University of Georgia Coach Hugh Durham stares into space, trying to reconstruct the moment. "It was in practice, see, and we were working on breaking the press," he says, waving his hands in the air as if to shape the mental replay. "One of our guards throws the ball from midcourt sort of wildly toward the basket, toward Dominique, who's standing outside the lane.
"Now, the ball looks like it's going out of bounds, see. It would've been a real nice play just to catch that ball and keep it in play. But what Dominique does is catch the ball with one hand and slam it down into the basket...in one motion! Heckfire, can you imagine that?
"What happened next was strange. Everything got real quiet on the court for maybe a second or two. See, nobody could believe what they saw. I still don't believe it."
What Dominique Wilkins—Georgia's 6'7", 200-pound junior forward—does, see, is stir the imaginations of those around him. There are few things in sport at once so pedestrian and so electrifying as the dunk. Pedestrian because so many can do it, including Leroy Nowells, the 5'9" laundryman who works in the Georgia equipment room and occasionally shoots around with Wilkins and his teammates. But electrifying because, in its infinite variety, the dunk has become basketball's highest art form. Many can do it, but few are known for it, and those who are—Julius Erving, Darryl Dawkins, David Thompson, Darrell Griffith—earn instant entry into basketball folklore. Wilkins, alias the Human Highlight Film, alias the Top Dog of Dunk, belongs with them.
November 30, 1981
"I've got about 30 Dominique stories, but here's the one that sticks out in my mind," says junior Guard Derrick Floyd. "He's coming down the left-hand side and a guard's on him pretty close. It looks like he's going to take a lefthanded layup, but the guard comes across to get the ball. So what he does is cuff the ball [tuck it into a protective position by rolling it up his wrist], turn his body to cut the guy off—and dunk it backwards. It wasn't really a hot-dog play. It was the only thing he could do. Only no one else could have done it."
One of Wilkins' spectacular dunks, his 180—as in 180 degrees—is commemorated on the Georgia campus in posters of all sizes, one of which hangs in the McWhorter Hall room Wilkins shares with junior Forward Lamar Heard. What the sight of No. 34 rolling around right end is to Georgia football, Wilkins doing his 180 is to Georgia basketball. But that 180 against Alabama his freshman year is really not Wilkins' favorite. For one thing he sprained his knee later in the half and missed the next six games. And for another, there are other degrees of dunking out there. Like 360.
Wilkins has completed a 360 only twice in game situations—once as a high school sophomore on an uncontested layup, and again at a basketball camp as he drove the lane on a three-on-two fast break. He often attempts a 360 or two after practice, but he's not sure what Durham would think about his trying it in a game. "I know Coach Durham wouldn't say much if I made it," Wilkins says, "but he'd be upset if I blew it. Still, there might be a good chance sometime."
Wilkins is not just a Mad Dunker. Last year he led Southeastern Conference scorers with 23.6 points per game, averaging 53.3% from the field and 75.2% from the foul line. In 15 of 31 games he led Georgia in both scoring and rebounding, and he finished with a team-high 73 blocked shots. He plays within himself and knows his importance; he committed 80 personal fouls, second-highest on the team, but did not foul out of any game. He was a consensus second-team All-America last season and now is a consensus first-team preseason All-America.
Ah, how times have changed. Before Durham and Wilkins, basketball at Georgia was something of a joke. At the time Wilkins suffered that knee injury against Alabama as a freshman, the Bulldogs were 11-3; with Wilkins playing hurt or not at all the rest of the season, they went 3-10. In 1980-81 Wilkins was healthy all the way and Georgia was 19-12, its best record in 50 years.
As good as Wilkins is in college, he is probably best appreciated by the pros. He was one of the four underclassmen most coveted by the NBA last season, along with Virginia's Ralph Sampson, Indiana's Isiah Thomas and DePaul's Mark Aguirre. And though he hadn't gotten the publicity they had, he was definitely not No. 4 among NBA scouts.
