How Dominique Wilkins built a legacy
A spectacular slam dunker and prolific scorer, "Nique" was the emblematic figure of the Hawks throughout the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s.
For 15 seasons, Dominique Wilkins – The Human Highlight Film – was the picture of ease on the basketball court. With gravity-defying hops and a tendency to dunk with the greatest authority and strength, Wilkins was entertainment on two legs and he rarely disappointed his audience. A typical Wilkins possession goes something like this: he makes one of a few moves, a flurry of jab steps and spins toward the baseline, where either a shot opens up and floats in, an opportunity to do a step-back 3-pointer, or a quick stride to the rim.
Almost regardless of the means, the end was usually a tick upward on the score; Wilkins is a 9-time NBA All-Star, 7-time all-NBA team member, and scored over 26,000 points in his career. Among all his career highlights, the biggest achievement and proudest moment was one that occurred not so long ago. “My biggest achievement just happened recently, and it has to do with being part of the NBA 75th Anniversary team. It immortalises you as a person, because what bigger honour is there than being amongst the greatest players that have ever played,” he discloses.
No matter how difficult a manoeuvre was, Wilkins tended to emerge from his scoring forays looking fresh and smiling widely, as if in on a joke that has revealed itself, already winding up to do it all again. “What it took mentally to play like that? Hard work, dedication, believing in yourself and having the right people around you,” he says. “It’s commitment and integrity all wrapped up,” he continues. His aura of good fun, intensity and killer instinct were all mythmaking qualities, enabling him to make a name for himself within the NBA.
Throughout his adolescence, Dominique learned about self-confidence, perseverance, and discipline. He was discovered on a playground in North Carolina and later became a basketball sensation at Washington High School. “I learnt all the basketball tools from my high school coach, coach Smith. He was one of the greatest coaches I’ve ever had. He was really tough and all he was trying to do was make us better, make us grow as men. Coach Smith was like a father and a coach, and he taught me how to play basketball.”
Wilkins spent hours and hours training, working on his jump shots, dribbles and dunks. “Basketball gave me a lot of great life lessons, and some failures and triumphs. It teaches you that you can fail but if you are willing to pick yourself up, brush yourself off and keep going, you can become very successful. It’s never lying down, never giving in, and it goes back to my high school coach making us recite the poem “Don’t Quit,” and that poem was a force for us before every game and that’s how I look at life.”
In February, 1985, during NBA All-Star in Indianapolis, Wilkins won the NBA Slam Dunk contest by beating another prolific player 147-136 in the final. Wilkins had for sure distinguished himself in a league with so many stars, so many personalities. “I trained tirelessly. And it ended up paying off,” he recalls.
One of the most explosive performances, some say the greatest, was in 1987 when Wilkins went head-to-head in a showdown in Atlanta that involved a two-man, back-and-forth show with jumpers, acrobatic layups and dunks. The bar was set high, a showdown that Wilkins remembers very fondly: “When you are playing against one of the greatest players to ever play the game, you had no choice but to be elevated and be very focused on playing. If you can’t lift your game to compete with him it’s going to be a long night,” he says laughing.
Game 7, 1988 Eastern Conference Semifinals, TD Garden, Boston, Mass. – another scene where legend took hold. Wilkins and a notorious Boston Celtics legend put on quite the show with showdowns, comebacks and I’ll-show-you moments, leaving the spectators baffled to see such a thundering action. “That game will stick with me until the day I die because it ended up being the most intense game I ever played. It was the Playoffs, and you could feel the electricity, the heat in the air.”
A ruthless scorer, The Human Highlight Film always provided a show on his own, living up to Wilkins' nickname: “I got the nickname when I was in the 11th grade, and I was at a basketball camp. We played an All-Star game and I scored a lot and they just couldn’t tell how I was scoring so they kept rolling the film back to see how I was getting my points. At the end they said ‘Forget it, we’re just going to call him The Human Highlight Film’,” he says.
His dunks are infamous; Wilkins is a real glutton for numbers, always ready for individual exploit, a dunk, or a lay-up. And he’s always quick to seize a record. Some say he is one of the players that elevated dunking into an art. And he sure had a remarkable ability to defy gravity and improvise multiple ways to send the ball forcefully through the hoop.
“Dunking was a tool for intimidation for me, it wasn’t who I really was, but it gave me leverage. I played the game at one speed and that was all out. The harder I attacked the rim, the more I blocked out the guys who were trying to attack me. I always aimed to attack the rim as hard as I could.”
On Jan. 28, 1992, Wilkins’ career was on the verge of ending. Six minutes and 28 seconds of play in the second quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers, Wilkins collapses. Achilles tendon torn. Season over. “It was considered a career-ending injury. But what kept me motivated was the love for the game and to prove all the critiques wrong. I heard all the negative feedback and I used it as a tool to prove them wrong. I trained twice per day for nine months and because of that hard work, I came back, and I had my best season ever. I’m probably the only star player that came back from that kind of injury after a year.”
A phenomenal athlete, an acrobatic dunker and a prodigious scorer, Wilkins was one of the most spectacular basketball players ever seen on the court. His fortes, a super-powerful one-handed dunk or a two-handed windmill, left no one untouched, and the way he was almost levitating across the court made the crowd bewildered. “If you respect this game and if you give everything you can to this game, it gives everything it has back to you,” he discloses.
Decades later, Dominique Wilkins is still seen as a cocktail of speed, relaxation, explosiveness, and elasticity. Simply put, as a true basketball savant.
THIS OR THAT WITH DOMINIQUE WILKINS
Hennessy neat or on the rocks?
“On the rocks.”
1983 NBA All-Rookie or 1985 NBA All-Star Slam Dunk Champion?
“1983 NBA All-Rookie”
What do you like best: the atmosphere before a game or after a game?
“After a game.”
The Human Highlight Film or Dominique Wilkins?
The Greek League or the Italian League?
“The Greek League.”
Spinning a basketball on your finger or dunking over other players?
“Dunking over other players.”
“Practice makes perfect” or “you’re born with it”?
“Practice makes perfect.”
Getting out of your comfort zone or staying inside it?
“Getting out of your comfort zone.”
A silent crowd or a loud one?
“A loud one.”
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