Our memories of athletes tend to grow fonder over time. For the most part, we forget the shortcomings and remember the highlights. The plucky second baseman who batted 7th in the lineup becomes a "hometown hero" and "borderline all-star," a "key contributor" who was a "building block" of the organization." The guy hit .245 with no power and was a serviceable fielder, but after seven or eight years on the card-show circuit, fans start asking for his number to be retired. When it comes to players who actually were great, the post-retirement glorification is taken to another level.
Dominique Wilkins was recently inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Dominique averaged more than 25 points per game for 11 seasons, he averaged 25 points per game in over 50 career playoff games, he led the league in scoring once, was a nine time all-star, made all-NBA first or second team five times and is currently 11th on the all-time scoring list above the likes of Charles Barkley and Jerry West. This is to speak nothing of the excitement he brought, the number of kids who had his poster in their bedrooms or his importance to the success of the NBA in Atlanta.
Surprisingly, however, there has been an effort in the media to marginalize Wilkins’ historical significance to the game. The ‘Nique bashers like to categorize him as nothing, but a ball-hogging scorer no different than World B. Free or Stephon Marbury, just a dunker little better than Harold Minor or Kenny Walker, a player who never made his teams or teammates any better.
Much of this goes back to 1996 when Wilkins was absurdly left off of the NBA 50th anniversary team. Criteria for selection was to find the 50 best and most influential players in league history with additional consideration given to team leadership and support of the growth of basketball. Considering he is one of the 10 or 12 greatest scorers of all time and that he’s one of the most exciting players of all time and that he’s as important to the history of his franchise as any player ever and that he turned as many 8-year-olds into basketball fans as just about anyone not named Magic or Jordan, Wilkins’ selection seemed like a no-brainer.
It wasn’t. Instead of the "Human Highlight Film," the esteemed panel chose to select Bill Walton who had all of two good NBA season thanks to wrecked knees and Shaquille O’Neal who’d been in the league for all of three and a half seasons at the time. It was a complete and utter slap in the face.
The insults continued for Wilkins when he was passed over by the Hall for induction in his inaugural year of eligibility. The voters deemed former Brazilian female standout Hortencia Marcari more worthy of inclusion. Yikes.
How did this all happen?
It’s hard to say, ignorance usually can’t be explained. What can be explained, and simply, is why Wilkins should not only have been on the 50th anniversary NBA team, but a first ballot hall of famer and considered one of the greatest and most important basketball players ever.
Dominique Wilkins is one of the best and most dependable scorers in NBA history and he did it while shooting a good percentage, just under 50. Those who knock Wilkins as "just a scorer," would probably ding Ted Williams for being, "just a hitter." Scoring in basketball is the point and Wilkins did it better than just about anyone else ever. To further poke holes in this "one-dimensional" theory, don’t forget Wilkins was as good an offensive rebounder as there was from the small forward position in league history, he was an excellent free throw shooter, developed a dependable three-point shot and averaged fewer turnovers than you think for a guy who handled the ball as often as he did.
Dominique Wilkins also did what no one had before or has since and that is make the NBA popular in football crazy Atlanta, Georgia. Without ‘Nique, the NBA would not have made it in Dixie. Period. To this day – and I lived there so I know – Dominique is a god in Atlanta and an entire generation of Atlantans and Georgians would have never been turned on to pro basketball without him. Rednecks from Lilburn with gun racks on their pickups and closets full of camo considered themselves fans. Dominique was a star, he was dynamic, and in a town where you have to stand out to draw attention, he did that for 10 years. Without Wilkins, the city in America with the largest affluent black population would not have the NBA. How’s that for importance?
As for him not making his teams better, his Hawks four times won more than 50 games during the 80s and that was in the Eastern Conference going up against the likes of Bird’s Celtics, Isiah’s Pistons and Jordan’s Bulls not to mention excellent Philadelphia and Milwaukee teams. That Dominique never made it to an NBA Finals against that competition is hardly a shortcoming. Wilkins played virtually every game and logged heavy minutes for a franchise that was a playoff fixture in the toughest conference for 10 years and did it all without another legitimate all star to play with.
The 1980s were the golden age of the NBA – the ascension of Bird and Magic, the exit of Dr. J and Kareem, the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, the beginning of Jordan, Barkley and Malone – and the story of that decade can not be told without Dominique. His dunks took people’s breath away. They helped create a nationwide buzz over the previously ignored NBA. His persona as the "Human Highlight Film" brought millions to arenas and lead nightly sportscasts around the country. During the NBA’s most important era, he was one of its most important players.
History is a funny thing. To some it is too kind, to others, too harsh, but rarely has a player of Wilkins’ brilliance had to fight so hard for the legacy he so richly deserves. I, for one, am happy to be on the front lines of that battle.