"Had Dominique gone hardship, he would've been the second or third pick in the draft," says Marty Blake, director of the NBA Scouting Bureau. "Why? Because he's better than anyone else."
Wilkins was tempted to bite at Detroit's four-year, $1.6 million offer last spring, but eight hours before the midnight, April 25th deadline for filing for early eligibility, he rejected the NBA to remain at Georgia.
"I honestly thought we had him," says Piston General Manager Jack McCloskey. Though Wilkins says he hasn't decided whether to turn pro after this season, the chances are good that he will.
Jacques Dominique Wilkins was born in the basketball hotbed of Paris, France, the son of an Army man. He was named by his French baby-sitter. His father was transferred back to the States when Dominique was 3, and Dominique, his three brothers and four sisters lived in Dallas and Fort Sill, Okla. before the family finally settled in Baltimore. Dominique learned his lessons on the tough playgrounds at Patterson Park and Sparrows Point, where fellow players included Ernest Graham, who later played at Maryland, and Skip Wise, a schoolyard legend who starred for one year at Clemson, but eventually was imprisoned for two years on drug charges.
Wilkins quickly learned the playground code. "If you want to shoot it, you have to get your hands on it," he says. "So I started going up and getting it. I think it really helped that I was always playing with guys older than me. They'd tell me I was going to be a pro someday, but I never believed them. I really didn't."
Dave Smith, the basketball coach at Washington (N.C.) High School, really did. Smith caught Dominique's act at the Bridge Street Recreation Center when Wilkins visited his grandmother in Washington the summer before he was to enter 10th grade at Patterson High in Baltimore. "What I noticed right away was his nose for going to the ball," Smith says. Smith convinced Dominique to stay, and he did. His father and mother, now divorced, moved to Washington, too, and Dominique stayed at times with each of them and his grandmother. Washington won consecutive state championships in Wilkins' junior and senior years, and as a senior he averaged 29 points and 16 rebounds a game. By now he was considered one of the state's most valuable natural resources. Dozens of colleges wanted Wilkins, and at first it appeared that he was headed for North Carolina State, 100 miles up the road in Raleigh.
But Wilkins vacillated under the recruiting strain and finally chose Georgia, which had been considered a long shot or a no shot. Some of the Washington town-folk responded by breaking windows in his mother's house and spilling paint on the car they claimed had been purchased for her by Georgia officials. Dominique's mother, Mrs. Gertrude Baker (she had remarried), said she had bought the car from a Washington automobile dealer, and had gotten it cheaply because of her son's fame.
"I had to have a strong mind to get through it," says Wilkins. "There's no doubt I lost a lot of friends over it. It was a crazy time. I was offered all sorts of stuff—cars, money, houses—by all sorts of people. Some of my high school counselors tried to mess with my grades. It made me grow up a little faster."
The prevailing view in Washington is that Wilkins wanted to go to N.C. State, but that his mother sold him on Georgia for her personal gain. Wilkins says that isn't so. "Yes, my mother wanted me to come here. And, yes, I almost went to State. But she didn't tell me what to do. It was my decision." For the record, Mrs. Baker, her husband and the remaining children at home now live in Atlanta, though not luxuriously. She worked for a time as a hotel maid but is now unemployed. Baker works in the Post Office. And no recruiting charges were ever filed against Georgia.
Durham says, "Our basic approach in recruiting Dominique was, 'Sure, you can go to State and be another David Thompson, but why don't you come to Georgia and be the one and only Dominique Wilkins?' " Norm Sloan, who recruited Wilkins for N.C. State, is now in his second year as head coach at Florida. In case Sloan had forgotten the bitter recruiting battle, which he hadn't, Dominique slam-dunked it in his face by scoring a career-high 37 points in Georgia's 90-74 rout of Florida last January. "The only hard feelings I have now is that I didn't get the chance to coach him," says Sloan. "You don't expect to coach one player like David Thompson. I almost coached two. I'll certainly never get over losing him."
