NBA at 75: Wilkins soared in 1980s, often felt unappreciated
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins, the “Human Highlight Film,” played his college basketball at Georgia and is best known from his NBA days as the biggest star that the Atlanta Hawks ever had. As part of an Associated Press series on the NBA at 75, Wilkins talks about what it was like to be part of the league during the transformative decade that was the 1980s, and how the city of Atlanta has become his home.)
I say this to people all the time: I’m not from Atlanta, but I am from Atlanta.
Where I’m truly from is a matter of interpretation. I was born in Paris. I’ve lived in Dallas, Oklahoma and Baltimore. I played in Los Angeles, Boston, San Antonio, Orlando, Greece and Italy. I grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina.
But I played college basketball at Georgia. And I spent most of my career in Atlanta. I still live and work in Atlanta. So I say I’m from there.
Atlanta has always appreciated me, which is important, because I’ve often felt unappreciated, period. I never played with another superstar in their prime and a lot of people never really gave me the credit for what I’ve done. Not having another superstar to play with, I still competed on the highest level.
When I came out of high school, because I’d signed with the University of Georgia, they ran me out of that little small town in Washington, North Carolina. I had a cross burning in my yard, so I know what it looks like. And I never experienced anything like that until I went south. I’ve seen it firsthand. But I’ve always been the person to stand above it all and try to take a negative and turn it into a positive and not let them discredit who I am or treat me less than a man.
When I was in high school, we had a Black prom and a white prom. The Black prom was at the recreation center, the white prom at the high school. I can’t make this up.
Racism was and is real, of course, but I never felt it in a locker room. It was kind of hidden in different ways, but I never experienced it really as a professional. I didn’t feel it until later, believe it or not. But even when I was in college, the Georgia faithful treated me like I was their native son.
There’s a lot of things that guys would talk about back then. You had some subtle conversations about how players were perceived. If you had a great athlete, a white guy who’s very intelligent, he would have a “high basketball IQ.” You heard a lot of that stuff. But you rarely ever heard during that time that an African-American player had a “high basketball IQ.” It was those subtle type of racist statements that were made back then. But over time guys have used their platform to really hold people accountable for what they say. And I think it’s great that they have done that.
I made the NBA’s 75th anniversary team. I didn’t understand why I didn’t make the 50th anniversary team. It’s amazing because at that time, when that team was picked in 1996, I was seventh all-time league scorer in history. I was like, “Am I missing something here?” And what I did, not playing with another superstar ... I mean, people don’t understand how hard that is, particularly in the 80’s, in the East. I was double-teamed every night. I would get Larry Bird one night, James Worthy another night, Larry Nance, Bernard King, Julius Erving, every single night. It was just a super competitive time where you had real rivalries. But it made basketball for me so much fun to play.
It was a great time. I mean the 80′s basketball, man, I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. That was a great time. Superstar after superstar. And then you had young superstars coming, when the Michael Jordan arrival happened. It was just a wonderful time to play professional basketball.
And I’m so proud to have played it in Atlanta, for Atlanta.
Dominique Wilkins is a member of the NBA’s 75th Anniversary team and a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
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