Dominique Wilkins was 32 years old when, coming off seven straight All-Star seasons, he tore his Achilles tendon. Today, it’s one of the most devastating injuries a basketball player can endure. Thirty years ago it was a death sentence. But nine months after Wilkins went down, he made an immediate return to form, averaging 30 points and seven rebounds in yet another All-Star campaign the following season.
Now a color commentator for the Hawks, Wilkins has long been viewed as a source of inspiration for players who fear a ruptured Achilles will change their ability to produce at a high level. In this conversation with the Hall of Famer, which has been edited for length and clarity, Wilkins discusses Kevin Durant’s own impressive return from the same injury, how hard it is for a superstar to sacrifice shots, early impressions of the Hawks, Trae Young criticism, broadcasting during a pandemic and more.
Sports Illustrated: What did you expect to see from Kevin Durant when you first saw him back in action after his Achilles injury?
Dominique Wilkins: I said a while ago: [If] anyone can come back from an Achilles injury and be what he was before he left, it’s Kevin Durant. He’s going to put the work in. He’s been ah-mazing. Just phenomenal. I’m really happy to see him. I’m a fan of Durant’s, too. We’re from the Maryland area. So I want to see guys from my hometown do well, but more than that I appreciate his work and his focus to get back. It’s been nothing short of amazing.
SI: Is there anything you’ve noticed that’s different?
DW: Something I told people a while ago when I tore my Achilles tendon is that you learn different aspects of the game that you just kind of forgot about. So what he’s done, similar to what I did, is he’s learned to play the game on the ground as well as in the air. He picks his spots. He knows the areas where he can be very effective even more so now than he did before, and it’s showing each and every night he plays. Look at the numbers he’s putting up. It’s crazy.
SI: Durant played 50 minutes in a game last week. How hard was it for you mentally to do stuff like that once you came back?
DW: Honestly, it wasn’t that hard. I had all that time off where I got a chance to really think about the game, think about my life, so when I came back I was rested. I was good to go. I was ready to go full tilt.
SI: How is today’s game different than it was in the early ’90s, from the perspective of someone who’s returning from an Achilles? Stylistically, the pace, having to defend the three-point line, etc. Do you think that has an effect on someone coming back from such a serious injury?
DW: The pace was very fast in our era. People look at the scores and say it must’ve been more of a bump and grind, and it was, but we ran on makes and misses. We rarely walked the ball up the floor, so the game was played at a very fast pace. The game was just different. And every era has their time. We had our time. I think the most important thing is that the technology of the world got better, as far as sports. And opportunities were presented to guys now that we didn’t have.
SI: To get back from your Achilles, at 33, you rehabbed twice a day for nine straight months, then came back and had one of your best all-around seasons. How often do you reflect on the fact that every single time someone tears their Achilles, you’re sort of the guiding light who offers optimism for a return to normalcy?
DW: I think it shows you can do it. It can be done. It just all depends on the work you’re willing to put in as an individual, and I think Kevin Durant put in more work than anybody to get back to the level that he played before the injury. So I’m really proud of what he’s done and how he’s done it.
SI: Not sure if anyone has ever made this comparison before, but you were kind of the James Harden of your time, just based on how often you scored. You led the league in usage twice and were the best player on a bunch of teams that were very good but just couldn’t get over the hump. Free agency was a much different process in the late 1980s, but could you have ever seen yourself doing what Harden did and forcing yourself to another situation?
DW: Back in those days players didn’t move around. There were serious rivalries back then, and guys wanted to play one another. A lot of us didn’t like each other. So that set up a perfect opportunity to show your skill, show what you’re about, and the competition was so stiff, especially at that small forward position. It was unbelievable. But to answer your question, if the opportunity was available in our era, I probably would’ve wanted to play with someone else, just to take some of the pressure off. There were a lot of nights where I didn’t want to score 30, 40. But in order for us to win that’s just the way it was.
But playing in Atlanta, I wanted to win for the city. That’s why I’m still here. I love the city of Atlanta. I love the franchise. And I was trying to win for them. So I have no regrets, at all. But of course if guys would’ve moved around more freely ... it just wasn’t available at that time.
SI: In 1989 you signed Moses Malone, but he was a few years older than you.
DW: I said to management, “Hey, we need to get one or two more guys in order to get to the next level.” We came close to getting to the Eastern Conference finals a couple times, but we were one or two players away from doing that. The year Karl Malone came out, hey, I wanted to play with Karl [laughs]. But it just wasn’t in the cards for that to happen.
SI: You were drafted by Utah in 1982 and traded shortly after that to Atlanta. Obviously Karl and John Stockton weren’t in the league yet. But do you ever think about what your career would’ve been like if you stayed with the Jazz?
DW: If I had stayed there, would both those guys have been there? So, it’s hard to say. But who wouldn’t want to play with a duo like that? They would’ve made my life easy. That’s for sure.
SI: How hard is it for a great player like you were to sacrifice touches and shots at the peak of your powers, going back to everything that’s happening in Brooklyn right now?