Sloan calls Wilkins the best offensive rebounder ever to play college ball and potentially the best ever. "The only one who comes close is Moses Malone," says the coach.
Malone and Wilkins work in different ways. Malone is the classic power player, who bangs his way into position from close range. Wilkins is a swooper, the classic small forward. The swooper does not position himself too close to the basket because he needs room to work around a boxout and time to read the shot. Wilkins works from 12 to 15 feet. He leaves his feet earlier than other potential rebounders and he has a hang time you wouldn't believe.
Wilkins is ideally suited to swooping. "I've worked at it very hard," he says. "I concentrate on reading where shots are likely to come off. I just seem to know. And I've worked very hard at different ways to spin off guys outside. I know I want to lay back a little, then just explode up there." Wilkins has an impressive vertical jump of 47 inches, and he was a 6'6" high jumper in high school. He also ran a 49-second 440 and a 22-second 220. In Durham's demanding preseason series of 20 220s, Wilkins' last one is never slower than 23 seconds. His pigeon-toed running style is no good for distance (his personal best in the mile is about 5:30) but he is unmatched in Durham's line drills, an exhausting test of speed and agility. A good time for the line drill is 25 seconds; Wilkins' is about 23 seconds.
Wilkins seems to have no real basketball weaknesses, aside from those associated with many offensive stars: His defense and shot selection are not the best. If he improves in these areas, he will be an even more attractive—and expensive—package for the pros next year.
Wilkins was closer to leaving college for the NBA last spring than people at Georgia would like to believe. The stay-in-school advice offered by Maurice Lucas, whom Wilkins met at the Omni in Atlanta and now considers a valued adviser, might have swung the tide. Part of Wilkins' reasoning was pragmatic: If he could command $400,000 a year after a good sophomore season, he should be able to get even bigger bucks after a better junior year. Barring a mysterious slip in play like that suffered last season by Maryland's Albert King, Wilkins is probably right. Another part of his thinking made even more sense: He wanted to remain a kid at least one more year.
"I just wasn't ready to give up college life," says Wilkins, leaning back against the wall of his dorm room, the 180 poster overhead. "I like the socializing, my friends, everything about it." He's doing average work in his courses, which include business education, psychology and arts and crafts—"my one crib." His favorite is Home Management, which includes a session on the 1040 tax form. "Guess I'll have to know something about this pretty soon," he says.
His room is a way station for the entire Georgia team, and particularly for Darryl Lenard, a 5'6" freshman point guard. "I'm like his father," says Wilkins. There is always music on Wilkins' box (Earth, Wind and Fire is his favorite), and jocular insults or talk of pretty women.
The contrasts between Herschel Walker, a good friend, and Dominique are stark. Walker, reserved by nature, is visited weekly by countless publications. Wilkins, gregarious and open, is barely noticed, so he has yet to become jaded.
Wilkins is a big man on campus but eminently approachable. He strolls in to watch the women's team practice, and several players drift over. "Ah, look at these little ears," teases Denise Dunlap, pulling at his lobes. "You ever see such a big man with such little ears?" Later, walking around campus with his sister, Wanda, a freshman, he makes eye contact with an attractive coed but decides against a major move. "She knows who I am," says Dominique.
Best of all for Wilkins, Durham's recruiting pitch has come true. There is only one Dominique Wilkins around Athens, as a lunchtime encounter in a local steakhouse bears out. "Dominique, I don't know whether you remember me or not, but we met after one of your games last year," says a middle-aged woman, stopping at his table. "I had my little granddaughter with me. She's 3. Anyway, the other day we were riding by The Coliseum [Georgia's basketball arena] and I stopped the car and said, 'Honey, do you know who plays there?' And she said, 'Dominique, Grandmom. Dominique plays there.' "