"Had Dominique gone hardship, he would've been the second or third pick in the draft," says Marty Blake, director of the NBA Scouting Bureau. "Why? Because he's better than anyone else."
Wilkins was tempted to bite at Detroit's four-year, $1.6 million offer last spring, but eight hours before the midnight, April 25th deadline for filing for early eligibility, he rejected the NBA to remain at Georgia.
"I honestly thought we had him," says Piston General Manager Jack McCloskey. Though Wilkins says he hasn't decided whether to turn pro after this season, the chances are good that he will.
Jacques Dominique Wilkins was born in the basketball hotbed of Paris, France, the son of an Army man. He was named by his French baby-sitter. His father was transferred back to the States when Dominique was 3, and Dominique, his three brothers and four sisters lived in Dallas and Fort Sill, Okla. before the family finally settled in Baltimore. Dominique learned his lessons on the tough playgrounds at Patterson Park and Sparrows Point, where fellow players included Ernest Graham, who later played at Maryland, and Skip Wise, a schoolyard legend who starred for one year at Clemson, but eventually was imprisoned for two years on drug charges.
Wilkins quickly learned the playground code. "If you want to shoot it, you have to get your hands on it," he says. "So I started going up and getting it. I think it really helped that I was always playing with guys older than me. They'd tell me I was going to be a pro someday, but I never believed them. I really didn't."
Dave Smith, the basketball coach at Washington (N.C.) High School, really did. Smith caught Dominique's act at the Bridge Street Recreation Center when Wilkins visited his grandmother in Washington the summer before he was to enter 10th grade at Patterson High in Baltimore. "What I noticed right away was his nose for going to the ball," Smith says. Smith convinced Dominique to stay, and he did. His father and mother, now divorced, moved to Washington, too, and Dominique stayed at times with each of them and his grandmother. Washington won consecutive state championships in Wilkins' junior and senior years, and as a senior he averaged 29 points and 16 rebounds a game. By now he was considered one of the state's most valuable natural resources. Dozens of colleges wanted Wilkins, and at first it appeared that he was headed for North Carolina State, 100 miles up the road in Raleigh.
But Wilkins vacillated under the recruiting strain and finally chose Georgia, which had been considered a long shot or a no shot. Some of the Washington town-folk responded by breaking windows in his mother's house and spilling paint on the car they claimed had been purchased for her by Georgia officials. Dominique's mother, Mrs. Gertrude Baker (she had remarried), said she had bought the car from a Washington automobile dealer, and had gotten it cheaply because of her son's fame.
"I had to have a strong mind to get through it," says Wilkins. "There's no doubt I lost a lot of friends over it. It was a crazy time. I was offered all sorts of stuff—cars, money, houses—by all sorts of people. Some of my high school counselors tried to mess with my grades. It made me grow up a little faster."
The prevailing view in Washington is that Wilkins wanted to go to N.C. State, but that his mother sold him on Georgia for her personal gain. Wilkins says that isn't so. "Yes, my mother wanted me to come here. And, yes, I almost went to State. But she didn't tell me what to do. It was my decision." For the record, Mrs. Baker, her husband and the remaining children at home now live in Atlanta, though not luxuriously. She worked for a time as a hotel maid but is now unemployed. Baker works in the Post Office. And no recruiting charges were ever filed against Georgia.
Durham says, "Our basic approach in recruiting Dominique was, 'Sure, you can go to State and be another David Thompson, but why don't you come to Georgia and be the one and only Dominique Wilkins?' " Norm Sloan, who recruited Wilkins for N.C. State, is now in his second year as head coach at Florida. In case Sloan had forgotten the bitter recruiting battle, which he hadn't, Dominique slam-dunked it in his face by scoring a career-high 37 points in Georgia's 90-74 rout of Florida last January. "The only hard feelings I have now is that I didn't get the chance to coach him," says Sloan. "You don't expect to coach one player like David Thompson. I almost coached two. I'll certainly never get over losing him."