moses, I’d have been out of the game in one minute. I didn’t snap out of it until this year. Like News (Cliff Levingston) says, ‘Tree, you look live-r now.’”

Shy by nature, Rollins has begun to talk more in the locker room, to share his worldly wisdom with callow teammates. At the shootaround before last Tuesday’s game against Sacramento, he sensed rampant lethargy and said so. Everybody got serious. “Tree’s taken on the role of getting us ready to play,” Wilkins says. “He’s pushing us. He’s fired up.”

And, though he knows Koncak’s development cannot be good for him personally, Rollins has tried to tutor the rookie, defusing what might’ve been an explosive pairing. “I thought it might be awkward,” Koncak says, “but he’s been friendly and open. And the biggest thing that helps me is just playing against him. He’s playing younger and harder, stretching out after rebounds, really going after it. I think it’s a good situation for us both.”

Rollins: “People tell me, ‘Don’t show Jon too much; he’s after your job.’ But the way I see it, helping him is helping our team. And some people say, ‘Hey, they don’t run plays for you, but when Jon comes in, they run plays for him. Is it because he’s white? I figure once you start winning, people won’t care how many points the center scores.”

Which brings us again to the question: Tree, why don’t you shoot more?

****

“Maybe he’s trying to submerge himself for the team good,” Fratello says. “I don’t know. I’d be jiving you if I told you I knew. Answer me this: Why didn’t Tree score at Clemson?”

Look it up: At Clemson, Rollins shot a bit more, averaging 10 a game and scored in double figures all four years. But not high double figures. He averaged 12.4 points as a freshman, 14.1 points as a senior. The Clemson coach was Tates Locke, a man consumed by defense.

“The first two weeks of practice at Clemson,” Rollins says, “we didn’t touch the ball. We played defense.”

Drafted No. 1 by Atlanta in 1977, Rollins encountered another zealot—Hubie Brown. “Hubie and Tates,” Rollins says. “Two of a kind.” When he came to rookie camp, Brown sat him down and outlined his duties—use all six of his fouls, try to block every shot, go hard after rebounds. “Not once,” Rollins says, “did he mention scoring.”

By this time, Rollins sensed coaches didn’t see him as the next Wilt Chamberlain, so he quit even thinking about scoring big. Truth be told, he hasn’t the tools for it. Sure, Tree stands 7-feet-1, but he has awful feet. His toes jut downward at right angles. Hammer toes, doctors call them. “Mountain climbers,” Rivers says. Legend holds that Rollins developed those toes by wearing too-small shoes as a child, but he denies it. “All my brothers,” he says, “have ‘em, too.”

To go with those feet, Rollins has skinny legs, an ample posterior, and a well-padded midriff. “This isn’t,” Fratello says, “what you’d call an athletic frame.”

Graceful, Rollins isn’t. Were Kareem a foot shorter, he’d nevertheless be playing in the NBA. He’s that skilled. Rollins needs every inch. He’s here because he’s tall and can jump and block shots, and he knows it.

“Ever since I’ve been here, from Hubie on, our shots have fallen to the small forward,” Rollins says. “That’s why we don’t get on our small forward for not playing defense.”

And why is a shot-blocking center vital? Say Wilkins, the small forward, goes for a steal and misses. Say Rollins sags off and deflects the resulting shot to Rivers, who throws long for Wilkins, who jams. That’s three men doing their jobs, but who gets noticed most? Not the rejector.

“That’s the way it is,” Rollins says. “You don’t look at the guys in trenches. Like in football, people see quarterbacks and receivers. Nobody sees offensive linemen blocking. But that’s all right. I like to play defense. I like the idea of blocking a guy’s shot, making him start worrying about me and changing his game.”

And that’s it. Never encouraged to shoot, Tree Rollins doubted his capacity to dominate on the offensive end. “And once you get that in your mind, you won’t score,” Rivers says. ‘You’ve got to have a scorer’s mentality to score.”

But Rollins knew he could rule the other basket, so he concentrated on that to the exclusion of all else. He doesn’t feel he has gotten his due for his sacrifice, but he’s used to that. By now, he’s used to it all—the trade talk, the fines, the criticism, the grocery-store coaching clinics.

“I don’t like to say I’ve gotten a bad rap in Atlanta,” Rollins says. “I’m sure if I hadn’t played basketball, I wouldn’t have had the business opportunities I have now, with my development company and all. But if I could go back and change, I might.”

He smiles. This is for the guy in Kroger—and for the thousand before him. Says Rollins: “I might try to shoot more.”

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