To a great extent Dominique Wilkins's life finally came together after his right Achilles tendon tore apart. As Wilkins was carried off the floor of the Omni last Jan. 28, in the second period of that fateful game against the Philadelphia 76ers—"feeling like I was shot," he said later—many NBA observers felt that his high-flying career was over. His talent had never been questioned, but what he lacked, the critics claimed, was the discipline he would need to rehabilitate the injured tendon away from the fans, the bright lights and the box scores.
Wilkins's game, after all, was based on his athleticism—explosive quickness and uncanny midair adjustments—and thus was more susceptible to the ravages of injury. No one could imagine Wilkins, a.k.a. the Human Highlight Film, returning to the Atlanta Hawk lineup as a hobbling outside shooter or as a postup player without a set of springs.
But for the first time in his life, Wilkins really went to work. Four times a week, starting just days after surgery repaired the tendon, he reported to the Georgia Sports Institute in suburban Atlanta for 90-minute workouts to keep the rest of his body in condition. When the cast came off in March, the workouts intensified. To strengthen his right leg he lifted weights, rode a stationary bike and exercised in a swimming pool. In March he began walking and, finally, jogging, as much as four miles at a stretch, a distance he had previously covered only by car. "I realized I was up against it," says Wilkins, who before the injury had missed only 18 games in nine pro seasons. "I was always in decent shape, but I wasn't the kind of guy who did a lot of off-season work. After the injury I was facing one big off-season."
It was during one of what Wilkins calls his "depression stages," just a few weeks after the injury, that he spotted a 22-year-old model turned student named Nicole Berry at a charity function in Atlanta. "I walked...I mean I crutched right on over to her," says Wilkins, "and, I'm telling you, I knew she was the one. It was that quick." It was not quite that quick for Berry—"Love at second or third sight," she says—but she and Wilkins were married on Sept. 26, seven months after they first met.
Throughout the long months of rehabilitation, Berry was the voice in Wilkins's ear, sometimes soothing, sometimes scolding. "Dominique was highly motivated to come back, and most of the time he did everything we asked," says Alan Goldstein, who supervised Wilkins's rehabilitation. "But when he did miss a workout, I called Nicole, and she got on his butt."
The result? Wilkins and his u-'Nique brand of basketball are back. Through last weekend he was averaging 28.0 points a game, 1.8 better than his career mark, and trailing only the Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan (33.7) and the Utah Jazz's Karl Malone (29.5). (Trivia fans might remember that the last player other than Jordan to win an NBA scoring title was Wilkins, when he averaged 30.3 points a game in 1985-86; Jordan missed most of the season because of a broken left foot.) The new Wilkins is certainly more economical with his dunks, a concession more to his age than to his injury. But then there are still moments like the one on Nov. 25 in Philadelphia when he stormed down the lane and tomahawked a vicious slam against the 76ers. For a moment Wilkins, who turns 33 on Jan. 12, could have been mistaken for the guy who won All-Star slam-dunk contests in '85 and '90. "He just might be the youngest 33 in basketball," says Hawk president Stan Kasten.
Wilkins's return to his preinjury form may be a welcome sight in Atlanta, but that form has never pleased purists, who have always found something lacking in his dazzling game, however productive and show-stopping it might be. Despite a superb 1990-91 season, during which he scored 25.9 points per game while amassing career highs in rebounds and assists, Wilkins seemed to get very little consideration for the Olympic team. Chuck Daly, who coached the Dream Team to the gold medal in August, tries to put a positive spin on that. "If there were a next 10, then 'Nique would've been the first guy chosen," he says. Then, remembering his old charges from the Detroit Pistons, Daly, who now coaches the New Jersey Nets, quickly adds, "Well, 'Nique or Joe [Dumars] or Isiah [Thomas]."
