As you may have noticed, today’s Old School Friday takes a two-pronged approach, honoring Charles Barkley and Dominique Wilkins as they are both inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend (along with Pistons guard Joe Dumars and several coaches).
While Barkley is widely recognized as maybe the greatest power forward of all time, Nique remains my favorite player, ever. I could write thousands and thousands of words trying to explain why I love Dominique, but instead I think I’ll just fall back on something I wrote in the spring of 2001.
When we were putting together the 50th issue of SLAM, we wanted to highlight the greatest players of the era that came along just before SLAM: Jordan, Bird and Magic were no-brainers, but we all also loved Dominique, whose high-flying game was really unprecedented. We all also agreed that Nique never really got the credit he deserved, so we decided to do something about. So I went down to Atlanta and spent a day with Dominique.
This is the feature I wrote on Dominique for SLAM 50…
Saying Dominique Wilkins did nothing but score is like saying Biggie Smalls did nothing but rap.
by Lang Whitaker
Today he strolls through the glass doors and into the office suite, and he needs no stick-on name tag. The two receptionists blush as he genially nods toward to them, and they promptly buzz him through the security door, into the very offices that he helped fortify with his multifarious offensive abilities.
The Human Highlight Film may only be available on videotape these days, but in many ways, Dominique Wilkins is the same as he ever was, his vibrant star wattage still constantly blinging. Sure, he’s a little thicker around the middle now that he’s 41 years old, which also explains the flecks of gray in his whiskers. And the perfectly shaped high-top fade with the off-center part is trimmed down now, though his feet still clomp along in that ungraceful pigeon-toed gait.
Loved by fans yet stigmatized by the press, respected by his peers but snubbed by the League, embraced by the Atlanta Hawks then contentiously kicked out the door, Dominique Wilkins’s entire professional life has been one big jigsaw puzzle, and some of the pieces are just now snapping into place. “Most of my career, a little more than half,” he will say, “I think about being in a Hawks uniform and living a life in Atlanta. But everything else to me was a journey, traveling to different places, not really knowing where I truly fit in.”
His inglorious swoon began in 1994, when the Hawks unceremoniously shipped their franchise player — the man who ranked eighth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list when he retired — to the L.A. Clippers. Following that trade, Dominique was forced to fit in on the fringes, signing for the minimum here, playing overseas there, coming off the bench on bad teams, until his career quietly faded from view.
I once thought that I hated Dominique Wilkins, but I was wrong. I just misunderstood. Growing up in the ATL, I witnessed most of Nique’s career firsthand. I saw the rise to fame, I saw the fame itself, and I saw the fall from grace. For all of the Hawks’s success during the ’80s, they were never able to make much post-season noise. It was easy to project that failure onto Dominique Wilkins, and, like the media, the League and the Hawks franchise itself, I often did just that.
But with my hindsight coming 20/20, I can see now that I was wrong. It wasn’t Nique’s fault that he was doing it by himself in Atlanta for so long, that he never had a Scottie or a Kareem or a Dantley to help him out. It wasn’t his fault that he was getting hated on by everyone from the League’s higher-ups to his own coaches. It wasn’t his fault that he was born to score and that he made the most out of that gift.
Things change, and like everyone else from Nique’s past has been doing lately, I recently found myself crawling back, down on my knees, asking Dominique for forgiveness. And Dominique accepted me with open arms. Turns out he just wanted to be loved all along.
Jacques Dominique Wilkins grew up in Baltimore, the son of American Army sergeant John Wilkins and his wife, Gertrude. When ‘Nique was 13, his father left the family, leaving his mother eight mouths to feed. Nique contributed the only way he could. “I used to play basketball against the older guys for money,” he admits. “They felt that since I was a young kid they would take all my money. That never happened.”
After Nique learned the nuances of the game from Baltimore playground legends like Ernest Graham and Skip Wise, the Wilkins crew relocated in the summer of ’76, this time installing in Washington, North Carolina. Dominique played for Washington HS, sprouting to a willowy 6-7 and winning two state championships while averaging 29 points and 16 rebounds per game his senior season.
He rambled down to the University of Georgia, where his vertical leap was measured at an obscene 47 inches. After three years, with totals of 21.6 ppg and 7.5 rpg under his belt, Nique went pro. He was snagged third overall by the Utah Jazz, and he managed to force an immediate trade back to the Dirty South, where he became the cornerstone of a struggling Atlanta Hawks franchise.
