Publish date:

A Hawk Soars Higher

Dominique Wilkins of Atlanta is having the best year of his long career

Dominique is a showman," says Atlanta Hawks president Stan Kasten of his team's All-Star forward. "People denigrate that, but it's important. Real important. In the old ABA, coaches used to call a timeout whenever the Doc dunked. Don't let the crowd get fired up. Coaches do the same thing against Nique."

Here comes 6'8", 200-pound Dominique Wilkins against the Dallas Mavericks last Saturday, one third of a three-on-two Hawk fast break. He passes the ball to guard Spud Webb, gets it back, jumps and slams home a windmill, rim-rocking thunder jam that brings the crowd at the Omni in Atlanta to its feet. Dallas coach Richie Adubato looks down in disgust and frustration. He calls a timeout—just as those ABA coaches used to against Julius Erving.

But it's hopeless. The Hawks are ahead by 20 points late in the first half, and they'll coast to a 122-107 victory. More than that, they're ahead of Dallas by light-years in showmanship, that luminous midair realm frequented by a handful of NBA stars. When Wilkins—two-time champion and two-time runner-up in the NBA slam-dunk contest—slams, the other team flinches.

Everybody knows that. Say the name Dominique Wilkins and what comes to mind is a half-out-of-control, uncoachable dunking machine. He is a showman, no doubt, not a well-rounded player, not somebody who does the little things-pass, block out, rebound, play tough defense or, god forbid, deal out assists. He just scores.

So check this out: In his ninth season Wilkins is now a complete player, or at least as close to one as he is ever likely to be. Which is pretty darn close, within hand checking distance of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the guys who win all the big trophies. The NBA's second-highest active career scorer for average (26.1 points a game), Wilkins is still racking up points—his 26.5 points a game at week's end was fifth best in the league for this season—but he's also doing everything else with newfound vigor. Never before has he rebounded so well (8.8 a game) or had so many steals (1.8 a game). For the first time in his career Wilkins is ranked in the top 20 in the NBA in categories other than scoring: After last weekend he was 19th in three-point shooting percentage, 16th in rebounding and 20th in steals.

And then there are those amazing assists, amazing because in years past giving the ball to Wilkins was like giving the ball to an eight-year-old street urchin—it was gone for good. His assist average this season (3.3) isn't Stocktonesque, to be sure, but it's nearly a full assist higher than his career average, and it shows his new understanding of the beauty of dishing off.

What has made Wilkins, Atlanta's best player, change this late in his career? "It's got to be Bobby Weiss," Wilkins says.

Weiss is the former San Antonio Spurs coach (1986-88) who replaced Mike Fratello as the Hawks' boss last May. He has gradually changed the attitudes of what may have been the most selfish team in the league. "For a group that at one time would rather pass kidney stones than a basketball, I think we've made progress," Weiss said after the Hawks had 32 assists against Dallas.

In Wilkins's case, what is remarkable is that he is scoring his points while taking fewer shots (20.2 a game) than at any time since 1983-84. Put simply, Wilkins has become more efficient.

"Nique works so hard. He loves the game, and he never takes a night off," says Kasten. "People always talk about what he doesn't do. But what more could you ask than what he does?"

Very little it seems. Wilkins even has an outside chance at being the NBA's MVP. "He's better than before. Less flashy, but better," says Dallas veteran Alex English. "If Atlanta docs well, it's a possibility he could get the MVP. It just gets down to how his team does." And that is a tricky bit of business.

Last week the Hawks went 3-1 (which brought their record to 30-24), with Wilkins leading them in scoring in each game. The biggest win was a 111-102 home victory last Friday over the Los Angeles Lakers, a team Atlanta hadn't defeated at the Omni in five years. In that game Wilkins played at a fever pitch, finishing with 34 points, 10 rebounds, four steals and five assists.

The win over L.A. was Atlanta's 18th straight at home, a club record, which was then extended to 19 with the victory over Dallas last Saturday night. Overall, the Hawks were 21-6 at home. But on the road they were 9-18 and had dropped 11 of their last 13 games. "It's just confidence," says Wilkins. "The travel is a little part of it. But mostly we just need to feel the same on the road as we do at home, like we can win them all."

If anyone can instill that confidence in the Hawks, it's Weiss. A chrome-domed, easygoing former NBA guard whose aw-shucks look and deadly lefthanded jumper scorched many an opponent during his 12-year playing career, Weiss was just the tonic the rattled, bickering Hawk players needed. The 5'7" Fratello was a good teacher who pushed the Hawks to 50-win seasons from 1985-86 to 1988-89, but his accusatory, mc-against-you style ultimately destroyed his players' confidence. "Mike was great, until the game started," says Atlanta guard Doc Rivers.

It has been written that Fratello and Wilkins were mortal enemies at the end, but both men deny it. "I knew I was gone after the last regular-season game," says Fratello, now an analyst for NBC. "And I stopped Nique and said, 'I want to thank you for all that you've done.' And I meant it. I've said this many times: He's the cornerstone of that franchise. But to be fair, you can't make him into something he's not. Life isn't like that. My thing with Nique was, be thankful for what you've got."

But under Weiss, Wilkins is becoming something else, something superior to the old model. "Bobby never says anything negative to us," Wilkins says. "He played the game, so he knows how we feel, and he keeps us refreshed and relaxed. He tells us to take the three when it's there. He rests us when we need it. I didn't know basketball was this easy."

Weiss may not yell at his players, but he's no somnolent half-wit, either. When he came to the Hawks he had a less than reverent opinion of Wilkins as well as a plan for overcoming Wilkins's shortcomings. "My impression when I got here was that he was an athletic scorer," Weiss says. "I didn't consider him a superstar because he didn't make his teammates better.

"So we sat down and looked at a game film that had been edited just to show him in action, and he could see the things he was doing wrong. One of the things was 'leaking' downcourt on defense, leaving his man early because he wanted to get out on the break. We talked, and I knew that Dominique wanted to change. To be a superstar you have to do three things: You have to make your teammates better; you have to do the blue-collar things like rebounding and defense; and, of course, you have to have super talent. He's on his way."

When Wilkins occasionally forgets and plays like a headless horseman, Weiss calmly takes him out. "The way to get a player's attention is with playing time," Weiss says.

Which is fine with Wilkins. "I never believed in yelling at players," he says. "Bobby's the kind of guy you want to win games for."

One thing that hasn't changed about Wilkins is his basic inability to turn down requests from people, whether reporters, friends or all sorts of folks with a good cause, who want something from him, things he has difficulty delivering—like himself. "He's such a great guy," says Rivers. "Not selfish at all. His biggest problem is never saying no."

Wilkins's suburban house, a 14,000-square-foot job with four floors, seven bedrooms, a movie room, weight room, maid's room and elevator, seems to be constantly filled with people of varying age and sex, coming and going as they see fit. As he drives into downtown Atlanta for the game against Dallas, Wilkins laughs at himself for saying yes to so many things, among them the festivities the evening before the recent All-Star Game, his sixth. In that game he missed one of his patented dunks when he pounded the ball off the rim, then flew backward and nearly landed on his head. Players on both benches loved it. "Michael had a birthday party that night," Wilkins says. "A lot of the guys stayed out late, and I stayed out a little later than they did. I think it took three or four inches off my jump."

He laughs. No need to explain who Michael is. He's the guy just a few long inches ahead of the still-growing Nique.



Wilkins still gets up for his jam sessions, but it is his overall game that has now taken off.



Wilkins and the other Hawks often look confused when on the road.