Dominique Wilkins: Hall-of-Famer, Community Leader, Atlanta Legend
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Thirteen-and-a-half feet tall and 18,500 pounds of granite? Sounds about right. The fact that the long-awaited statue of Jacques Dominique Wilkins can't fly, well...that's the only unrealistic part as far as I'm concerned.
Let's begin at the beginning. Where did this man come from? I haven't obtained his birth certificate, but let's assume that he was born the normal, natural way - in France of all places. He was an Air Force kid, with added emphasis on the air part. From Paris, his family moved to Baltimore, MD. There wasn't much grass to play on where he lived, so he chose the concrete courts. He knew he'd be a pro by the time he was 12. Twelve!
When he was 16, he moved to Washington, NC, just up the coast from Wilmington, where a fella named Michael Jordan was dribbling balls and stretching himself on chin-up bars. Wilkins grew from 6'3" to 6'8" in the course of his tenth grade summer. He went 76-1 at Washington High and accidentally set the school record in the quarter mile (48 seconds), because there was no one else to run it that particular day. Drool from NBA scouts drained into the Pamlico River.
"Superstars all have their posses and agents and everyone sucking up to them. It can swell your head. But Dominique was always a sweetheart, the nicest person, in addition to being this electrifying physical talent."
- Stan Kasten
Wilkins was every bit as big a deal as Jordan if you came up in Atlanta, like I did, when he was soaring. He was our Jordan, and we weren't myopic, either. He outscored MJ in half of the 48 games they played against each other, dropping 57 on him in 1986. He even beat His Airness at the dunk contest once - should have been twice, most say - which I reenacted obsessively on a duct-taped Nerf court in my childhood bedroom. Wilkins was the scoring champ in '88, a nine-time all-star, a Hall-of-Famer; and, according to plenty of fans, one of the 50 greatest players ever (official list be damned).
How did we get so lucky? This is how Ted Turner, who owned the Hawks from 1976 to 2004, remembers it:
"Back in 1982, he was the big star in the SEC at the University of Georgia. We would have drafted him, but we didn't have a draft pick that high. We picked tenth. So he went to Utah with the third pick. But they were having financial problems. So we offered them John Drew and Freeman Williams, plus a million in cash, for Dominique. They accepted. I didn't have a million dollars at the time. I was really up against the wall. A million dollars was a lot of money in 1982."
Stan Kasten, the president of the Hawks at the time, was there for the deliberations.
"Ted turned to our CFO, Bill Bevins, and said, 'Can we get a million bucks from the bank or our lenders?' And Bill said, 'Well, no, Ted, I don't think we can.' And without missing a beat Ted turns and says, 'Stan, go do it.' He saw the extraordinary opportunity this was. And that's exactly how it turned out."
That's right, historians of technology: we have Ted Turner to thank for cable television and the Human Highlight Film.
"I remember the local celebration when he came to the Hawks after being such a dynamic and exceptional talent at UGA," Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who was 13 at the time, said. "He was my generation's first real local superstar."
Former Atlanta Mayor and Ambassador Andrew Young, in his 80s now, was one of those celebrants.
"I had just been elected mayor," Young said. "We weren't a basketball town. We were basically a football town. And Dominique was the first of the homegrown heroes that made us a basketball city. He filled the Omni. He was a superhero! He walked with such a bounce, it looked like he might take off with any step."
Wilkins was, among many other things, a marketer's dream.
"We had a rule in our PR department," Kasten said. "Whenever we wrote something about him, we had to put the word electrifying before his name. We made that part of his name."
The double pump reverses, the one and two-handed windmills and sidewinders, the thunderous throw-downs over most every marquee player. There's a reason they call them "videogame dunks." His former teammates and rivals still feel their power more than 20 years later.
"He had one dunk against New Jersey where he shot the ball at the top of the key, and I was under the basket," former Hawks center Jon Koncak, who played with Wilkins from 1985-1994, recalls. "Kevin Willis was there. Buck Williams, too. But the ball hit the back of the rim and went straight up. The next thing I know, there are these arms grabbing the ball and dunking it. I was like, What the heck! He covered that distance, jumped above everybody, caught the ball and dunked it over three of us—two on his own team! I think even he was shocked that he could do that."
