Talking about himself is among Randy Wittman’s least favorite activities. Asked about his coaching or influence, he deflects credit and stresses his gig is preparation. The players need to be filled with understanding before the game starts in order not to be surprised, he’ll explain. Even stories about his playing past are hard to extract from the Washington Wizards’ coach. He played six seasons for the Atlanta Hawks and 10 total in the NBA, with his time in Atlanta the peak of his professional work on the floor. He’s largely avoided nostalgia during the Wizards’ Eastern Conference semifinals series against the Hawks, which Atlanta leads 3-2 after Al Horford’s Game 5 stickback.
“[Atlanta] was my first stop,” Wittman said. “Special just because of that fact alone. Played with a lot of good people. Still very close to a lot of those players. That was a special group.”
An odd confluence Wittman didn’t know about for years landed him in Atlanta, changing his life and the fate of the Hawks. Wittman finished his college career at Indiana hopeful that was where he would stay. He grew up in Indianapolis, played for the Hoosiers, and the Indiana Pacers had a need in the 1983 draft for a shooting guard, which Wittman was. Indiana picked 23rd overall, and, as a second-team All-American, Wittman’s chances of being selected in the back end of the first round were high.
What he didn’t know at the time were other parts were moving because of political aspirations, an accommodating owner and an equal need in Atlanta for someone who could shoot the ball. The Hawks wanted a player to spread the floor next to dynamic Dominique Wilkins, traded for as a rookie a year earlier, and Doc Rivers, a non-shooting, defense-first point guard drafted in the second round in 1983.
“Randy was as good a jump shooter as I have ever had in my career, as a spot-up jump shooter,” then-Hawks general manager Stan Kasten recently said. “He was very mature, he was a fifth-year senior. Everyone raved about him as a teammate. Randy was just a perfect fit for us.”
The problem for the Hawks was that they did not have a first-round pick in 1983. Former Maryland star Tom McMillen provided them a mutually beneficial out and inadvertently became one of the most influential people in the arc of Wittman’s life.
McMillen estimates he went to then-Hawks owner Ted Turner about a year before the 1983 draft. He had bought a house in Anne Arundel County a year or two prior with the intent of moving back to Maryland and running for Congress. His fame as the top high school recruit in the country who became a U.S. Olympian while at Maryland, plus ownership of a perfect swath of politician hair, made McMillen’s move to politics natural. He knew the end of his NBA career was coming, so he explained to Turner that he enjoyed Atlanta, but was hopeful to be sent to D.C. The move would allow him to begin the groundwork for a run at Congress. McMillen expected his suggestion to be unfulfilled.
As the 1983 draft had ticked along, then nine rounds and unsophisticated, the Pacers’ pick came closer and closer. Small forward Roy Hinson was picked 20th. Center Greg Kite followed at 21. The Bullets were up and most figured they would have no need for a shooting guard. The Pacers were next.
Wittman was surprisingly selected by the Bullets one slot before the Pacers had a chance to consider him. Instead, the Pacers ended up selecting Mitchell Wiggins. Most NBA people have heard of his son, Andrew, the Minnesota Timberwolves swingman recently named the rookie of the year.
Seven days later, the trade McMillen had asked for was official.
News of the trade was sent across the Atlantic via Telex and reached McMillen at Oxford University. As a former Rhodes Scholar, McMillen was in attendance for the 80-year celebration of the scholarship’s existence. Queen Elizabeth II joined the more than 1,400 scholarship recipients and their plus-ones. For McMillen, the message delivered by the part typewriter, part printer Telex machine — that the Hawks had traded him to the Washington Bullets — was surprise and achievement. Turner and Kasten had made it happen.
“Ted, that’s the kind of owner he was,” McMillen said Monday. “I never thought it would happen, but he made it happen.”
Wittman walked off a plane, then was delivered the news by his parents. He was not going to remain with Washington after all. He had to pack up for Atlanta. He and Rivers would shortly be off to summer league in San Diego.
