The Step Back: Carving out a ‘Nique

Take a look through the ‘This Date in the NBA’ archive and you’ll find no end of memorable moments from the league’s remarkable past. In this series, Sean Guest revisits key events from NBA history, evaluating their impact on the players and teams involved, as well as the league and the sport more broadly.

Cast your mind back to the year 2001; the year that Apple first launched the iPod; Shrek first hit cinemas; and Microsoft released the Xbox.

The LA Lakers were the NBA’s reigning champs, having beaten the Indiana Pacers in six games to claim the first title of the new millennium. It was also the first of three straight that Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and head coach Phil Jackson would combine to win, as the franchise went about building a dynasty to rival that of the 1990s’ most dominant team; the Chicago Bulls.

As for the Bulls, they were done. A year earlier, Michael Jordan had retired for the second time, citing a desire to spend more time with his family. He wasn’t the only one, as the curtain was beginning to fall on an entire generation of NBA players who had lit up the stage throughout the previous decade.

One such example was Jordan’s old rival and sparring partner, Dominique Wilkins, who had stepped away from the game two years earlier. ‘The Human Highlight Reel’, as he was known, had been one of the league’s most dazzling stars since the early 1980s. And it was for that reason that the Atlanta Hawks retired his jersey on this day in 2001. 

Wilkins’ legacy is anything but straightforward though. He’s regularly confined to the margins of those ‘best of’ lists that appear with increasing regularity. Regardless, his impact can still be glimpsed in high-scoring power forwards playing the game today. Though, as Larry Bird, one of his peers and rivals, acknowledged in this article a while back, he was far more Carmelo Anthony than LeBron James.

Born in Paris, where his father was stationed with the Air Force, Wilkins attended high school in Washington, North Carolina. He played his college ball with the University of Georgia, where he averaged 21.6 points over three seasons. His professional career began in controversial fashion, after he refused to sign with the team that drafted him third overall in 1982, the Utah Jazz. With no viable alternative, the franchise sent him to Atlanta in exchange for John Drew, Freeman Williams and $1 million. Unfortunately for them, the deal is widely regarded as one of the worst in NBA history though. As while Wilkins went on to average 17.5 points per game as a rookie, making the NBA All-Rookie Team in 1983, Drew and Williams dropped out of the league after a couple of seasons in Utah.

That was just the beginning for Wilkins. He averaged 21.6 points during his sophomore season, starting a streak that saw him average more than 20 points for 11 consecutive seasons. During that period, he averaged 29.1 per season, peaking with 30.3 in 1985-86 and 30.7ppg in 1987-88.

His scoring kickstarted a period of relative dominance for the Hawks, who logged four 50-win seasons between 1985 and 1989. Unfortunately, in that span, they didn’t get beyond the Eastern Conference Semifinals, losing to the Boston Celtics twice and the Detroit Pistons following their remarkable 57-win campaign in 1986-87.

It’s the seven-game thriller the Hawks played out against the Celtics in 1988 that will live long in the memory though, thanks largely to the Game 7, fourth quarter duel between Wilkins and Bird.

It produced a spectacular shootout between two incredible scorers at the top of their respective games. But while Wilkins finished with a game-high 47 points, Bird’s 34 points – punctuated by the three-point shot he made over Wilkins with 1:43 left on the clock – turned out to be just enough to see the Celtics through.

The defeat sent the Hawks into decline. Despite winning 52 games the following season, they lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs – an achievement they would fail to exceed until the 1993-94 season.

Coincidentally, that was also the year they traded Wilkins to the LA Clippers in a deal that sent shock waves around the league. It occurred 49 games into the campaign. Wilkins was the team’s leading scorer, averaging 24.4 points, while the team itself held a 36-16 record. Allegedly, Atlanta’s owners felt Danny Manning, the player they got in return, would give the Hawks a better chance of competing in the second half of the season. In reality though, it’s highly likely that the team’s brass didn’t want to offer Wilkins, whose contract was coming to an end, an extension at the age of 34.

Either way, the Hawks went on to win 57 games before losing to the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, while Wilkins opted to sign a one-year deal with the Celtics after the Clippers finished the season with just 27 wins.

It wasn’t a great time to be in Boston though. The team was in rebuilding mode and managed just 35 wins before losing to the Orlando Magic in the first round. Wilkins averaged a mere 17.8 points over the course of the season and when it was done, he decided to sign a one-year deal with Greek club Panathinaikos Athens. He then spent the final three years of his career flip-flopping between Europe and the NBA, playing his final season with the Orlando Magic in 1998-99.

Although he went out with something of a whimper, Wilkins will be remembered for his spectacular dunking ability and for his scoring battles with the likes of Jordan and Bird. He also featured in one of the best dunk contests of all time.

Wilkins was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006, having logged nine All-Star appearances, an All-NBA First Team appearance, four All-NBA Second Team appearances, and two All-NBA Third Team appearances. He also finished the 1986 season as the NBA’s scoring champion, while winning two dunk contests in 1985 and 1990.

Wilkins is 13th on the NBA’s all-time points list with 26,668 and remains the Atlanta Hawks all-time points scorer with 23,292. He also leads the franchise in a number of other categories including points per game, appearances (882), minutes (32,545), and field goals (8,752).

After retiring Wilkins’ jersey in 2001, the Hawks unveiled a statue of him outside of Philips Arena in 2015.