Being on the other team, of course, was more embarrassing. Celtics legend and hall of famer Larry Bird doesn't mince words.
"It was difficult playing against Dominique. Very difficult. He was one of the best scorers in my era. He dunked on me a lot. If you let him get a running start, he got up there pretty high. He'd go up over you. I remember one where I never seen him coming, and I went up to get a rebound and he came down hard on me. I was like, What the..."
Just two points, but still etched in Bird's mind. Wilkins had 26,688 of them in his 15-season NBA career (I probably saw him score 18,000 of those, each a little jolt of kinetic energy across the TV screen. The rest were west coast games, which finished after my bedtime). And they weren't all dunks.
"The first time I ever saw him play in college," Kasten said, "Three things jumped out at me right away: He could jump out of the gym; he could not shoot; he did not care that he could not shoot. But as his career went on, he became an outstanding shooter. Because, in addition to his extraordinary physical abilities, he loved to play and work on his game. And that's no small thing."
Nor is the fact that Wilkins has always been active around the city of Atlanta, whose profile he helped raise with both his play and his work, supporting a number of organizations: Big Brothers Big Sisters of Atlanta, the American Heart Association, the Women's Sports Foundation, and the American Diabetes Association.
"Dominique kept us in the news," Young said. "He kept us relevant. But most of all, he was—and still is—an inspiration to young people. When I was a little bitty boy, 5 or 6, I met Ralph Metcalf right after he came back from the Olympics, running just behind Jesse Owens. Well, I figured I could beat everyone else running just because I knew him. Dominique has done the same for kids here."
Thomas Dortch, chairman of the service organization 100 Black Men of America, has often watched Wilkins speak to children. One moment stands out.
"I'm pleased that we are treating Dominique in a manner that is consistent with his contributions to the sport and the city."
- Mayor Kasim Reed
"He said to them: 'You've got heroes all around you. You don't have to look up to a superstar in sports or entertainment,'" Dortch recalls. "Those are words that will resonate in the minds of these kids for years to come, like they have in mine."
And then there's the ever-present smile.
"I've had this conversation with other players, owners and general managers," Kasten said. "Most agree that Dominique was maybe the nicest superstar that we had in the sport at that time. Superstars all have their posses and agents and everyone sucking up to them. It can swell your head. But Dominique was always a sweetheart, the nicest person, in addition to being this electrifying physical talent."
Like everyone who watched him play with at least one eye open, Dortch puts Dominique at the pinnacle of Atlanta's sporting pantheon.
"In my opinion there are two great athletes Atlanta has had in modern times: Hank Aaron and Dominique."
With the support of a number of prominent Atlanta business figures, Dortch pushed for the statue. Mayor Reed became an early supporter as well.
"We'd done a great deal to honor Hank Aaron," Reed said, "but we hadn't acknowledged Dominique Wilkins in a similar fashion and I thought we should do that. I'm pleased that we are treating Dominique in a manner that is consistent with his contributions to the sport and the city."
Reed's predecessor couldn't agree more.
"Cities need heroes," Young said. "And Dominique sure was ours for a long time. And still is. He's a presence everywhere he goes. I'm proud that they're putting up a statue. But I really don't know how they'll mount it. Because if they were gonna have a legitimate statue, they'd put a basketball in his hand and solder the hand to the top of a rim and let him hang in free flight, because that's how we'll always remember him."
An optimistic analyst for the Hawks broadcasts on SportSouth these days, Wilkins is 55 years old years old. But, with his bright eyes and trim figure, he looks younger than that. Maybe that's immortality taking hold.
"A statue immortalizes you," he said. "It represents not just your body of work as a player, but it represents you as a man. A man who gave all he had, not just to the game but also to the people who supported him." He pauses, grabbing a huge handful of popcorn - he loves the stuff - courtside before a recent game.
"I don't know what it looks like up-close yet. I'm nervous. I think I'm flying, though."
Story by Charles Bethea