To a great extent Dominique Wilkins's life finally came together after his right Achilles tendon tore apart. As Wilkins was carried off the floor of the Omni last Jan. 28, in the second period of that fateful game against the Philadelphia 76ers—"feeling like I was shot," he said later—many NBA observers felt that his high-flying career was over. His talent had never been questioned, but what he lacked, the critics claimed, was the discipline he would need to rehabilitate the injured tendon away from the fans, the bright lights and the box scores.
Wilkins's game, after all, was based on his athleticism—explosive quickness and uncanny midair adjustments—and thus was more susceptible to the ravages of injury. No one could imagine Wilkins, a.k.a. the Human Highlight Film, returning to the Atlanta Hawk lineup as a hobbling outside shooter or as a postup player without a set of springs.
But for the first time in his life, Wilkins really went to work. Four times a week, starting just days after surgery repaired the tendon, he reported to the Georgia Sports Institute in suburban Atlanta for 90-minute workouts to keep the rest of his body in condition. When the cast came off in March, the workouts intensified. To strengthen his right leg he lifted weights, rode a stationary bike and exercised in a swimming pool. In March he began walking and, finally, jogging, as much as four miles at a stretch, a distance he had previously covered only by car. "I realized I was up against it," says Wilkins, who before the injury had missed only 18 games in nine pro seasons. "I was always in decent shape, but I wasn't the kind of guy who did a lot of off-season work. After the injury I was facing one big off-season."
It was during one of what Wilkins calls his "depression stages," just a few weeks after the injury, that he spotted a 22-year-old model turned student named Nicole Berry at a charity function in Atlanta. "I walked...I mean I crutched right on over to her," says Wilkins, "and, I'm telling you, I knew she was the one. It was that quick." It was not quite that quick for Berry—"Love at second or third sight," she says—but she and Wilkins were married on Sept. 26, seven months after they first met.
Throughout the long months of rehabilitation, Berry was the voice in Wilkins's ear, sometimes soothing, sometimes scolding. "Dominique was highly motivated to come back, and most of the time he did everything we asked," says Alan Goldstein, who supervised Wilkins's rehabilitation. "But when he did miss a workout, I called Nicole, and she got on his butt."
The result? Wilkins and his u-'Nique brand of basketball are back. Through last weekend he was averaging 28.0 points a game, 1.8 better than his career mark, and trailing only the Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan (33.7) and the Utah Jazz's Karl Malone (29.5). (Trivia fans might remember that the last player other than Jordan to win an NBA scoring title was Wilkins, when he averaged 30.3 points a game in 1985-86; Jordan missed most of the season because of a broken left foot.) The new Wilkins is certainly more economical with his dunks, a concession more to his age than to his injury. But then there are still moments like the one on Nov. 25 in Philadelphia when he stormed down the lane and tomahawked a vicious slam against the 76ers. For a moment Wilkins, who turns 33 on Jan. 12, could have been mistaken for the guy who won All-Star slam-dunk contests in '85 and '90. "He just might be the youngest 33 in basketball," says Hawk president Stan Kasten.
Wilkins's return to his preinjury form may be a welcome sight in Atlanta, but that form has never pleased purists, who have always found something lacking in his dazzling game, however productive and show-stopping it might be. Despite a superb 1990-91 season, during which he scored 25.9 points per game while amassing career highs in rebounds and assists, Wilkins seemed to get very little consideration for the Olympic team. Chuck Daly, who coached the Dream Team to the gold medal in August, tries to put a positive spin on that. "If there were a next 10, then 'Nique would've been the first guy chosen," he says. Then, remembering his old charges from the Detroit Pistons, Daly, who now coaches the New Jersey Nets, quickly adds, "Well, 'Nique or Joe [Dumars] or Isiah [Thomas]."
But Wilkins knows that, despite having been the fourth-biggest point producer among active NBA players (behind Moses Malone, the then active Larry Bird and Robert Parish), he was not seriously considered for the squad. "It bothers me, sure it does," he says. "I'd never say anybody shouldn't have been there, but I think I could've been on the team, too. I don't think, all in all, I've gotten respect over the years. I really don't know why. Maybe it's because we haven't won it all. It seems like I'm the guy who's always right there on center stage, but somebody comes in and...." He smiles ruefully. "Like that Boston game."
To an extent Wilkins's career is frozen in time, back on the afternoon of Sunday, May 22, 1988, in Boston Garden, when, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, he and Bird staged one of the most dramatic shootouts in NBA history. Wilkins scored 16 points in the fourth period and 47 for the game; Bird scored 20 in the fourth, 34 for the game. It was the crowning moment of Wilkins's career, yet it came during a loss—the Celtics won 118-116—and was, thus, diminished.
"I think about that game a lot," says Wilkins. "I have it on tape, and, yeah, I get it out and look at it every once in a while. Some of my greatest games were against Larry, and he had some great ones against me, too. Bird, Magic and Michael, those are the guys who have always brought out the best in me."