Not just the Human Highlight Film
Former Hawks great Dominique Wilkins is synonymous with the dunk contest
The downside to dunking: 'Nique didn't get due credit for the rest of his game
Wilkins mourns the event's loss of cachet and participation by current stars
Nary a day goes by that someone Dominique Wilkins doesn't know, someone he's never met before, tells him how much the former Atlanta Hawk's dunks meant to him as a basketball fan or, at least, thrilled him as a television viewer. Sometimes this stranger is talking about highlight plays from serious NBA action, Hawks vs. Celtics, Hawks vs. Sixers, of the sort that earned Wilkins his nickname (the Human Highlight Film). More often than not, it's some gush or other about the slam dunk contest from All-Star weekend, the event on which Wilkins put his signature from its inception in 1984.
"All the time,'' Wilkins said in a phone interview last week, the silver anniversary of the silly but still compelling event fast approaching. "Back then, it wasn't a sideshow. It was entertainment at its highest level. People came to the All-Star Game to see the dunk contest. It was a wonderful time.''
Back then -- Wilkins participated in five of the first seven dunk contests at NBA All-Star weekend, winning twice (1985, 1990) and arguably getting jobbed out of a third (1988) -- the event was as glamorous and gaudy as the Sunday game itself, the names of the contestants as big as or bigger than the players who filled the front rows to marvel, gawk and cheer.
Inspired by the mythical 1976 contest at the ABA All-Star Game in Denver, in which Julius Erving beat David Thompson with his famous free-throw line takeoff, the NBA held a largely forgotten version at the 1977 All-Star Game in Milwaukee (Darnell Hillman topped Larry McNeil, which might explain the "largely forgotten'' fate). But by 1984 -- just days before David Stern was to begin his reign as NBA commissioner -- the dunkathon was back, bigger and better.
That first year, Erving, Wilkins, Clyde Drexler, Darrell Griffith, Ralph Sampson, Larry Nance, Michael Cooper, Orlando Woolridge and Edgar Jones -- all but Jones were solid NBA starters or better -- competed. Eventually, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen would take part, too, bumping the list of actual or projected Hall of Famers through 1990 to five. In the 18 fields of entrants since, you'd have trouble coming up with more than five others who eventually might walk into the Naismith Memorial shrine in Springfield, Mass., without a ticket (Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, Ray Allen and Dwight Howard).
Wilkins mourns the event's loss of cachet.
"I wish I could explain why these young guys don't do it,'' he said. "For me, I would love to see LeBron, Dwyane and Kobe. With us, everybody wanted to know who the best was. It was competition and it was camaraderie.''
Erving was 33 when he competed in 1984 and he came back the next year, too, just two years before his retirement. Wilkins had turned 24 two weeks before All-Star weekend and was at the height of his hops that first year, but won it again at age 30. Jordan participated in three of his first four seasons (he missed in 1986 due to injury) but never looked back after 1988, days before he turned 25. That probably was where the "Be Like Mike'' mind-set came from, the dunk contest as more gimmick than glory. Something for the young fellas.
Some will even argue it became to pro hoops what nude scene are to movies -- fine for the starlets, not so great for serious actresses. That look-down-the-nose attitude and a succession of winners whose other skills never matched their dunking -- Miner, Rider, Dee Brown, Cedric Ceballos, Fred Jones, Gerald Green -- turned it into something from which to graduate.
For instance, Hawks coach Mike Woodson admitted that he had much work to do after Josh Smith won the event at age 19 in 2005.
"Here was a kid who came right out of high school and didn't have a clue what NBA basketball was about,'' Woodson said. "Now he wins the dunk contest and everybody probably thinks he's the best since Dr. J. I tried to keep a balanced foundation around him to let him know, 'It's just two points when you dunk the basketball.' ''
Even Wilkins admits he might have stayed too long at the ball.
"The people who come up to me, what I don't enjoy is when they think of me only as a dunker,'' he said. "Even at the Hall of Fame, when they were introducing me, they started out, 'Two-time slam dunk winner ...' I was back there thinking, 'Man, I did some other things.' ''
Wilkins was inducted in 2006, his second year of eligibility rather than his first, and believes the "dunker'' label made him wait. By the way, his bio on the Hall's Web site 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. Wilkins was a high flyer who electrified fans with his trademark windmill dunk and all-out effort.'' Only later does it mention his 11 consecutive seasons of averaging more than 20 points per game or his 1986 scoring title or his status as the Hawks' points and steals leader.
The biggest slight, though, came in 1997 when the NBA commissioned a panel to selected its 50 greatest players as part of the league's golden anniversary, and Wilkins wasn't chosen.
"I think that was a mistake,'' said former NBA forward Jim Petersen, now a Timberwolves broadcaster. "Dominique was a great basketball player. He was a go-to guy. He was clutch. He was durable. He was a good [foul shooter]. He was the greatest in-game dunker I ever saw, and he did some crazy things for a long period of time. I think he gets shortchanged.''
Said Wilkins of his absence from the 50: "It was shocking. I'll tell you something, a lot of my peers were shocked by it. [Larry] Bird, Magic [Johnson], first thing they said to me was, 'Man, you got screwed.' They knew what I brought every night.''