On Jan. 29, the day after losing All-Star forward Dominique Wilkins to a season-ending injury, Atlanta Hawks coach Bob Weiss did his best to ease the anxiety of Duane Ferrell, the Baltimore native who would replace Wilkins in the starting lineup.
In three NBA seasons as a lightly played reserve, Ferrell had such a low recognition quotient outside Atlanta, where he also played collegiately at Georgia Tech, that his name often was mispronounced by public address announcers.
Said Weiss, "Just go out there and play like Furr-ell, Farr-ell or Ferr-ell, or whatever your name is."
It made the Calvert Hall graduate relax, and in seven games as a starter, Ferrell has averaged 14.4 points, more than triple his career NBA average.
Ferrell, who returns home today to face the Washington Bullets in a 1 p.m. game at the Baltimore Arena, seems to know he will never replace Wilkins, who rates among the top scorers in the league.
But just getting a chance to start is a big accomplishment for Ferrell, who has been waived and re-signed by the Hawks five times since 1988. Ferrell even spent part of the 1989-90 season playing for the Topeka Sizzlers in the Continental Basketball Association, where he improved his offensive skills, averaging 24.3 points.
He said his roller-coaster career has led him to think seriously of pursuing another profession and completing work toward his college degree in industrial management.
"Yes, there were times I was close to giving it up," he said. "But my friends and family always gave me strong support. That let me hang on to my dream, even when I was playing in the CBA for small crowds, and little pay. You just have to stay mentally tough and hope for a break."
Former Hawks coach Mike Fratello never was certain how to use him. At 6 feet 7, 220 pounds, Ferrell lacked the one-on-one skills to play small forward, a big-enough body to compete against power forwards and the outside shooting touch to play off-guard.
But Ferrell's stock rose after Weiss replaced Fratello in May 1990. Instead of dwelling on Ferrell's shortcomings, Weiss recognized his athleticism, ability to run the court and knack for converting loose balls or offensive rebounds into points.
Ferrell made the most of his talents last season to persuade the Hawks to sign him to a three-year deal in the fall of 1991.
"This is the first sense of security I've had in the NBA," Ferrell said. "If things had been the way they were before, I probably would have been cut in training camp in October after pulling a hamstring muscle. I missed the first 21 games this year, but I knew I already had a place on the team."
Ferrell said he is less fearful of being yanked for missing a few shots or committing a turnover.
"I'm much more relaxed playing for Bobby Weiss than I was with Fratello," he said. "Mike was a lot like [Indiana University's] Bobby Knight, a screamer and disciplinarian. Weiss is more laid-back, and as a former player, has more understanding of what it takes to play in this league."
The Hawks, a borderline playoff team, have struggled in Wilkins' absence, winning three of eight games with their revised lineup. But they have remained competitive.
"There was never a point where we said, 'Nique's not here, we're not supposed to win,' " Ferrell said. "We know we can still win if we stay together. Starting is something I still have to get used to. Coming off the bench, I was just expected to play a role. Now I have to be more of an offensive contributor. I can't be 'Nique. I just have to try and be consistent."
As general manager Stan Kasten said: "Losing 'Nique will probably hurt us as far as wins and losses this season, but we're in a rebuilding program, and this will give our young players like Ferrell, Robinson, Stacey Augmon, [Bubba] Graham and Rodney Monroe a chance to grow."
* The status of Bullets center Charles Jones, a reserve, remains uncertain. Jones missed the last two games of the team's Western trip. He traveled to Arkansas to be with his mother, who underwent major surgery.