The Highlight Factory
If you don’t know much about Dominique Wilkins because of how he was overlooked during the Bird/Magic/MJ ’80s, it’s time to study up.
by DeMarco Williams / @demarcowill
I have a confession to make: I’m not the die-hard Atlanta sports fan I paint myself out to be. I’m a fraud. When I had a chance to represent for the most important figure in the history of Atlanta sports not named Hank Aaron, I dropped the ball.
It was September 8, 2006. Dominique Wilkins was finally being inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA, after being thoroughly screwed by voters in his first year of eligibility.
I was working in Connecticut, less than 40 minutes from the ceremony. But instead of gassing the whip and heading up I-91 North, I chilled at my apartment and ordered pizza. At that moment, it didn’t really bother me. I was just happy my childhood idol was getting his due. I figured I’d see him in person to congratulate him one day.
The next day, I regretted the decision. My sports icon, the man I wanted to emulate so badly that I took up his trademark pigeon-toed walk, received the highest individual honor for 16 years of NBA service and I couldn’t give him a 40-minute drive.
I’m a fraud.
At least I’m owning up to my folly. My colleagues in sports media, however, still haven’t apologized. For decades now, they’ve lazily discounted Dominique as this circus-like high-wire act who only dazzled when he was dunking. Such inaccurate labeling, purposefully or not, is the biggest reason why folks under 25 only know No. 21 for tomahawk slams—if they know him at all.
Kids, understand one thing: You can’t score 26,668 points strictly off dunks. Just ask Harold Miner and Fred Jones. It takes a well-rounded game, consistency and tenacity.
Nique brought these qualities to the wood every night. I saw it when I went to the Omni for a game. I peeped it when I watched the Hawks on TV at home. I would have heard it in his acceptance speech had I not been such a bum.
The son of a military man, Jacques Dominique Wilkins was born in Paris, France, on January 12, 1960. Nique’s dad moved the family around a few places in the States before settling in Washington, NC, a quiet
waterfront town less than two hours from Raleigh. It was there that a teenage Nique and his younger brother, Gerald, nurtured their love of hoops.
“I am the only man on the planet to broadcast Dominique in high school, college and the pros,” insists Bob Rathbun, longtime SportsSouth play-by-play announcer and Salisbury, NC, native. “One of those early years when we all came together as a [unified] state [tournament], the team that I was broadcasting on the radio, Salisbury High School, ended up playing Washington, a team featuring Dominique Wilkins and all of his first cousins. They beat us like a drum. Nique, he just blew us out of the water.”
He blew more people out of the water than an orca in his senior year of high school, when he averaged 30 ppg and 17 rpg. It was then, in fact, that the nickname “The Human Highlight Film” was bestowed on him by Five-Star legend Howard Garfinkel. After graduating, Wilkins would continue to drop jaws at the University of Georgia.
There were lots of thunderous two-handed jams in Athens, sure. But there were nearly as many sweet finger rolls. The problem was that there weren’t a lot of wins. Accumulating a modest 52-37 record during his three-year run, Wilkins’ Bulldogs never made a single NCAA Tournament. Despite that, the Utah Jazz drafted the 6-7 wing No. 3 overall in June of 1982 before trading him in September to the Atlanta Hawks.
Early on, Wilkins’ style was hard to put to words because no one had ever seen anything quite like him. Acrobatic. Awe-inspiring. Slightly awkward—none did his game justice. You know how LeBron James revs up at the top of the key with a few imposing dribbles before taking off? Well, Nique was doing that before the King could dribble. Poor defenders didn’t know if he was going to change speeds and pull up for a 15-footer, work his way in a little closer for a kiss off the backboard or keep going to the hole for a quick poster. His arsenal was just that diverse.
“Every year,” Wilkins tells us, “I’d take a tape of my favorite player or a great player and take one thing he did great and practice it over and over again, so it became my move. Like Earl ‘The Pearl’ Monroe, I got his spin move. Look at Bob Love, the way he shoots a jumpshot. How Dr. J ran the break. There were different things I put in my game.”
Nique not only averaged 24.8 points a game for his career, which is good for 14th best in League history, but the nine-time All-Star also had 11 straight seasons where he averaged over 20. He tallied seven games where he dropped over 50. For every game where Wilkins scored 26 off a menagerie of SportsCenter-quality plays in the paint, there’d be a 40-point game where he didn’t dunk once.
“The one thing I always say is that every night you could see something different from him,” says Steve Holman, the radio voice of the Hawks for the past 28 seasons. “Every night you’d say I’m glad I went to the game to see what he did. He would make crazy dunks, and it wouldn’t be for showboating. It would be in the flow of the game. He did things routinely in games that you only see in contests now.”
Whenever you get some free time, go to YouTube and search Nique’s name. Though the “Dominique Wilkins’ 10 Greatest Slams” or “Dominique Wilkins vs. Michael Jordan: 1988 Slam Dunk Contest” clips are fun as hell, you’ll want to seek out the footage of Game 7 of the 1988 Eastern Conference semifinals between Nique’s Hawks and Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics. That was the real Nique.
If it weren’t enough that it was a decisive game at fabled Boston Garden, Bird stirred the pre-game pot by pulling a Joe Namath, guaranteeing a win. The Hawks franchise hadn’t sniffed the NBA Finals since Bob Pettit’s St. Louis squad’s last visit in 1961. So, even though this wasn’t the Championship—Atlanta was embarrassed by Detroit in a five-game semifinals series the year prior—Wilkins’ crew had a sense of urgency about it.
