This article was written by John Frierson for Georgiadogs.com. To view the original article, click here.
He soared and he scored. He attacked the rim with power, perhaps never-before-seen power, yet also possessed a shooter’s touch. Georgia men’s basketball legend Dominique Wilkins was, quite simply, extraordinary.
A 6-foot-8 forward from Washington, N.C., Wilkins arrived in Athens in the fall of 1979 and quickly set the tone for what was to come. As a freshman, he led the Bulldogs in scoring with 18.6 points per game. As a sophomore, his average went up to 23.6 per game, tops in the SEC, and in his junior season, his last with the Bulldogs, Wilkins scored 21.3 points per game.
“Those were the fun days, man,” Wilkins said with a laugh.
Wilkins wasn’t just a scorer, however. His rebounding averages went up each season at Georgia, capped by 8.1 boards a game as a junior, and despite sharing the court with a very talented and athletic center in Terry Fair, it was Wilkins who led Georgia in blocks — he had 142 in his career — his last two seasons.
“The thing that impressed me the most about him was that he practiced just as hard as he played,” said former teammate Derrick Floyd. “He made everybody in practice work harder. If you stole the ball from him, he was going to follow you down the court and block your shot.”
A two-time All-American, three-time All-SEC pick, and the AP and UPI SEC Player of the Year in 1981, Wilkins was a force in college basketball during his time in Athens from 1979-82. In 2016, Wilkins and his Georgia coach, Hugh Durham, were inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. Wilkins was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.
“I think when you’re in college you’re always pretty raw, but Coach Durham did a great job of teaching us the fundamentals of the game. He was a great teacher,” Wilkins said.
“You’re always looking to get a player that’s going to catch the imagination of your fans, and we had other good players to go along with Dominique, but nobody had the impact that Dominique had,” Durham once said during a CBS College Sports piece on college basketball’s greatest dunkers.
The opening line of Wilkins’ biography on the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame website reads: “In the pantheon of basketball’s greatest dunkers, Dominique Wilkins deserves mention alongside such legends as Elgin Baylor, Connie Hawkins and the great Julius Erving.”
Any time you’re mentioned next to a player like Dr. J, you’ve done something pretty spectacular. Wilkins indeed was spectacular, both with the Bulldogs for three seasons and then in the NBA, where he was drafted No. 3 overall in 1982 and spent most of his career nearby with the Atlanta Hawks. In his fourth season in the NBA, Wilkins led the league in scoring with 30.3 points per game.
A two-time NBA Slam Dunk Contest champion, and one of the men to beat during all five of his appearances — he lost thrilling battles against Michael Jordan and Spud Webb — Wilkins was called the “Human Highlight Film” for years, and for good reason. But there was far more to Wilkins’ game than just throwing down monster jams.
During his 15-year NBA career, the nine-time All-Star and member of seven All-NBA teams averaged 24.8 points and 6.7 rebounds a game. He currently ranks 14th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list with 24,019 career points. There is a 17,500-pound bronze statue of Wilkins outside of State Farm Arena in Atlanta.
When the NBA released its 75th Anniversary Team in October, Wilkins was among the players selected. It was a welcome honor, especially after being left off the 50th Anniversary Team.
“It feels great. You’re immortalized now when you’re recognized in that way. I’m so in awe and appreciative of what I’ve been given — but it’s been earned,” said Wilkins, now 62 years old and very busy as the Hawks’ Vice President of Basketball and Special Advisor to the CEO, as well as the analyst on Hawks TV broadcasts on Bally Sports Southeast.
Wilkins was for a lot of us the hoops equivalent to football’s Herschel Walker — both were Bulldogs in the early 1980s and both exhibited dynamic and explosive talent the likes of which we’d never before seen. While Walker was running over defenders on the gridiron, Wilkins was often soaring over them for powerful dunks, or stepping out and hitting a 15-footer from the elbow.
Coming out of high school, Wilkins chose to play for Durham and Georgia because he wanted the chance to help elevate a program rather than sign with an established power. In his sophomore and junior seasons, the Bulldogs went 19-12 and played in the NIT postseason tournament. In his final home game, against Virginia Tech in the 1982 NIT, Wilkins lit up Stegeman Coliseum with 27 points and 15 rebounds.
In his last two seasons with the Bulldogs, Wilkins played alongside great players like Fair, point guard Vern Fleming and forward James Banks, who would be the backbone of Georgia’s squad that reached the Final Four in 1983.
“When we came there, we built something that was very special,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins and Walker were just two of the greats suiting for Georgia teams at the beginning of the 1980s. The Lady Bulldogs women’s basketball team was emerging as a national power at that time, led by future Hall of Famers Janet Harris, Teresa Edwards and Katrina McClain.
“That was a great time to be a part of Georgia sports,” Wilkins said. “The football team was always great, basketball was being put on the map for really the first time, and we had a lot of fun. It set up for a great stay at Georgia for me.
“The three years I was there, I had a wonderful time. I didn’t want to leave, actually, but it was time for me to go and show my talents in the pros.”
And show his talents he did, regularly going up and excelling against the likes of Jordan and Larry Bird while elevating the Hawks to one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
Wilkins’ iconic No. 21 jersey was retired in 1991 — the first Bulldog to receive the honor — but he wasn’t the last Wilkins to play for the Bulldogs. His nephew, Damien Wilkins, the son of his brother Gerald, who also had a long NBA career, played for the Bulldogs for two seasons (2003-04) before going on to play in the NBA for a decade.
“Oh, man, that was great,” Wilkins said.
Floyd, the longtime Director of Operations at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Athens and official scorer at Georgia men’s and women’s basketball games, has seen maybe more games at Stegeman Coliseum over the past 40-plus years than anyone. His favorite memory from Wilkins’ days didn’t come during a game, though.
“We were running this play in practice where I threw it to him and then I get it back while he pretends like he’s going away from the play, but then I throw it up to him at the rim. LSU was in the gym waiting to practice before we played them the next day and Coach Durham was talking to (LSU coach) Dale Brown,” Floyd said with a laugh.
“I threw it up to Dominique but the throw was way off and I was like, ‘Man, he’s not going to be able to get that.’ And he went up and got it way outside the backboard and slammed it. LSU’s players were like ‘Oooh!’ Dale Brown was under the basket like ‘Oooh!’ We ended up leaving practice after that. Coach Durham was like, ‘All right, practice is over!'”
A special talent as a Bulldog and with the Hawks, Wilkins set the standard for basketball excellence in the state of Georgia.
Assistant Sports Communications Director John Frierson is the staff writer for the UGA Athletic Association and curator of the ITA Men’s Tennis Hall of Fame. You can find his work at: Frierson Files. He’s also on Twitter: @FriersonFiles and @ITAHallofFame.