It took him a while to get his game straight, but by the ’85-86 season, he was one of the best. Dominique finished that year leading the NBA in scoring at 30.3 ppg, and with a backing cast of solid yet unspectacular ballers — including Kevin Willis, Tree Rollins, Doc Rivers, Randy Wittman, Antoine Carr and Spud Webb — the Hawks had the first of four straight fifty-win seasons.
Those four seasons, between ’85 and ’89, were perhaps the most transcendent stretch in Wilkins’ career. ‘Nique strung together four ridiculously fruitful seasons (averaging 30.3, 29.0, 30.7, 26.2 ppg), but the cream of the crop was the ’87-’88 campaign. We still remember Nique’s showdown with Michael Jordan that year in the Slam Dunk contest (“Let me tell you, the two contests I won were great, but that one in Chicago…I was inventin’ ways to go up.”). We remember Nique scoring 30 points in 29 minutes in the All-Star Game. And we will never forget Nique’s shootout with Larry Bird in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, when Nique hit 19-of-23 for 47 points, though Bird and his 34 points eked out a two-point win for the Celtics.
“I think that was probably the best game of my career,” Nique says now. “You had two guys who didn’t want to lose on opposite teams, and it was a shootout. Then you have a guy like Kevin McHale, who scored 34, 35 points in the same game, and people don’t talk about that. And we had a lot of guys doing good things in that game, like Randy Wittman, who scored 28 in that game for us.”
Though the Hawks were successful, they were also stuck in a rut of mediocrity. Dominique kept pouring on points, but the Hawks’ management couldn’t figure out how to fashion a big-time winner around him. Nique soldiered on, carrying the franchise by himself. Midway through the 91-92 campaign, perhaps overworked, Dominique tore his right achilles tendon, ending his season and threatening his career. The next season, he returned at 32 years old to average 29.9 ppg.
The ending began as it often does, with a coach pulling the strings. Before the ’93-94 season, the legendary Lenny Wilkens was brought in to run the show in Atlanta. Coach Lenny, with his trademark bland style, clashed frequently with his dapper forward.
The dueling duo was able to temporarily forge a peace accord, and the Hawks went into the All-Star Game with a 37-16 record, tops in the Eastern Conference. Then, days after Nique represented the Hawks in the All Star Game, the greatest player in Atlanta’s history was traded to the L.A. Clippers. For Danny Manning.
After the trade, Nique was openly critical of the Hawks’ management, particularly team president Stan Kasten and general manager Pete Babcock, saying, “It’s the most senseless trade I can imagine…I’m still a little sour.”
As it turned out, ‘Nique was a victim of his own success in Atlanta. Though he had escorted the franchise from the basement to the penthouse, he couldn’t keep it lifted, not high enough, not by himself. Entire schools of thought developed trying to rationalize why Dominique couldn’t get the Hawks over that hump.
The most common knock was that all Dominique Wilkins cared about was scoring, which, translated roughly, suggests that Dominique didn’t care about his teammates. His career assist numbers seem to bear this out: As a Hawk, ‘Nique averaged 2.6 assists per game, considerably less than Bird’s career average of 6.3 apg or even Michael Jordan’s 5.4 apg.
Nique, however, doesn’t agree with that logic. “If that was true,” he responds, “there was no way in hell that the franchise would have won at least fifty games for four years in a row, not with the teams we had. I was the scorer. If I didn’t score, it was hard for us to win, plain and simple.”
The Atlanta newspapers, meanwhile, alternately took aim at Dominique for being a family guy (he was supporting his mother, three sisters, two brothers and a daughter) and for intermittent contract extension demands, connecting the two into a belief that Nique wanted more money only because his family needed it. “When you come from a close family,” Nique clarifies, “and you love your family, people always got an opinion about what you should do with your family, or how you should be. My family has been there since before anyone else was, so whatever people say about that to me, really, I don’t even give a damn.”
According to Dominique, the implosion of his tenure in Atlanta was due to the one thing he says he never received: respect. Though he was a blue-collar favorite, he never could make that white collar fit. So, the NBA turned to Larry, Magic, Michael, Isiah and Charles to promote the game, while Dominique was asked to take a seat in the back of the bus.