From the opening tip, the small forward was electric, giving fans in the Garden—and 10-year-olds glued to their RCA televisions in their Atlanta living rooms—a dizzying array of two-step jumpers and high-glass floaters. But for every acrobatic shot he took, Bird answered. It was Leonard vs. Hearns and Superman vs Batman all rolled into one of the top-five non-Finals Playoff games ever played. Nique ended up with 47. Bird got 34 and the win.
In 57 career regular-season and post-season contests against Larry Legend, Wilkins averaged 25.8 points while Bird got 25.4. Over 48 encounters with Jordan, Nique didn’t flinch either, dropping 29.9 to MJ’s 32.9. Versus the L.A. Lakers’ Worthy? He averaged 24.4. Head-to-head with Portland’s Clyde Drexler? He scored 27.8. Name the All-Star and I bet the Hawks forward gave him a handful every time they battled.
“They motivated me to play at the top of my game,” the 53-year-old says about the nightly battles during the NBA’s golden ’80s. “I didn’t have a second or third guy to depend on. I had some good players, but I didn’t have another great player in their prime to play with.”
Try as they might, the likes of Kevin Willis and Doc Rivers could only do so much to stop double teams of Dominique. Hey, at least they kept triple teams away—sometimes.
The Pistons even unleashed Dennis Rodman on him. “He concentrated on rebounding and defense,” Nique says of the Bad Boy who did a good job defending him. “And he was strong. He was quick and he could move his feet.” Never one to concede too much to his opponent, however, Wilkins adds, “I mean, I still got my 25 or 30, sometimes more—but it was a hard 25 or 30.”
The trophy-hogging Pistons, Bulls and Celtics weren’t merely the three reasons the Hawks never made the NBA Finals; they’re also why half the folks reading this only know Dominique for winning two Slam Dunk titles. There simply wasn’t enough stage to go around. But when the topic of playing in such a competitive era comes up, Nique shrugs that he has no regrets about playing when he did: “No, not at all. There’s a time and place for everything. We had our time. I wouldn’t trade that era for nothing in the world.”
While Nique won’t voice his frustrations for being criminally overlooked as a first-ballot Hall of Famer or one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players, others come to his defense.
“It’s very disappointing to me as his teammate and friend that they left him off that list,” says Willis, Wilkins’ right-hand man at power forward on the Atlanta roster for 10 seasons. For the record, SLAM ranked Wilkins No. 43 on its list of the 500 greatest players in NBA history. “There were guys on the [NBA’s] list that should not be there before Dominique.”
“He brought people out of their seat in pretty much whatever gym he played in,” adds Damien Wilkins, Dominique’s nephew and nine-year NBA vet. “The things he was able to do above the rim were amazing. He’s rare. He wasn’t a shooter. He was a scorer. He wasn’t a playmaker; he just made plays.”
The fact that Dominique’s name sits atop the Hawks’ all-time scoring list and in the top five for rebounds, steals and made three-pointers speaks to his versatility as well. But so, too, do his current jobs as the Hawks’ VP of Basketball and one-half of the SportsSouth broadcasting team.
Now in his sixth year on the air, Wilkins consistently gives an NBA vet’s honest take on the action. “Being a Hall of Famer, his viewpoint is appreciated,” Rathbun, his in-booth partner, says. “People listen to him for his insights, because he’s played it. He’s lived it. He knows what he’s talking about. But also, he has such a love of the game and this franchise that sort of, not overshadows, but just beams through.”
In pre-game production meetings, Wilkins is attentive, only chiming in when he feels it’ll add something. After the pow wow, he walks toward the Philips Arena floor, still as pigeon-toed as ever. During his trek, two or three fans stop him for pictures and autographs. He happily obliges. He talks to the home security officers and opposing team’s players. But when one of his SportsSouth producers calls for him to get mic’d up, he doesn’t miss a beat, abruptly ending his convo and hightailing it over to his courtside chair.
“I prepared myself for life after basketball three or four years before I retired,” says Nique, who also spends a great deal of time these days raising awareness of diabetes. “I’ve always been a people’s person. I’ve always been an outspoken guy. So, transitioning to television was easy.”
Atlanta sports fans’ apathy can be sickening. They not only miss Hall of Fame inductions, but they skip out on important sports moments in their own city, too. On November 20, Josh Smith played to a half-empty Philips Arena for the first time since signing with the Detroit Pistons this past offseason.
Smith, an Atlanta native who often channeled Nique’s above-the-rim antics over his nine years with the Hawks, got one of the weakest first-game-back ovations you’ll ever witness for an All-Star caliber player.
Wilkins vividly remembers his first game back in Atlanta after being traded to the L.A. Clippers for Danny Manning in 1994. “I had 4 points at halftime,” he recounts. “At halftime, I said, Somebody gonna get it. I made my first two or three shots [in the third quarter]. Then, I had a couple of drives. Then I got to the free-throw line. Then, I went haywire after that. I scored 34 in the second half.”
It’s moments like that that made Dominique Wilkins special. On more occasions than you can count, Nique sparked a crowd and left announcers flipping through their thesauruses in search of adjectives. He gave the NBA, and the city of Atlanta, all that he had every night.
“He needs to have a statue outside [Philips Arena],” declares Willis. “If it wasn’t for Dominique, this franchise would be nowhere near where it is right now. You got a statue of [Michael] Jordan [in front of his home arena]. You’ve got a statue of Magic [Johnson]. You’ve got a statue of Julius [Erving]. Nique should have a statue.”
When Wilkins hears of Willis’ quote, he pauses. Some of the delay is because a lurking fan wants to have a jersey signed. But another reason for the stall is so he can carefully pick his words.
“It’s coming,” Nique says. “With my love for this city and my love for this team, it’ll come soon.”
Whatever the date, that’s one ceremony I’ll make the drive for.