I’m tryin’ to see the forest but there’s this one tree –Reuben Studdard
In 1987, Curry Kirkpatrick, writing for Sports Illustrated, reflected on a memorable 1983 Hawks-Celtic Playoffs fight. Tree Rollins elbowed Danny Ainge; Danny made the mistake of tackling Tree; one tetanus shot and a permanently reduced ability to give anyone the finger later, the conflict passed into legend.
The Boston Herald ran a Tree Bites Man headline the following morning and although some fans chose to believe Danny bit Tree, Rollins’s reputation was set in stone.
Tree is no stranger to controversy. Leaving Clemson after four years of double-double season averages and joining the Atlanta Hawks, Tree found himself in the middle of a heated debate concerning high school / college athletes and generous (and by generous, I mean illegal) gifts bestowed by recruiting colleges.
Sports Illustrated (SI), in March of 1982, cited Rollins as admitting to accepting gifts and cash from Clemson outside of the NCAA guidelines. Their source for this information was a pre-publication copy of Taylor (Tates) Locke’s autobiography, Caught in the Net. Locke, head coach at Clemson when Rollins was recruited, left Clemson in 1975 after the NCAA charged the university with 40 rules violations and placed it on a 3-year probation, starting with the 1975-76 season.
The SI article, written by Rick Telander and titled Descent of a Man, details an elaborate, costly scheme to lure black athletes to the mostly white University:
Locke realized early on that if Clemson was going to be a basketball power, it had to woo quality black athletes. In the early ’70’s Clemson had a tiny black enrollment, and many people preferred to keep it that way. Because a congenial environment for blacks didn’t exist at Clemson, Locke decided to create one. He calls it “the era of the Phony Black Fraternity.”
Taking over an old Quonset hut on campus and converting it onto a lounge, Locke created a “fraternity.” When he wanted to impress a black recruit, he had peopled go in to surrounding communities and bring back as many black high school students as possible to populate the building. These were the fraternity “members.” Locke then hired bands and staged dances. When the recruit came, he would be surrounded by a facade of minority bliss on campus.
One of Locke’s major recruiting goals was a superlative big man who could dominate a game. He found him in 1972 – Wayne (Tree) Rollins, a 7’1” high school superstar from Cordele, Ga. [...] Locke put his most intensive “program” yet on Rollins and soon had the young man enrolled. One of the most startling sections of Locke’s manuscript is the chapter quoting Rollins, now a center for the Atlanta Hawks, on the cash benefits of his college career.
Rollins denied the allegations in an interview with The Columbia State, a South Carolina newspaper:
That didn’t happen … That guy [Rick Telander] called me in Chicago Sunday and asked me about the stuff in the book. I told him it didn’t happen. He told me he was going to write the story anyway. He said he was using Locke’s book as a basis. I said, “Well, I guess there’s not much I can do about it.” (Source: The New York Times, March 5, 1982)
The temptation for Locke to include this material in his book and for Telander in his article would be fierce. If Rollins is part of the charade, all the better for Locke. Rick Telander called Rollins’s alleged admissions “startling,” a perfect word for the idea of young, gifted black athletes deceived and used by the institution they eventually represented on and off the court. Caught between poverty and dreams, one can only imagine the young Tree learning quickly that rules are made to be broken; if you have talent, rules don’t apply; adults are two-faced; every baller for himself.
Growing up in Cordele, Ga., he was the fourth youngest boy, and so wore the family hand-me-downs. But he grew so fast that he couldn’t get his feet properly into the shoes. In the summer before his sophomore year in high school, he grew from 6-1 to 6-5, his shoe size went from 9 to 12. ”And the biggest shoes my brothers had was 10,” Rollins said. The result is that he suffers from ”hammer toes.” He now wears size 17 shoes, but next year expects to wear size 18. ”I’ll get my toes operated on after the season [1986-1987],” he said. ”And that should lengthen my feet.”
Hammer toes can be hereditary or they can be caused by another inherited condition – poverty.
