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Mike Fish Straight Shooting

Forgotten son

After being left out for years, Wilkins finally embraced by Hawks

Posted: Sunday June 27, 2004 7:51PM; Updated: Sunday June 27, 2004 7:51PM
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  Dominique Wilkins
'Nique hopes to help Hawks CEO Bernie Mullin find the next Human Highlight Film.
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

How's a high-flyer to feel when everywhere he looks guys he played with are running the show? Damn frustrated. Awfully ticked off. If you need confirmation, ask Dominique Wilkins.

Until recently, Wilkins would be the first to say, he held as much clout with Atlanta Hawks' brass as long-time mascot Harry the Hawk. Maybe even less. He was an executive without an office. A hoops icon --you're old enough to remember the Human Highlight Film, right? -- paraded out on occasion to sign autographs and press the flesh.

This is ego-wrenching stuff for a retired star. Especially when great players of his era are off on sweet gigs in the NBA. Guys like Doc Rivers and Danny Ainge, Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, Chris Mullin and Kiki Vandeweghe. Even Charles Barkley has found a niche making millions off a gift of gab.

'Nique, well, he's finally catching up with his middle-aged competition. After the Hawks were sold this spring to the Atlanta Spirit partnership, Wilkins was promoted to vice president of basketball operations -- a notch under GM Billy Knight -- and offered a chance to buy a small stake in the ownership group, which probably won't be much more than a percent or so.

So, his business standing isn't yet in a league with Magic Johnson, but at least the guy has a basketball pulse again -- and that's good. When the Hawks' brain trust hunkered down for the NBA Draft Thursday night, coming out of the first round with Stanford junior Josh Childress and high-flying Atlanta teenager Josh Smith, Wilkins was in the draft room making his opinions known. He'd worked out potential draft picks coming through Atlanta and spent a week in Chicago at the pre-draft camp.

"Before, I was just a face,'' says Wilkins, 44. "That is all well and good, but I think I add a heckuva lot more than just being a figurehead. I wanted the opportunity to do more.

"It gets to a point where the PR stuff, the community stuff and just being the face of our franchise gets old. You don't get a chance to display your true talent. I just wasn't given very much authority to do anything. And for me that was difficult.''

Yet it didn't lead to a public stink or any outward bitterness. Instead, Wilkins bit his lip, kept cashing the checks and watched as the old regime, i.e. GM Pete Babcock and team president Stan Kasten, made questionable personnel and coaching decisions.

What bugged him most is that rarely was his opinion sought. He says he wasn't consulted on the draft until Knight took over last year. And yet while slotted in an inconsequential and undefined front-office role, he looked around the league and saw guys he made his name against calling shots upstairs or on the bench.

"What people fail to realize is, if we don't know anything else in this world, we know basketball,'' he says. "That is a simple fact. When people say great players don't make great coaches or great GMs -- well, the only reason they became great is they had to teach themselves. A lot of times they don't think you can teach the game. But guys like myself, Bird, Isiah, Magic, Chris Mullin -- we know this game. It's simple as that.''

Wilkins admits to having for the longest time the bug to teach the game, to coach. Judging from the road the Hawks went down, he's probably better off no one called him on it. The Hawks have morphed into an East Coast version of the L.A. Clippers. They're currently without a coach ('Nique is no longer interested) and entered Thursday night's draft with only four players under contract.

Let's crunch the numbers on this sorry mess. If you go back five seasons, or about the time Ted Turner exited for his Montana ranch and Time Warner came on the scene, the franchise is 112 games shy of playing .500 basketball. Not the stuff that puts fans in seats or keeps coaches employed very long.

"Well, I don't think we can go any lower than we have been,'' says Wilkins, candidly. "It is all uphill for us now.''

Wilkins says the reason for optimism, other than things can't possible get any worse, is the energy of new ownership. Of course, that same group has dramatically ushered him into the loop, so maybe he's a bit biased. But he makes a fair point in suggesting that individual owners -- five of the nine being from Atlanta -- figure to have greater passion in seeing the franchise succeed than a distant, faceless mega-corporation.

Fact is, the old high-flyer again has his fingerprints on the franchise. And who knows, if the Hawks ever turn it around, Wilkins might land a spot in SI's 101 Most Influential Minorities in Sports -- joining contemporaries who dot the list such as Dumars (20th), Thomas (27), Michael Jordan (34), Terry Porter (82) and Johnson (91).

Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.

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