Two-year-old Aisha Wilkins finger-rolled a handful of candy into her mouth and stared into her daddy's eyes.
"Can you say 'dunk,' Aisha?" asked Dominique Wilkins, her father.
"Dun," said Aisha.
Someone suggested she take a pass at "pass."
April 27, 1986
"Nah, she can't say that word," said Wilkins. "It's not in her family vocabulary." Then he leaned back and smiled.
That wouldn't have been so funny last season, back when Jacques Dominique Wilkins was just a high-jumping, basket-stuffing curiosity and not a Real Player. Wilkins was strictly sideshow. He peaked in the slam dunk championships on All-Star weekend and was then forgotten, like his Atlanta Hawks, while the prime-time small forwards—the Birds, the Worthys, the Ervings—were trotted out for the playoffs.
Well, wonder of wonders, deep into April the name of Dominique Wilkins is still on everyone's lips. After winning the NBA's regular-season scoring championship with a 30.3 average, Wilkins scored 28 and 50 points last week as the Hawks whipped the visiting Pistons 140-122 and 137-125 in what was supposed to be the most evenly contested of the NBA's first-round miniseries. One more win and the Hawks would advance to the second round for the first time since the 1978-79 season, when Wilkins was a high-flying senior for the Washington (N.C.) High School Pam-Pack.
What was most impressive about Wilkins' 50-point performance, the first in the playoffs since Bob McAdoo scored that many for Buffalo in 1975, was that his 19 field goals did not include a single dunk. (The next day, Chicago's Michael Jordan reached the 50 mark and then some with a playoff-record 63 against Boston, page 32.) There were square-up jumpers, post-up jumpers, jumpers off the break and jumpers off moves in the lane, but no dunks. A dunkless 50 for Wilkins is like Moonlighting without a glimpse of Cybill Shepherd's legs. It's just not supposed to happen.
"Boy, that's unbelievable, isn't it?" said Wilkins, shaking his head after the game. "No way this would've happened before this season."
A few days earlier, Wilkins had been pondering his reputation as he whipped his silver 500 SEC Mercedes in and out of traffic en route to his home in Marietta, a northwestern suburb of Atlanta. "This season I wanted to prove I was a total player," Wilkins said. "I wanted to change people's opinion of me. It bothered me that I had never made the All-Star team, that people thought all I could do was dunk. Well, I've proved it now. No question about it."
No question, indeed. And just as notable as the things Wilkins did last Saturday were two things he did not do. Late in the third period he was off and running in the open court, half in control and half out of control, when he cut short his one-man break and handed the ball to his point guard, Spud Webb. Atlanta then set up a half-court offense and Wilkins eventually hit two free throws. In another open-court situation, early in the fourth period, Wilkins handled the ball on a two-on-one break. What would it be: Spectacular dunk? Turnover? Neither. He pulled up and passed to Randy Wittman for an easy layup. The Hawks led 105-96 and never looked back.
Similar restraint has kept Wilkins from leaving the best part of his game in the warmup drills this season. " 'Nique used to do slam dunk championships in the warmups, and it tired him out," says reserve forward Scott Hastings. "He had a second-quarter sweat going before the game started. But he's learned."
What the rest of the NBA has learned is that Wilkins is not doing it alone anymore. Kevin Willis, a second-year power forward, scored 14 points in the second period and 22 overall in Atlanta's opening victory last Thursday night. Wittman, the technician, threw in a career-high 35 on Saturday. Off the bench, rookie Jon Koncak had 29 points and 14 rebounds in the two games. And all Webb did on Saturday was put up a 19-point, 18-assist, seven-rebound line.
Wilkins, 26, is just the best pair of young legs on the best collection of young legs in the NBA. Fortuitously, Wilkins and his coltish teammates (average NBA experience: 2.58 years, third lowest in the league) have hit their stride all at once, and a year or two earlier than anyone expected. "The best thing about this season is that 'Nique and the other guys were riding the same train," says coach Mike Fratello.
Fratello had a ticket, too. After guiding the Hawks to a 50-win season, Fratello, 39, is most assuredly the NBA's hottest young coach, not to mention its only size 39 short. But so what if Fratello, at 5'7", same as Spud, is small? His front-line rotation of Wilkins (6'8"), Tree Rollins (7'1"), Willis (7 feet), Cliff Levingston (6'8") and Koncak (7 feet) is not. Fratello should be coach of the year.
