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.