But Wilkins knows that, despite having been the fourth-biggest point producer among active NBA players (behind Moses Malone, the then active Larry Bird and Robert Parish), he was not seriously considered for the squad. "It bothers me, sure it does," he says. "I'd never say anybody shouldn't have been there, but I think I could've been on the team, too. I don't think, all in all, I've gotten respect over the years. I really don't know why. Maybe it's because we haven't won it all. It seems like I'm the guy who's always right there on center stage, but somebody comes in and...." He smiles ruefully. "Like that Boston game."
To an extent Wilkins's career is frozen in time, back on the afternoon of Sunday, May 22, 1988, in Boston Garden, when, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, he and Bird staged one of the most dramatic shootouts in NBA history. Wilkins scored 16 points in the fourth period and 47 for the game; Bird scored 20 in the fourth, 34 for the game. It was the crowning moment of Wilkins's career, yet it came during a loss—the Celtics won 118-116—and was, thus, diminished.
"I think about that game a lot," says Wilkins. "I have it on tape, and, yeah, I get it out and look at it every once in a while. Some of my greatest games were against Larry, and he had some great ones against me, too. Bird, Magic and Michael, those are the guys who have always brought out the best in me."
The problem for Wilkins, according to his critics, is that unlike the trinity mentioned above, he has never brought out the best in his teammates. His passing is erratic, his shot selection is sometimes frightening, and his leadership is uninspired. But all players, even the great ones, are subject to at least some of those weaknesses. Bird probably put up more no-hope heaves than any man in history; Magic went through periods of turnoveritis; and lord knows Jordan has battled openly with his teammates. Wilkins's main difficulty is that the Hawks have not been winners, not even near winners over the last few seasons. Atlanta's fall into the league's nether regions, in fact, followed hard upon the Bird-Wilkins showdown at the Garden, and the Hawks have remained there ever since. After a 112-100 victory over the Miami Heat last Saturday, Atlanta stood at a middling 6-6, and being somewhere around .500 is its most likely destiny for the 1992-93 season.
"Look, 'Nique's a hired gun," said Daly after the Nets beat the Hawks 108-101 on Nov. 19. "He has a scorer's mentality, and the question with scorers always is, Do they do enough of the other things? Clearly, Dominique does."
What are some of these "other things"?
In the season opener, in Chicago, Wilkins left the man he was guarding and blocked a Jordan jumper in the final seconds to preserve a 100-99 victory. In San Antonio five nights later, Wilkins made two huge defensive plays in the late going—stripping Spur guard Vinny Del Negro of the ball and swiping a pass from center David Robinson—to secure a 104-97 win. He made only six of 22 shots against Birdless Boston on Nov. 23 but had nine rebounds and eight assists in a 101-97 victory.
On the other hand Wilkins's body sometimes still moves faster than his dribble. He spends more time with his hand in the air than the class nerd; while his begging for the ball is sometimes justified, he also asks for it when he's clearly not open. The rust that accumulated during the months without basketball manifests itself in what Hawk assistant Bob Weinhauer calls slips, times when Wilkins heads for the basket and either leaves the ball behind, dribbles it off his foot or commits some other egregious faux move. In truth his game is pretty much what it always was—a wondrous, unpredictable carnival that includes a lot of high-wire success and a degree of low-comedy error.
"You know what I thought when I saw Dominique out there tonight?" said Net assistant coach Brendan Suhr after the Nov. 19 game. "I didn't think about whether he was always making the correct pass or the correct fundamental play. I just thought about how great it was for the fans and players to see him playing hard, giving everything he's got, after the injury. I hope everybody appreciates that."
The biggest change in Wilkins's life in the last year has come off the court, where Nicole, mature beyond her 22 years, has given him a much needed stability. Certainly his marriage brought an end to one of the more active bachelor lives in the NBA—it was entirely fitting that Duke Ellington's Don't Get Around Much Anymore was a selection offered by a harp-and-flute duct before the nuptials at the Georgian Terrace in Atlanta. With typical Wilkins candor, he had been one of the few NBA players to admit being "scared to death" by his own life-style after Magic revealed in November 1991 that he had tested positive for the AIDS virus. He also admits that he has changed his own life-style "quite a bit." He's deeply in love with his wife, about whom he can't stop talking for longer than five minutes, but he's also honest enough to say, "It's just a good time to be married."