Even in high school, a time when he should have been playing ball and hanging out with his friends, Tree was exposed to ugliness:
Loyalty has always been important to Rollins. He was forced to leave Clarke High School in Cordele when it closed in favor of integration. When social unrest reared its ugly head at Crisp County High School after his sophomore season, he considered quitting basketball in support of his race. He wanted to leave for another school, but was talked out of it by his coach, Bub Denham.
It’s no wonder Tree’s remarkable basketball career consistently generated rumors of excessive elbowing, arguments and elements of paranoia. Legendary Celtics announcer Johnny Most, in the Mike Carey biography High Above Courtside, recalls this encounter:
Most: I remember the night M.L. [Carr] challenged Atlanta’s seven-foot center, Tree Rollins, to a fight during the game and then waited for a half-hour after the game in the hallway to challenge him again. (Rollins claimed M.L. was brandishing a straight razor; M.L. told me he was merely holding a set of car keys.)
According to the NY Times (April 2, 1982), Tree reported the razor incident to the NBA office; Carr received a letter of reprimand from the league. Tree, unhappy with the league’s handling of the incident, filed suit in Atlanta Superior Court charing Carr with “verbally” and “physically” abusing him during some 40 NBA games. The suit, which named the Celtics and Carr, sought:
. . . a total of $4 million dollars in damages. Steve Kauffman, Rollins agent, said the league investigated Rollins’s charges but, because of conflicting opinions on whether Carr had a weapon during the incident, decided not to pursue the matter. Red Auerbach called the suit “one of the most ludicrous things in the history of sports.” (Source: The New York Times, July 20, 1982)
I guess he missed the Clemson circus.
Earlier that same year, Tree and two Philadelphia 76ers, guard Lionel Hollins and center Darryl Dawkins:
. . . were fined $5,500 by the National Basketball Association for excessive violence in the first-round playoff game between the teams last Friday in Atlanta. Rollins drew the largest fine, $2,500, for his third elbowing infraction of the season. Hollins was fined $2,000 for punching Rollins in the head as retaliation. Rollins was restrained by other players from continuing the scuffle. (Source: The New York Times April 28, 1982)
Two years earlier, in 1980:
NBA Commissioner Larry O’Brien fined Boston’s Dave Cowens $2,500 and Atlanta’s Wayne (Tree) Rollins $1,500 yesterday for fighting during a game at the Boston Garden last Friday. (Source: The Washington Post, January 17, 1980)
Henry Abbot of TrueHoop documents a story which could not have helped Tree’s view of people in general and the basketball world in particular:
Steve Kauffman [Tree’s agent] recounts the following anecdote about a cold night in Philadelphia with his client Wayne “Tree” Rollins (who is now coaching the Washington Mystics):
This takes me back to a night, it must have been during the 1979-80 season, after a Hawks/Sixers game in Philadelphia. Back in those days everyone flew commercial, so the Hawks spent the night in the city after the game instead of just leaving immediately. Tree Rollins and I went to a club at 17th and Locust. It was famous for backgammon — there were backgammon tables everywhere — which gives you a sense that the place wasn’t exactly risky.
I saw Tree coming out of the bathroom, and he looked like he had almost turned white. He looked sick, terrified. He was about 23, or 24 at the time. A young guy. He showed me a piece of paper with a name and phone number scribbled on it. He was freaked out, and he was saying we had to go outside immediately.
Once we got outside, he told me what happened in the bathroom. Tree had some minor injury at the time, and Hawks had a game coming up against New Jersey, I think. There was a guy in the bathroom, who seemed like a fan. He was asking Tree: “Hey are you feeling OK? How’s your injury? You going to be able to play tomorrow?”
Then he kept asking. More questions, like “How is Danny Roundfield playing? Everything OK with him?”
Then finally he said “Would you like to make some extra money?”
Then Tree kind of freaked out, but managed to mumble something.
The guy said here’s my number, call me tonight, call me tomorrow and we’ll talk.
When Tree told me all this, at that point it was so drilled into me what we were supposed to do. The head of the NBA’s security was Horace Balmer. You didn’t mess around with this kind of stuff. You went straight to Horace, and he made sure that we all knew how to reach him around the clock. I always had his phone numbers on me.