DW: It wouldn’t have been hard for me because I’ve always been willing to do what’s best for the team. But you know being a star player and everything being focused around you, we didn’t have guys who could go out and get their own shot. I was the only one at the time who could do that. And so it was times where hey, I wouldn’t mind if someone else got 30 one night and I’ve got 18 or 19 one night. But the way it was, I had to put numbers up for us to stay in games.
SI: When you look at Brooklyn, you don’t see that being an issue for those three stars?
DW: That’s another question [laughs]. I was looking at the game the other night and Harden had, what, 11 or nine shot attempts and that was shocking. But when he was in Houston, the style of basketball was not going to win. It was one guy dominating the ball. And that’s a hard way to play, man. I don’t like the small lineups. You’ve got a 6' 5" guy trying to play center. Eventually you’re gonna wear a team like that down. And when they lost Clint Capela, man, it was over for them.
SI: Speaking of Capela, the Hawks are 10th in net rating despite injuries to just about every one of their free-agent signings throughout the year. What stands out to you?
DW: The injuries can slow you down, but they also give young guys like Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter a chance to get focused, really sharpen their skills, and get confident in their role. If you saw [Monday night] with Hunter, he had 33 points and a great shooting percentage. I mean it gives the other guys a chance to show their talent and lets the coaches see how they can incorporate those guys more into the offense.
SI: Hunter looks really good.
DW: He’s like a seasoned veteran, man. I love this kid. He can play. Period. And he plays both sides of the ball.
SI: How do you think things are coming together for Trae Young? It’s been an up-and-down season for him, but the numbers are usually there.
DW: The young fella can flat out play. Every night he’s drawing double teams, sometimes triple teams to get the ball out of his hands, because when he gets into the paint he makes so many things happen. It’s either lobs or kick outs to shooters on the wings or in the short corner. He brings so much and he has an unbelievable court vision where he knows where everybody’s at on the floor. A lot of guards can’t do that. Especially young guards.
SI: What do you make of the criticism that surrounds his game?
DW: What people gotta understand is he’s still learning. He’s young. He’s still learning the game. And he’s being effective in learning the game. He was a starter on the All-Star team. That shows you his progress.
SI: Do you see any parallels between him and yourself, being that you were a franchise player who regularly made All-Star teams and didn’t have a consistent No. 2 option at that same level? Trae just made an All-Star team and even though the supporting cast has high upside and makes sense around him, none of his teammates are guaranteed to reach that type of stature.
DW: I think it’s too early to look at those parallels. I look at some of those guys, De’Andre Hunter and John Collins, those guys have an opportunity to do something very special, be All-Stars one day. But when you win that will happen. You’ve got to win.
SI: It’s been a strange season for everyone. What are some challenges you’ve faced in your role as a broadcaster? How is it different for you?
DW: You know what the hardest thing is? When you’ve got to do the games when the team is on the road and you’re doing it from the arena. It’s hard because there’s only about eight people in there. You don’t get the good food at halftime or before the game and you don’t get the crowd. You don’t get the noise [laughs]. So it’s different, man. It’s hard. I know it’s even harder for the players to play without crowds and now they have to just kind of block it out and concentrate on what’s going on on the floor.
SI: Could you imagine playing in an empty arena? Your game was so electric and crowd-oriented.
DW: That’s what makes you. The crowd is what makes you a lot of times. It gets you energetic and makes that adrenaline start to flow. And when you don’t have that you’ve got to find it somewhere else. And I sympathize with these guys and how tough mentally you have to be to do what they’re doing right now.
SI: What’s the setup when you arrive at the arena?
DW: We watch the game on monitors up in the concourse area. We have a team of us up there. We try to keep each other loose and have fun and crack jokes. That’s how we keep ourselves going. I probably interact more with everybody now than I ever have on our telecast team. That’s fun. That keeps us sane up there. But man, I can’t tell you how difficult it is to call games under those circumstances.
SI: Understandably, I’ve noticed way more mistakes from broadcast crews around the league, either not picking up who made what play or incorrectly identifying something that happened on the court. I imagine the conditions play a huge factor there.
DW: You’ve gotta keep your eye on the monitor, man. Because you will miss something. Your mind has to be really focused. You have to be tuned in. It only takes a second for you to miss something.
SI: Do you think the NBA should go back into a bubble or continue to ride this out, with games being postponed and players testing positive for COVID-19?
DW: It’s going to be hard to put all these teams into a bubble. The NBA has the best protocols you can possibly have. The way they’re handling it, I can’t see any other way other than what they’re doing now. And it’s worked so far. You’ve had some isolated situations where guys have come up positive or been around someone who’s tested positive. But I think we’re doing the best we can.
SI: As a former player, have you tried to put yourself in the shoes of what they must be going through? So many are strict creatures of habit, and for their day-to-day schedule to be as random as it is must be maddening.
DW: You’re right. I’ve put myself in their shoes many times. Nothing as a player you get used to your whole life is getting practice time in. And now the way the season is and how the games are formulated, teams don’t have practice time, so it’s hard to get a real rhythm. That’s hard for a player. But again, we’re just trying to find a way to get back to some normalcy. We’re all glad basketball is back and taking these precautionary measures to make sure everybody is healthy and safe. These guys wish they could have more practice time. I can tell you that. But it’s just a tough time we’re living in.