Courtside Stories: How NBA legends changed Kevin Willis’ approach to game

kevin-willis-hawksOne thing that former NBA player Kevin Willis was never really associated with during his playing days was softness. Always in top shape, always ready to fight if necessary, Kevin Willis was among the toughest NBA players of the 80s and 90s.

“I remember I had this rage,” Willis recalled. “I’m going out and I’m not taking no crap from nobody. I’m an enforcer, and if somebody challenges me, it’s on.”

He also recalled how once when he was playing with the Atlanta Hawks, the team’s assistant coach, NBA legend Willis Reed gave him a good advice on how to approach the game.

In one game, Willis got in foul trouble early, yelled at the referee and slammed a towel to the ground as he headed to the bench.

Moments later, Reed walked over and motioned for the other Hawks to scoot down and make room for him.

“Did you see that TV show last night?” Reed asked.

“What are you talking about?!” Willis protested.

Willis didn’t know how to react. At first, he was shocked that Reed wasn’t there to talk basketball. But the diversion soon took hold, and Reed’s gentle way and sense of humor had Willis laughing.

“See?” Reed said. “I had to come down here and calm you down a little bit and take your mind off what was troubling you. You’re a heck of a player, talented and strong, but switch it. It’s all about the mental part.'”

Another good memory of how to play the game Willis holds of his former rival and later teammate Houston Rockets legend Hakeem Olajuwon.

While Willis was blistering through a warmup on one end, Olajuwon was smiling and joking with teammates on the other. Olajuwon then tried to crack Willis’ serious demeanor.

“Hey, Kev, how are you doing?” Olajuwon said. “Why do you always looks so mad and upset? “Relax. Have fun. It’s just a game.”

Olajuwon’s message got through to Willis. With a clear mindset, he flourished. In 1992, Willis averaged 15.5 rebounds per game and made the All-Star Team for the first time. He would go on to average a double-double for four consecutive seasons.

Willis and Olajuwon have remained friends since.

Kevin Willis played in 1424 NBA games (891 started), averaging 12.1 ppg, 8.4 rpg in 26.9 minutes on the court.

Throughout his career, Willi played for Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Toronto Raptors, Denver Nuggers, San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks.

He was selected to the NBA All-Star game in 1992, and won the NBA championship with San Antonio in 2003.


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