This was about midnight. I’m almost sure I called Horace at home. I told him what happened and he said he’d take care of it.
Horace never told us another thing about it, but we learned later that the guy was some low-level bookie from Northeast Philadelphia who was arrested the next day.
Three or four minutes on the phone with Horace and that was it. Problem solved.
By 1983, the young Tree was forced to process racial discrimination, fantasy recruiting, the balance between an aggressive win and sportsmanship, and bathroom bookies.
One thing about negative experiences; they cause the positive ones to shine even brighter. In Tree’s life, Jim Phillips, the voice of the Clemson Tigers, was such a beacon. When Jim published his autobiography, Jim Phillips: Still Roaring, Tree wrote the forward:
Jim was one of the first people I met when I arrived at Clemson, and he kind of took me under his wing, with me being a shy country guy and not knowing what I was doing. . . He helped me along and really taught me how to become a young man, and obviously a pretty good basketball player.
Jim was the one person standing out there on the court with me during the ceremony when my jersey was retired at Clemson, making me the first athlete whose number the school retired. . . He more or less took all the guys in that athletic facility under his wing and really helped them along, whether it was a question about family life or love life . . . He was always there to give you the correct answer, and an answer that you could hold to your heart. I really loved that one thing about him He didn’t always tell you what you wanted to hear. He told you what was right, and what you should be doing to become a better person. And athletics wasn’t the main thing.
. . . My first couple of years under coach Tates Locke I was always over at the athletic center. Every day you rant into Jim; and every day he had a good word for you. Even when you had gotten down, or blown out by North Carolina, he was always there to pick you up. I loved that most about him . . .
Just sitting here talking about him, I can still see him sitting there with that great voice and a smile on his face and having a great time, I’m sure he’s doing that right now. Just having a great time and making everybody else feel comfortable.
In the fall of 1988, Cleveland welcomed Tree with a two-year contract. Tree packed a suitcase crammed full of eleven years NBA experience. Averaging seven points and 7.4 rebounds per game in the Georgia humidity, his 2,283 career blocked shots ranked him second in NBA history behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (3,104).
Two years and a gazillion blocks later, Detroit, Houston and Orlando came calling.
In a profession where 3-years-and-you’re-injured-and-on-your-way-out is commonplace, Tree put down roots, staying with the NBA for 18 years. Maturing as a player and a person, Tree branched out [Editor's note: had to be said] to player/coach, assistant coach, and now head coach for the WNBA Washington Mystics.
During his tenure as Wizards’ assistant coach, The Washington Times interviewed Rollins about his early years in the NBA. Playing with the Atlanta Hawks under coach Mike Fratello, Tree spoke of the ridiculous memory of Fratello, whose head came to the bottom of Tree’s chest, trying to teach a big man how to block shots:
I’m thinking to myself, “Mike, how many shots have you blocked in your career?”
Former New York Knicks superstar Willis Reed, one of Fratello’s assistants, took over the lesson, and Tree’s attitude changed:
We had so much respect for him. The other big men on the team were willing to go out and try different things whenever Big Willis told us to. More so than Mike. It wasn’t that Mike didn’t know how to teach the blocked shot. He just hadn’t been in the trenches out there on the court. Willis had. That made all the difference in the world. (Source: The Washington Times, October 15, 1999)
Now Tree is Willis:
Guard Rod Strickland. . . “they’ve [assistant coaches, including Tree] been through it during the good times, the bad times, the stressful times . . . you have to respect what they say.”
Often when players don’t want to listen to what the coach has to say, they just tune him out. [Butch] Beard, a former head coach of the New Jersey Nets, thinks the Wizards’ staff has an answer for that if it starts to happen. He calls it trust.
One thing we’ve been trying to do since the start of training camp is build trust. Once we learn to trust each other, then we can win some games. (Source: The Washington Times, October 15, 1999)
Tree carries that legacy forward as a basketball elder and member of the National Basketball Retired Players Association :
. . . I think about what the older guys went through. I tell my kids now that our games were tape delayed and that we had to carry the shot clocks ourselves. Once you go through that as a player, I think you owe it to join the retired players association, because it just makes the whole foundation of basketball stronger. I communicate that to the active players and to all of the players coming after this generation. Little things like that just paved the way for these guys. –Tree Rollins
So why is Tree’s story worth hearing? His journey from poverty to the NBA is not unique among black athletes. His 18-year tenure is, however, extraordinary.