“I know they were disappointed for a little while, but I think Randy came to really love his time in Atlanta,” Kasten said. “I know that because I spent a lot of time over the years talking about. And his family loved Atlanta. I got to know his mom and dad, who came down a lot. His dad always wore his red cap because it was the same one he could wear for the Hawks and Indiana.”
The following year, Atlanta drafted power forward Kevin Willis. During three drafts, it assembled four of its starting five players for a handful of years to come. Rivers had to be molded into a point guard. Wittman, as Kasten explained, could shoot. Wilkins was a stunning combination of force and athleticism who would rival Michael Jordan in each department. Willis was jump-hook shooting bull with swelling biceps above his elbow sleeves. His stern face completed the menace.
Mike Fratello coached the group. He ran plays for Wittman, a mid-range jump shooter who rarely drove, did not have 3-point range and was not a good defender. What Wittman could do, though, he was very effective at. He finished his NBA career with a 50.1 shooting percentage. To survive in the NBA, he had to understand how to use screens properly to get his looks. His game relied on knowing angles, tendencies and what was a good shot for him. He was a match next to Rivers. Even by today’s standards, Rivers, at 6-foot-4, and Wittman, at 6-foot-6, would be a large backcourt.
“I told our general manager and president that this was going to be our backcourt for years to come,” Fratello said. “They were great complements for each other.”
The Hawks became challengers in the Eastern Conference. After two seasons to develop the young players, Atlanta won at least 50 games for four consecutive seasons. The personal pinnacle for Wittman may have been Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in the Boston Garden in 1988.
Atlanta was in a tussle with the mighty Celtics. The Hawks could not close out Boston at home when up 3-2. So, it was back to the steaming Garden and its screwed-together hardwood, boozy fans and more than a dozen NBA championship banners. Wilkins and Larry Bird, neither pictured in a defensive crouch at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, scored 47 and 34 points, respectively. Wittman had an exceptional night, going 11-for-13 from the field and scoring 22 points. The Hawks lost, 118-116. It was Wittman’s last game as part of the franchise.
“That was just a great series,” Wittman said. “Not so much the game. And, we don’t win, that’s the main thing. It was a back-and-forth series. We had an opportunity to close them out. We win Game 5 in the Garden and lose Game 6 at home to win it, by two points. Then go to the Garden, I don’t think either team led by more than four or five points the whole game. It was back and forth and those two legends obviously done what they did. It was a good highlight for me. I played well in that game.
“But, I guess not well enough for Fratello. If you guys know Fratello, tell him I’m still pissed.”
Wittman was kidding, but the Hawks did make a change that altered his career. They traded Wittman to Sacramento for Reggie Theus, a more athletic shooting guard with a prim mustache who was putting together quality seasons for the Kings. The Hawks also acquired free agent Moses Malone. After years of regular-season success followed by playoff stalls, the Hawks decided to reach for something more in 1989.
“We had a terrific season even though we lost Kevin Willis for the whole year,” Kasten said. “We got upset in the first round. We did have a terrific year. After the trade for Reggie and [acquiring] Moses, we were fashionable. Sports Illustrated picked us to win it all.
“It was us going for it. Trying to get the final pieces to make a run at the championship. I can’t say the year worked out. For a lot of reasons, the year just didn’t work out.”
Only McMillen ended up making out in the end. After being moved to Sacramento, Wittman was traded midseason to his hometown Pacers, but never had success similar to his time in Atlanta. He would retire in 1992 after the Pacers waived him. Theus was snatched by the Orlando Magic in the expansion draft after one season with Atlanta. McMillen played three seasons with the Bullets as a reserve. Before his final season, he announced his intent to run for Congress. Four years after arriving in D.C., he entered the House of Representatives.
“I think I was the only candidate running for elected office running while they were still an athlete,” McMillen said. “Turner and Stan made all that happen.”
Wittman hugs longtime employees at Philips Arena, where the Hawks play. Fratello sent him a text before the playoffs began. Kasten said he has stayed in touch. McMillen said he has joked with Wittman about the deal.
For Wittman, he simply says he wasn’t into politics then, and he’s still not.