Certainly Nicole's arrival was well timed for Dominique, whose private life has always been in desperate need of organization. "Dominique is nice, warm, unpretentious, kind of like a little boy," Nicole said recently, sitting at the courtside seat in the Omni from where she often sees Dominique make what she calls "ga-ga eyes" at her during games. "Those were the qualities that attracted me to him and make everyone like him. But they're also the qualities that make saying no a problem for him. Well, I say no."
Nicole, who left a promising modeling career, as she says, "to get back to the thinking world" (she's taking courses in anthropology and math at Georgia State, toward a possible degree in biology), has greatly curtailed the influence in Dominique's life of his mother, Gertrude Baker. Nicole has taken control of the family checkbook and has limited the monies flowing to Dominique's mother, as well as to his seven brothers and sisters, all of whom have long benefited from his largess. Baker had previously been involved in all aspects of Dominique's life, including contract negotiations and personal finances. She was a big reason that at least a dozen different people have had their hands in Wilkins's contractual and endorsement affairs over the years.
To say that Nicole's entrance into the family was not warmly received by Baker would be a serious understatement. "She [Nicole] is writing his checks now," Baker said before the marriage, in an article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "She thinks we're leeching off Dominique." Baker threatened to boycott the wedding but showed up at the last minute. It's anyone's guess what domestic fireworks the future might bring.
Also, Nicole has reduced Dominique's off-the-court commitments, and she makes sure he keeps those he does schedule. (Dominique's previous M.O. was to schedule 10 appointments and then show up for five.) And in the days leading up to their marriage, Nicole stood stoutly beside Dominique during a well-publicized legal battle with Elizabeth Webster, an Atlanta woman who in 1991 bore him a child and later accused him of sexual battery. Webster's charges were eventually thrown out of court but not before they generated a lot of premarital attention. Friends now say they notice a new maturity about Dominique, owing to both the sobering effects of the injury and the presence of Nicole.
Enjoying lunch one recent afternoon in Little T's, his favorite Atlanta soul food haunt, Wilkins was interrupted by a man shoving a box of doughnuts in his face.
" 'Nique, you're my main man," he said. "Could you sign this box for me?"
"Please, I'm eating now," said Wilkins, putting down his fork. "If you could wait a couple minutes, I'll sign when I'm done."
The man shuffled away and sat at an unoccupied table, staring balefully at Wilkins. He didn't have to wait long. "Man, I can't stand it having him there looking at me," said Wilkins, motioning to the man to return. Wilkins borrowed a pen and signed. That's 'Nique in a nutshell—soft touch on the court, softer touch off it.
Chances are, though, the injury has made him a little harder. It gave him a glimpse of his own mortality and awakened him to the fact that he is not indestructible. His brother, Gerald, a guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers, has noticed a change. "The game was always easy for 'Nique," says Gerald. "But when he was forced to sit out and work to come back, he looked at it from a different viewpoint. It made him mentally tougher."
Now can he make the Hawks tougher and win an NBA title, the yardstick that measures all truly great players? Probably not. Atlanta is far from being a title contender, and Wilkins's $2.9 million-per-year deal (negotiated by David Falk, who has represented Wilkins for three years, a longevity record for a Wilkins agent) is up after the 1993-94 season.
"I've always wanted to win in Atlanta," said Wilkins, growing contemplative over his chicken and rice. "I feel like this is home, the only place I've ever wanted to play, and I hope we can work something out. But, yeah, I've got to face the fact that we're pretty far from a championship here and that maybe there's a better place for me." He smiled. "I'll tell you, though, I feel better than ever, and wherever it is, I'll be playing till they kick me out."