Tree learned to walk the fine line between playing your heart out and killing the enemy; loyalty and deception; bullying and coaching; being the center of attention and being a mentor/role model for a new generation.
Our Sports Central, writing about Tree after his appointment as D-League Greenville Groove coach, summed it up this way:
He is loyal. He is selfless. One can only hope that his values rub off on his players.
That’s the nice thing about Trees. They bloom and wither and bloom again; they’re easily transplanted and, as Shel Silverstein pointed out so eloquently, “giving.”
Tree gives us stability –Former Wizards Coach Mike Fratello (Source: United Press International April 20, 1988)
What’s in my mouth is mine. –Tree Rollins
My [high school] team wasn’t very good. I was our best scorer. That’s how bad we were. My coach would always be yelling at me, ”Shoot the ball! Shoot the ball!” I never thought my shooting ability could help us win. So I usually made a perfect pass to a teammate, who would shoot and miss. –Tree Rollins (Source: Copley News Service March 03, 1997)
A 20-foot jumper is not a shot one would expect from a 7-foot-1-inch center. Yet that was the shot that beat the Knicks last night at Madison Square Garden. With one second remaining, Wayne (Tree) Rollins of the Atlanta Hawks hit the shot for a 97-95 victory. (Source: The New York Times, January 22, 1984)
In a league that celebrates youth, meet the graybeards of the NBA, or, as ESPN fondly dubbed these ’50s-born pivotmen, “the old men in the C.”
The senior citizens of hoops: Bill “Teach” Cartwright of Seattle, Moses Malone of San Antonio, Tree “Grandpa” Rollins of Orlando, Robert “Chief” Parish of Charlotte and James Edwards of Portland. Much has changed since they stepped into the league in the ’70s. Drugs are out, trash-talking is in. Michael and Magic and Larry have come and gone. But these old-timers are testament to commodities that never go out of style: 7-footers and experience. (Source: USA Today, October 18, 1994)
On the playground of Cordele back in ninth grade, Tree was just thrown at me because I was blessed with being tall and skinny – real skinny, you’re talking skinny with an afro. They had just refurbished the playground with new trees, and when you put out new trees in the springtime, they’re bushy at the top and very skinny in the middle. –Tree Rollins
At 7’1″ and famous for his shot blocking rebounding abilities , Tree became known in the NBA as the “The Intimidator.”
I grew up a Hawks season ticket holder at the Omni. Aisle 116, about 15 rows up. AAF was my formative basketball experience; Tree Rollins and Kevin Willis my basketball Yetis. –JE Skeets
Alana Beard, Washington Mystics, calls Tree “a big teddy bear.”
- Averaged double/doubles four straight seasons at Clemson
- Helped his teams reached the playoffs 15 times during his 18 years in the NBA.
- Starting in his rookie season in 1977-1978 he placed third among all NBA players in blocked shots 3 straight seasons, then 2nd for two years in-a-row, was first in 1982-1983 with 343 blocked shots, then 2nd, 5th and 8th in 1985-1986.
- Blocked an amazing 2,542 shots in 1156 regular season games, and 134 shots in 93 playoff games.
- Blocked eight shots in a half for Atlanta against Cleveland on March 29, 1983, setting the record recently matched by Josh Smith.
- At the time of his retirement in 1995, he was fourth all-time in career blocked shots, behind only Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Mark Eaton.
- 6,750 career rebounds
- In 15 of 18 seasons his team advanced to the playoffs
Clemson Hall of Fame (1987)
Crisp County High School retired Tree’s number 30 jersey in February of 2008. Tickets at the door were $6 for all ages.
Georgia Sports Hall of Fame (2007)
Tree recently began speaking out about Diabetes awareness
President and General Manager Kentucky Colonels, Louisville, KY (ABA, 2004)