“When I look at it as a whole,” Nique notes, his voice rising steadily, “I never got the respect that I should have gotten, from the League, from outside the League. And people say I never won a championship. Well, there’s a lot of great players who didn’t win championships. Karl hasn’t won, Barkley hasn’t won, Ewing hasn’t won. Does that make them any less of a great player? No. But for some reason they kind of look at me like I’m the only guy who hasn’t won. You’ve got guys who never did the things that I did. Never.”
To double-check Nique’s standing within the game, we asked a few greats. “I certainly think he is an all-time great,” says Clyde Drexler. “When you score as many points as he did, that’s not a fluke.”
“I know him as the legend who I used to watch all the time,” adds the air-apparent, Vince Carter. “I was a big dunker, so watchin’ him was just something that inspired all of us young dunkers, like myself and Jerry Stackhouse.”
“I think he’s one of the 50 greatest,” says Stackhouse himself. “I think it’s an insult that he wasn’t named one of the 50 greatest players.”
As Stack mentioned, perhaps the ultimate affront came when Nique was not selected as one of the NBA’s Top 50 players of all time.
“I mean,” fumes Dominique, “you look at that list of the Top 50 greatest players — how the hell did that happen? Tell me! That’s beyond me. Here I’m eighth all-time in scoring, and yet I’m not at least in the Top 50? You look at the guys who’ve been voted Top 50, and a lot of them couldn’t hold my jock. That a fact. But, I guess people got other reasons how you get in or why you get in.”
He pauses and calms down a bit. “My peers came to my defense on that. Larry Bird, Magic, Jordan, they all said, ‘How do you leave a guy like Nique off? The guy’s one of the top ten scorers of all time!’ That meant more to me than anything, because my peers know. They know.”
Following the trade to L.A., things went downhill, fast. Nique left L.A. after the ’93-94 season and played a year in Boston, then bounced through Greece, winning a championship with Panathanaikos Athens. In 95-96, Nique spent a year in San Antonio, where he accepted the minimum salary. He averaged 18 and 6 off the bench with the Admiral out most of the year, but when his contract was up at the end of the year, no one was willing to show him the respect he felt was due. So he skipped the country again, this time signing a one-year deal with Teamsystem Bologna in Italy. He won an Italian Championship there, but he wanted respect at home. They owed it to him, didn’t they?
Thus, at 38, Dominique signed a one-year deal with the Orlando Magic. “That was a joke,” Nique says, exasperated. “I was coming off the bench, I’d play 13, 14 minutes and have 18 points! Then the next thing you know, you don’t play for a month.”
And then, as quickly as one of his own windmill dunks, it was all over. No one wanted a 38-year-old small forward, even if he was the NBA’s eighth all-time leading scorer. So, quietly and softly, Dominique hung up his high-tops.
It’s taken a while, but Nique has found out you can go home again. He had to swallow some pride and learn how to walk the company line, but on January 13, one day after his 41st birthday, the Atlanta Hawks finally retired Dominique’s number 21 jersey. The prodigal back home, Dominique now works for the Hawks, doing public appearances and signing thousands of autographs, giving the distressed franchise a public face. He and his wife Nicole still live in Orlando, though Nique spends about half his time in Atlanta.
As our conversation winds down, I ask Dominique if he has any regrets about the way his career ended. “Some of it, yeah,” he confesses. “I tell ya, my experience in Italy, I don’t regret at all. I had a wonderful time. But the rest…” he says, his voice trailing off, his heart not intending to finish that statement.
“That whole time following the trade from Atlanta was hard for me,” he says, unexpectedly. “I’d be lying if I said that it wasn’t. But I’m the type of person that moves on. I don’t sit and dwell on things for very long. It was a tough time for me, but at the same time, it’s satisfying to come back and be a part of the organization.”
As if on cue, Hawks president Stan Kasten suddenly bursts through the door. Nique’s former nemesis is now an ally, and the two men shake hands. Then Stan notices me.
“What are you doing here?” he asks me. “Don’t you live in New York City, now?”
“Yeah, I do, Stan,” I tell him. “I’m just here for a day, to hang out with Nique for a story in our fiftieth issue. We’re featuring four of the greatest players ever in that issue: Bird, Magic, Jordan and Nique.”
“Wow!” Kasten says, looking at Nique. “That’s pretty high company.”
“Sure,” I reply, also looking at Nique, “but don’t you think Dominique deserves it?”