And Wilkins, so long maligned as a carny act, deserves to be all-NBA, right up there at forward next to Larry Bird. Back in early February, after Wilkins had been named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team for the first time, Bird said that Wilkins would have been the league's MVP if the vote had been taken then. And Wilkins did nothing to lower anyone's opinion of him during the rest of the season. He was Atlanta's leading scorer in 26 of its final 28 games (he sat out one of the two in which he wasn't) and his lowest point total during that stretch was 21. He edged Utah's Adrian Dantley (29.83) and Denver's Alex English (29.80) in the scoring race by averaging 39.2 points over the last six games. Even with Wilkins gunning for the title—"I'm sorry, but I'm unable to say that I put it out of my mind," he admits—Atlanta won four of those six. Wilkins also established single-season career highs in minutes, rebounds, assists and steals. At last there was some reason other than his acrobatic dunks to put the "Human Highlight Film," as he is called around the league, on the evening news.
At the start of the season there had been no reason to suspect that Wilkins would be anything but the lifeblood of a lottery team. The Hawks had finished the '84-85 season at 34-48. The backcourt was a disaster—Glenn Rivers was injured, Wittman was coming off knee surgery and Eddie Johnson was unsigned—so Fratello installed Wilkins at the big-guard spot. Observers could only imagine how many ill-advised jump shots he would hoist from that position. Having never met a field-goal attempt he didn't like, Dominique's major weakness had always been shot selection.
Further, Wilkins had alienated Hawk management two weeks before training camp opened in September when he announced that he was prepared to sit out the season if the Hawks didn't renegotiate his contract, which had two seasons plus an option year remaining. But he survived the contract squabble, and gradually the Hawks came together. Wilkins returned to forward after two games at guard. Rivers came back in December, though his season would continue to be injury-plagued, and Webb and Wittman were able to plug the backcourt holes. On Feb. 10, Johnson, a disruptive force, was traded to Cleveland for Johnny Davis, who fit in better. Up front, Willis developed into a force, while Levingston started to relish his role as sixth man. Rollins, who has been with the Hawks since 1977, felt like a kid again. Koncak, the fifth pick in the lottery last year, showed a toughness many thought he didn't have. And Fratello proved to be much more than a Hubie Brown clone as he juggled personnel and kept everyone happy.
"This year we played with a purpose," says Levingston. "Last year we were just punching the clock."
"I don't think we were really happy last year," says Rollins, an elder statesman at 30. "Management did some things we wondered about. And Mike was different this year—much, much looser. He made a big difference."
But the biggest difference was Wilkins. "No question," says Levingston. "Dominique accepted the responsibility of being our leader, the man who has to get us going."
Although Wilkins has the outward trappings of superstardom—his house is furnished in a style that might be called Rampant Consumerism—he is a warm and gentle individual, quick to smile, slow to anger. He supports his mother, three sisters, two brothers and his daughter, who splits her time between Los Angeles, where her mother lives, and the $250,000 house Wilkins bought for his own mother in Atlanta. And there's no way Webb would have survived the confusion of this crazy rookie season of his without Wilkins to lean on. It hurt Wilkins deeply when Webb, the sentimental favorite, dethroned him as the NBA's slam-dunk champion on All-Star weekend, yet Wilkins never suggested publicly that Webb didn't deserve the title. "He's been my big brother from day one," says Webb. "I don't know how I would've made it without him."
It's a good thing Wilkins' teammates feel that way about him because 'Nique is a guy who takes his role as a shooter seriously. Call him Atlanta's Twenty-Seven Percent Solution. He scored 27% of his team's points and took 27% of its shots. His 1,897 field-goal attempts led the league. ("After he took 37 shots in his 57-point game [his career-high total against New Jersey on April 10]," said Hawk p.r. man Bill Needle, "I went home and iced my elbow.") Both Dantley (.563) and English (.504) were more accurate from the floor than Wilkins (.468).
On the other hand, his 618 rebounds, 138 steals and 49 blocked shots easily surpassed Dantley and English. "Players can tell if a guy is selfish," says Rivers, "and Dominique, no matter how many shots he takes, is not a selfish player." Says Kasten: "I always thought he could win the scoring title, but I wondered if he could do it with a winning team. Dominique did that. He couldn't have been selfish and had us do as well as we did."
Wilkins could still use some reining in. He frequently overestimates his ability as a pure shooter, as he did on several occasions during a 9-for-26 night in the opener against the Pistons. "But when you have a creative, spectacular player like 'Nique," says Fratello, "there are some things you have to live with."
And pay for. The contract renegotiation, if it happens, will no doubt be an expensive one for the Hawks, as Wilkins will likely go after about $1 million per year. "I'm not looking for a Pat Ewing-type deal," he says, "but I've proved I'm in the class of the best small forwards in the league."
He has proved, too, that he's part of an even smaller group of players (Jordan, Erving, Webb and Worthy, perhaps) who have that something extra—the ability, as Kasten puts it, "to make the whole building catch its breath." Even if he scored 50 without a jam last weekend, it's a safe bet that Wilkins will never let Aisha forget that her father can "dun" with the best of them.