During his 16 years of playing professional basketball, Dominique Wilkins took a backseat to nobody when it came to scoring or providing a wide variety of jaw-dropping moves that often culminated with one of his emphatic dunks.
Although Wilkins led the league in scoring in 1986 when he averaged 30.3 points per game and helped lead the Atlanta Hawks to more than 50 victories in four straight seasons, his team’s inability to win an NBA title seems to have tarnished Wilkins’ overall greatness when reflecting back on his Hall-of-Fame-caliber career.
Despite an outstanding career that included a career 24.8 scoring average, nine All-Star appearances and the fact that only eight other players in the history of the NBA have scored more than his 26,668 points, Wilkins inexplicably remains absent from both the NBA’s 50 Greatest list and more importantly, the Hall of Fame.
While many ex-players have a hard time admitting that the void of never having won a championship eats away at them, Wilkins pulls no punches when discussing the topic.
“I ain’t going to lie to you man, it was tough. We came so close a couple of times and I felt like some of those teams were good enough to get it done but we just never did. There are a lot of guys out there like Charles Barkley and Karl Malone that were never able to get that ring either, but honestly, that doesn’t make it any easier when I think back on it.”
Wilkins was a first-ballot nominee in his first year of eligibility (2005) but apparently the 24-member selection panel only remembered his post-Atlanta career and not the 11 years he spent making the Hawks a legitimate title contender in the East. After being shaken by a trade to the Clippers for Danny Manning in 1994, Wilkins final five years of playing professionally included brief stints with the Clippers, Celtics, Spurs and Magic, in addition to stops in Greece and Italy in the European League.
While playing oversees, Wilkins managed to lead his Panathinaikos Athens team to the European title in 1996, but a championship won across the pond doesn’t carry the same weight as an NBA title and his inability to win a championship on American soil likely played a major role in his HOF exclusion. Considering several players with significantly less impressive numbers and individual accomplishments (Dave Bing, Dave DeBusschere, Hal Greer, Bill Sharman and Nate Archibald – all but Bing won at least one title) have earned plaques in Springfield, Wilkins’ inability to win a championship remains the only blemish on his otherwise impeccable resumé.
These days, Wilkins stays in touch with the game by mentoring the many young players on the Hawks roster while fulfilling his duties as vice president of basketball. The admiration he receives from his talented group of protégés coupled with the respect he receives from his peers eases the pain of the HOF snubbing and Wilkins believes it’s just a matter of time before the mistake will get corrected.
“The guys I played with and played against, they understand what I did in my career and to be honest, that’s the most important thing,” Wilkins said. “Guys tell me all the time that I belong in the Hall of Fame so I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing and it will all take care of itself.”
The following Q&A with Wilkins is an exclusive SCD interview in which he discusses his collecting acquisitions, the current state of the game and his place in NBA history, among many other topics.
SCD: How long had you been collecting memorabilia and why did you decide it was time to part with it a this point?
DW: Well, I had been collecting for a long time and decided this would be a good chance to give something back to the public. Especially with what has gone on down in New Orleans, a lot of what the auction brings in will be going toward that. They’re a lot of people out there right now that could use the help and even though I decided to do this before that happened, it just seems like the right time to try and help out.
SCD: Did you trade items with other players during your playing days?
DW: I did a little of that but for the most part, the stuff I have is all of the things I kept for myself.
SCD: What is the most prized possession in your collection? One item that you can’t ever see yourself parting with?
DW: That would have to be my ring from the Georgia Hall of Fame. That will be mine till the day I leave this earth.
SCD: Do you make a lot of signing appearances at memorabilia shows and do you enjoy interacting with the public?
DW: I do a few but it’s not because I don’t enjoy them, it’s just because I’m busy. I’ve always been a person who likes talking and interacting with people so I do enjoy them when I do them.
SCD: How many pieces are you planning to part with in the auction and was it difficult to make the choices on what you’d put in versus what you had to keep to yourself?
DW: Yeah, that was tough to do because a lot of the stuff I had collected over the years was special to me for personal reasons and most of that type of stuff I’m hanging on to.
SCD: Let’s switch gears and focus on your career in the NBA.When you reflect back on your career how do you see yourself fit into the mix as far as being one of the best to ever lace them up?
DW: I think I was one of the top-50 all time even though I didn’t get voted on to that team when it came out. I’ve heard other players say that I belonged on that team and knowing that your peers felt that way about you and respected your game, that’s what means the most to me.
SCD: What do you think is the biggest difference between today’s NBA game and during your playing career?
DW: Well, with the zone defense and the hand-check fouls now being called it’s a different game to some degree but I don’t think too much has changed overall. I’ll tell you one thing, the league is a lot younger than it was when I played. Kids seem to be coming out earlier and earlier and that’s what I see as the biggest difference.
SCD: Is there a player in the league that reminds you of yourself?
DW: Wow, that’s a good question. I’m not sure if I’ve ever thought of it like that but I respect the game of, and enjoy watching Tracy McGrady and Dwyane Wade a lot. You have to respect the game Shaq brings to the court as well. So I’m not sure if there is anybody with the same style I had but there are a bunch of guys out there who can flat out play, I can tell you that.
SCD: You played on a lot of great teams with the Hawks during your career. What did you see as being the missing piece to the puzzle for you guys, something or someone that could have helped you get over the hump and win a title?
DW: I think we just needed another star player who we could look to when the game was on the line. A lot of teams would key on me and then we wouldn’t have that other superstar type of player to carry the load when that happened.
Another big thing those teams were missing were role players. You remember those Bulls teams back then. They had Jordan, but then they had Scottie Pippen, who was probably the best role player ever. Then you throw in guys like Paxson, Grant and Kerr and the rest of them and it all came together for them. They all knew Jordan was running the show, but they also knew that they played key roles on those teams and they understood what those roles were.
SCD: Do you still stay in touch with your teammates from those Hawk teams?
DW: I talk to a few of them from time to time.
SCD: When you decided to retire, how did you know it was time?
DW: The knees told me man. The knees. Skill-wise, I thought I could still get out there and play with those guys but when you get a little older your body starts letting you know stuff like that. It was just time and I knew it.
SCD: What has been keeping you busy since you hung up the sneakers as far as business projects and that type of thing?
DW: I keep pretty busy in Atlanta being the VP of basketball for the team. I enjoy working with the young players and trying to get the team back where it needs to be as far as being competitive. I’m just glad the team has a solid owner who has allowed me to stay in touch with the game like I have been. I feel really fortunate and grateful for the opportunity.
SCD: Speaking of young players, Atlanta’s own Josh Smith paid a special tribute to you out in Denver at this year’s Dunk Contest during All-Star Weekend. Had you worked with him on any of his dunks leading up to that and did you know the tribute was coming?
(Editor’s Note: Smith won the competition after donning a throwback version of Wilkins’ No. 21 jersey and pulling off a flawless version of his famous windmill slam.)
DW: I had seen him working on some stuff but that was a real surprise for me as well. Right before he went out there to finish up the competition, he told me “Reach into that bag and hand me the contents.” I grabbed it and pulled out one of my old jerseys. I threw it over to him and the crowd went crazy after he put it on. I don’t think it would have even mattered what he did after that, it was over right then and there. That was pretty special for me.
SCD: You played for some great coaches during your career. Who was the most influential coach you ever had and why?
DW: That would have to be Mike Fratello. He was tough, but he was fair. he could get tough when he needed to be and he could be one of the guys at other times.
He knew the game and was great as far as being an Xs and Os guy. He demanded respect from the guys and that is very important. You don’t see a whole lot of those type of guys these days, but that’s what you need.