Few, if any players, ever threw down a dunk as fiercely as Dominique Wilkins.
To begin any discussion with ‘Nique in any other fashion is impossible. His dunks were just so explosive, so ferocious, so awe-inspiring, you can’t properly think of anything else when you first think of him. The violent windmills, the sledgehammer slams, the dynamite dunks, it’s all too much for any other first impression to find a way into your head.
Those spectacular dunks made Wilkins a bona fide star in the NBA. Fans in Atlanta have never loved a basketball player as much as they loved Wilkins. The team may lose the game, but in an era of nascent cable sports coverage, Wilkins was your nightly highlight reel. So dependable were his highlight dunks, that he became the Human Highlight Film.
Roll the ball out on the court and watch the showmanship ensue.
A singular talent, even one as singular as Nique’s dunks, never wholly defines a man. Wilkins didn’t score over 25,000 points in the NBA purely on dunks. He had a good, but not great, jump shot that kept defenses honest. Their honesty allowed for Wilkins’ vicious forays to the basket for the aforementioned dunks, or for Wilkins to score on a variety of slashing layups and leaning jumpers.
Always-forgotten aspects of Dominique’s game have been his rebounding and passing. You’re not going to mistake him for Rick Barry or any other savant passing small forward, but as his career wore on, Wilkins became better at passing out of double teams. This simple pass is nonetheless a difficult one for many players to learn. And as a small forward, Wilkins was a tremendous rebounder. Unsurprisingly, his explosive hops were good for cleaning the glass as well as devastating dunks.
Wilkins’ time with Atlanta is the most successful period in the Hawks’ long history there. The 57 wins he pushed the Hawks to in 1987 remain the most in any single Hawks season, whether it’s Atlanta, St. Louis, Milwaukee, or the Tri-Cities. In 1988, the Hawks won 50 games and that postseason featured Dominique’s most famous moment… non-Slam Dunk Contest Division, of course.
Warming up for his eventual showdown with Larry Bird, Wilkins eviscerated the Milwaukee Bucks in the East’s 1st Round. With an average of 31 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2.2 steals, Wilkins proved unstoppable in the five-game series that Atlanta won 3-games-to-2.
In the East Semis against Boston, Wilkins was less impressive through that series’ first five games. He was scoring 27.5 points, but on 40% shooting after blistering the Bucks with 48% shooting through the five games of that series. Nonetheless, Atlanta held a 3-games-to-2 lead on Boston and narrowly missed out on eliminating the Celtics in Game 6, losing 102-100. Nique had 35 points in the loss as he did all he could to eliminate Boston on Atlanta’s homecourt. Determined to push Atlanta to the Eastern Conference Finals, Wilkins was on fire for the entirety of Game 7 in Boston Garden. He scored 47 points in a myriad of seemingly back-breaking ways… but Larry Bird staved off the final fracture with 20 points in the fourth quarter to save the Celtics and sink Atlanta.
That amazing duel was the pinnacle of Atlanta’s team success, but Wilkins continued on as one of the premier NBA players. Over the next six seasons (1989 to 1994), he averaged 27 points and continued to be a perennial all-star. Finally at the age of 35, Wilkins slowed in 1995 averaging just 18 points per game. After a year in Greece, Wilkins returned to the NBA in 1997 with the San Antonio Spurs and the living legend still managed to score 18 points per game at age 37.
The Human Highlight Film finally retired for good after the 1999 lockout-shortened season. The in-person reel may have ceased playing at your local stadium, but thank goodness his magnificent play was recorded for all of posterity to enjoy in the comfort of their homes.
Beware, though, the visceral dunks may cause you to go into a frenzy.
Years Played: 1982 – 1999
All-NBA 1st Team (1986)
4x All-NBA 2nd Team (1987-’88, 1991, 1993)
2x All-NBA 3rd Team (1989, 1994)
9x All-Star (1986-’94)
NBA – 1074 Games
24.8 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.3 SPG, 46.1% FG, 81.1% FT
PPG Leader (1986)
Contemporary NBA Ranks (1982-83 through 1996-97 season)
2nd Points, 5th PPG
2nd FGs Made, 3rd FTs Made
16th Rebounds, 17th Steals
6th Games Played, 2nd Minutes Played