While looking back at legendary NBA teams from the 1980’s you can’t overlook the legendary Atlanta Hawks squad led by superstar forward Dominique Wilkins. But it wouldn’t be fair to forget all of the small ‘pieces of the puzzle’ that particular team was made from.
That team’s depth chart was packed on each and every position – frontcourt featured Tree Rollins, and Jon Koncak later joined by Moses Malone. At forward positions, Wilkins and Kevin Willis created havoc, while being backed-up by two quality imports from Wichita State – Antoine Carr and Cliff Levingston.
Hawks were particularly prolific in the backcourt where All-Star Doc Rivers, right before the 1985/86 seasons, got a pair of new and exciting teammates in rookies Spud Webb and John Battle (Rutgers University). The two would eventually become one of the best back-up backcourts in the 1980s NBA.
While Rivers would become an All-Star in 1988, the quiet guy who would back him up off the bench, who would let his game speak for itself, was – John Battle.
Although he didn’t start any games in his 1985/86 rookie campaign 6’2″ Battle would patiently wait for his chance. Already in the next season, Hawks’ strategist at the time, head coach Mike Fratello, would use Battle as Hawks’ starting shooting guard as many as eight times.
Battle’s most productive season so far came in 1987/88 when he averaged 10.6 points in 18.3 minutes per outing. Being a constant scoring threat, he would match his season and career-high – 27 points – for unbelievable three times during a 26-day stretch in December 1987. (vs. Nets, Jazz, Knicks).
It was that Battle, ready to go to the battle night in and night out of the Hawks’ bench, whom Kobe Bryant vividly recalled as one of his 1980s heroes in the 2018 documentary ‘Kobe Bryant’s Muse’.
My father told me, ‘Watch this. See this guy? This is how you can make use of your left hand. “It was John Battle, dribbling left and laying it in.”
On December 19th, 1987, Battle, who was nicknamed ‘Cricket’ by his teammates, came off the bench vs. traveling Utah Jazz squad and torched them with 27 points on 9-16 shooting.
Matched up with Utah’s Darrell Griffith, shooting guard of a similar size, 6’2″ Battle would go on to exploit his offensive specialty – mid-range jumper. That night, no one could check him, only foul him, so he would eventually end up shooting as many as 11 free-throws and hitting 8 of those attempts.
One of the definite highlights of Battle’s career came in the last second of the regulation when Spud Webb passed him the rock into the left corner. Battle went up and launched a shot over Rickey Green, hitting a swishing three-pointer at the buzzer to tie up the game at 118 and force overtime. The Hawks subsequently stormed to a 124:130 W in Atlanta’s OMNI Arena.
Although experienced Battle logged a career-high 48 starts for the 1989/90 Hawks, his career year came a year later. During the 1990/91 campaign, he averaged career-best 13.6 points, 2.0 boards, and 2.7 dimes while hitting .854 beyond the charity stripe.
In the summer of 1991, the Hawks organization decided to focus on rebuilding while developing the promising backcourt of Rumeal Robinson and Stacy Augmon. Both Battle and Webb were released.
J.B. then signed with Cleveland as an unrestricted free agent, where from 1991 until 1995, he provided a spark for the contending Cavs squad, coached by the future Hall-of-fame coach Lenny Wilkens.
Battle ended his NBA career in 1995 with a total of 5338 points.