Oral History Outtakes: Dominique Wilkins, Underrated Superstar
Nique’s teammates and foes reflect on the greatness of a Hall of Famer whose all-around skills were often overshadowed by his tremendous dunking prowess.
Cliff Levingston: Dominique was more than a dunker, he was a scorer. He was a mid-range to a little bit deeper than mid-range type of shooter. He was great at getting to the basket, his spin move, I don’t care who was in front of him, that spin move was unbelievably hard to guard. He had a lot of dunks, but he had more mid-range shots and spin moves than dunks.
Kevin Willis: He led the league in scoring and it wasn’t all off dunks. He was a fascinating dunker, a phenomenal dunker. But Nique could put the ball on the floor, he could shoot, he could post up, he had the in-between game, he had the up-and-under. I remember coming in my rookie year and watching him like “Wow, this guy is incredible, man.” He was so gifted athletically, he could do anything he wanted. Then on defense, when Nique wanted to play defense, he could play defense. Everybody didn’t want to give him credit on that end but Nique could play some defense for sure.
Mark Bradley: I’ve gotten into a lot of arguments with basketball people over the perception of Dominique Wilkins because when he came into the league he was what a lot of people thought he was. He was a dunker. But every summer he would go out and learn something new. I mean he couldn’t shoot a jump shot when he came into the league, but he became a great shooter. That bank shot, he taught himself that. He used the backboard as well as Bailey Howell or somebody that had a great bank shot. He was, of the players I’ve actually seen in person, he used the backboard better than anyone. He made himself into a player, not just a talent.
I remember Rick Pitino once saying of Antoine Walker, that he has to decide whether he wants to be Dominique Wilkins or Magic Johnson. Like one was bad and one was good. That really offended me because, Earvin Johnson was the greatest player in the history of basketball. But Dominique Wilkins did things for the Atlanta Hawks that if you would have put Earvin Johnson in here I’m not sure he would have done the same things without James Worthy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar beside him. Dominique Wilkins had to be the focal point and he was the focal point of a team that wasn’t the best team in the league but was pretty darn good for a little while in a time where there were a lot of good teams in the NBA.
Dominique Wilkins: I tell people all the time, it’s hard to get 26,000 points on dunks.
Spud Webb: I’ve never seen a guy get that short-sticked on everything as far as being a superstar. He led the league in scoring, teams won 50 games, he rebounds, he scores at will. I can just imagine how many points he would score if he was playing with Derrick Rose today. He didn’t make the Olympics that one year, he didn’t win the dunk contest against Jordan in Chicago, he didn’t win a championship. This guy always did what it took to win, played hard, and they just overlook him for some reason. This guy went hard every day, even at practice -- this dude hated to miss practice. You don’t find too many guys that love to play basketball like Dominique does. He probably still thinks he could score 20 points.
Steve Holman: That was the game where Larry really gained respect for Dominique. They met each other here two or three years ago when the Pacers came in and it was the first time they said they had taken a picture together. Can you imagine that? They were the key members of that ‘88 game that is always on ESPN Classic and it was fun for me to sit there and watch them talk about it. And I could really tell that Larry, who probably in his career up until that point probably thought Dominique was a dunker, a showman, not one of the great players. But I could tell when Dominique talked to him that night a couple of years ago, that he really felt like he had the great respect for Dominique and he expressed that to him and I think it meant a lot to Dominique too.
I think it was one of the great injustices of all time in the NBA that he didn’t make that top-50 team. I still can’t believe that because when he retired he was the 7th leading scorer in the history of the NBA. He and Bob McAdoo are probably the two guys I think I’m the most shocked didn’t make that team.
Jeff Twiss: He deserves more. Maybe my hunch is people make critical of him for not being quite the defensive player. I still think he had a great all-around game. He could still see the court, he could still anticipate things, still make some good passes. I though his defense was good. I think that he and Larry both had a similar trait, though I bet many people would disagree with me. I think they were great team defensive players. Individually they weren’t the greatest, but team defensively they could fill lanes and do that. They were kings of doing that, both of them.
Larry Bird: Dominique was a real scorer in the league. I mean he was one of the top players ever. You watch Carmelo Anthony and he’s a scorer and that’s what Dominique was, a scorer. He made plays. Yeah he could jump and he could dunk, but he could play.
Tommy Heinsohn: He was a great scorer period. He was a fabulous athlete and he knew how to use his body. He was a terrific competitor and he went out and played hard every game I ever saw.