University of Georgia Coach Hugh Durham stares into space, trying to reconstruct the moment. "It was in practice, see, and we were working on breaking the press," he says, waving his hands in the air as if to shape the mental replay. "One of our guards throws the ball from midcourt sort of wildly toward the basket, toward Dominique, who's standing outside the lane.
"Now, the ball looks like it's going out of bounds, see. It would've been a real nice play just to catch that ball and keep it in play. But what Dominique does is catch the ball with one hand and slam it down into the basket...in one motion! Heckfire, can you imagine that?
"What happened next was strange. Everything got real quiet on the court for maybe a second or two. See, nobody could believe what they saw. I still don't believe it."
What Dominique Wilkins—Georgia's 6'7", 200-pound junior forward—does, see, is stir the imaginations of those around him. There are few things in sport at once so pedestrian and so electrifying as the dunk. Pedestrian because so many can do it, including Leroy Nowells, the 5'9" laundryman who works in the Georgia equipment room and occasionally shoots around with Wilkins and his teammates. But electrifying because, in its infinite variety, the dunk has become basketball's highest art form. Many can do it, but few are known for it, and those who are—Julius Erving, Darryl Dawkins, David Thompson, Darrell Griffith—earn instant entry into basketball folklore. Wilkins, alias the Human Highlight Film, alias the Top Dog of Dunk, belongs with them.
"I've got about 30 Dominique stories, but here's the one that sticks out in my mind," says junior Guard Derrick Floyd. "He's coming down the left-hand side and a guard's on him pretty close. It looks like he's going to take a lefthanded layup, but the guard comes across to get the ball. So what he does is cuff the ball [tuck it into a protective position by rolling it up his wrist], turn his body to cut the guy off—and dunk it backwards. It wasn't really a hot-dog play. It was the only thing he could do. Only no one else could have done it."
One of Wilkins' spectacular dunks, his 180—as in 180 degrees—is commemorated on the Georgia campus in posters of all sizes, one of which hangs in the McWhorter Hall room Wilkins shares with junior Forward Lamar Heard. What the sight of No. 34 rolling around right end is to Georgia football, Wilkins doing his 180 is to Georgia basketball. But that 180 against Alabama his freshman year is really not Wilkins' favorite. For one thing he sprained his knee later in the half and missed the next six games. And for another, there are other degrees of dunking out there. Like 360.
Wilkins has completed a 360 only twice in game situations—once as a high school sophomore on an uncontested layup, and again at a basketball camp as he drove the lane on a three-on-two fast break. He often attempts a 360 or two after practice, but he's not sure what Durham would think about his trying it in a game. "I know Coach Durham wouldn't say much if I made it," Wilkins says, "but he'd be upset if I blew it. Still, there might be a good chance sometime."
Wilkins is not just a Mad Dunker. Last year he led Southeastern Conference scorers with 23.6 points per game, averaging 53.3% from the field and 75.2% from the foul line. In 15 of 31 games he led Georgia in both scoring and rebounding, and he finished with a team-high 73 blocked shots. He plays within himself and knows his importance; he committed 80 personal fouls, second-highest on the team, but did not foul out of any game. He was a consensus second-team All-America last season and now is a consensus first-team preseason All-America.
Ah, how times have changed. Before Durham and Wilkins, basketball at Georgia was something of a joke. At the time Wilkins suffered that knee injury against Alabama as a freshman, the Bulldogs were 11-3; with Wilkins playing hurt or not at all the rest of the season, they went 3-10. In 1980-81 Wilkins was healthy all the way and Georgia was 19-12, its best record in 50 years.
As good as Wilkins is in college, he is probably best appreciated by the pros. He was one of the four underclassmen most coveted by the NBA last season, along with Virginia's Ralph Sampson, Indiana's Isiah Thomas and DePaul's Mark Aguirre. And though he hadn't gotten the publicity they had, he was definitely not No. 4 among NBA scouts.