Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins was recently a guest on The HoopsHype Podcast and he had a wide-ranging conversation with Alex Kennedy. They discussed his legacy, the toughest opponents he faced, how he’d fare in today’s NBA, his thoughts on super-teams and why they never would’ve formed in the ’80s and more. You can listen to the episode below. But if you prefer to read what was said, here’s a condensed transcript of the conversation.
Of all the opponents you faced throughout your NBA career, who were the toughest? Who stands out as a difficult matchup for you – on either end of the floor?
Dominique Wilkins: In my era, there were a lot of guys. It’s really hard to pinpoint just one over the others. I never feared anyone, but there was a guy by the name of Bernard King who was unstoppable. You can go right down the line at my position and you’ve got Larry Bird, Dr. J, Mark Aguirre, Alex English, Adrian Dantley, James Worthy, Terry Cummings, Larry Nance and I could go on and on. There were so many small forwards who were a tough match-up. You had to be ready to play every night.
How do you feel your era compares to today’s NBA? A lot of younger fans tend to say, “This era is better!” What are your thoughts on that?
DW: Well, they [say that because they] just don’t know. They’ve only seen one era, so it’s easy for them to say that. I, personally, don’t like comparisons because I think it’s unfair to our era and it’s unfair to the guys who are playing today. We had our time. Now, it’s their time! That era I played in was so skilled and so physical. I’m around 6-foot-9 and I played small forward. In today’s NBA, I’d play power forward! There were some big, physical guys back then! We had some monsters back then at those positions so, again, you had no nights off. It really disturbs me sometimes when people get so caught up in the comparisons and are so quick to discredit our era! You can’t do that, it was just a different time that we played in. It’s these guys’ time, so let them enjoy their legacy and what they’ve built. Let them carry that torch and make this even bigger than it was before!
You’re obviously known as one of the greatest dunkers ever, but you’re also an all-time great player. Period. For people who don’t know your resume, you averaged 24.8 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.3 blocks over your 15-year NBA career, you’re 13th in NBA history in total points and career points per game, and you made seven All-NBA Teams. Considering everything you’ve accomplished, do you feel your career gets the respect it deserves or do you feel underrated?
DW: I definitely feel underrated. There’s no question about it. I don’t think a lot of people realize what I did. And I didn’t play with another superstar. I basically carried my team for 12 years, and those 12 years were in the East at a time when the East was brutal in terms of talent and teams that were off the charts. I think a lot of times, when you’re an athlete and a high-flyer, you get categorized [as just a dunker]. But I tell people, ‘It’s very, very difficult to score over 26,000 points just off dunks.’ I was a creative scorer – inside, outside, post-up, off the dribble and even shot the three, only if it was necessary. My thing was running the fast-break and attacking you all the time. I played at one speed and that speed was all-out.
I think a lot of people focus on my dunks. And while I may have dunked twice a game, people look at the way I dunked and think I dunked every single point, but that’s not true. A guy like LeBron James dunks, but it’s just a tool he uses to intimidate opponents and motivate the crowd. But his game is so much more lethal than that, so much bigger than that.
You’re one of those guys who, I think, would do well in today’s game.
DW: Ain’t no ‘think’ about it! It’d be easy [to play in this era] because you couldn’t touch me. I don’t think people realize how good some of those players were in my era. You look at some of the scoring averages for teams, a lot of those teams were putting up 110, 112, 115 points a night!
Does it frustrate you, not getting kind of credit and respect you deserve?
DW: It’s frustrating at times, but the thing that really satisfies me is that my peers know what I’ve done. The guys like Larry Bird and Dr. J and Michael Jordan and Clyde Drexler and Magic Johnson, they all know and they’ve all said some wonderful things. And I’ll tell you one of the guys who has [shown a lot of respect] too is Danny Ainge. Some of the things he’s said recently shed a lot of light on what I did. But when you don’t win a championship [it hurts your perception]. There are a lot of guys who didn’t win a championship, but does that diminish how great they were? No.
How did you get the nickname The Human Highlight Film?
DW: Most people think I got that nickname when I came into the NBA. But, honestly speaking, I got that nickname when I was in high school at the Five-Star Basketball Camp. There was a guy named Howard Garfinkel who gave me that nickname when I was in 11th grade and I hated it. The reason why he gave me that name is because I had 42 points in the camp’s All-Star game, so they kept rolling the tape back so they could understand what I was doing, how I was scoring, and he said, “You know what? Just forget about it. We’re just going to call him ‘The Human Highlight Film’ from now on.” As time went on, I thought, “Wait a minute, I may be able to make a little bit of money off of this name!” And it stuck.
Why did you hate the nickname at first?
DW: Because I was young and stupid! (laughs) We all have those moments.
You’re a Hall of Famer, as I mentioned, but even fewer people have their own statue outside of an arena. What did it mean to you when the Atlanta Hawks erected that statue outside of Philips Arena?
DW: Well, what it does is it immortalizes you and nobody can ever take that away from you. They can’t take away what you accomplished as a player. It really brings life full circle for you as a player. That’s the biggest thing.
When you look at the NBA today, who are some of your favorite current players to watch?
DW: Oh man, I love a lot of the guys. See, I’m a basketball fan, so I love a lot of players. LeBron is at the top of that list. Steph Curry is another one. One of my homeboys who grew up kind of in the same area that I grew up in is Kevin Durant. Another one of my favorites is Carmelo Anthony. You look at Russell Westbrook; Westbrook is a throwback! He’s a serious competitor and he’s someone I love to watch. There are a lot of guys who I enjoy. Even with what we’re doing in Atlanta with all of our young guys, it’s just nice to see.
What’s your take on these recent super-teams and how they affect the NBA?
DW: Well, that’s the way it is these days. It’s expected. Personally, [in my era] we would’ve done it differently because we wanted to compete against the best. But eras change, times change, mentalities change, so I can’t blame the guys for that.
Let’s say in the mid-1980s, you had the opportunity to team up with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Would you have done it?
DW: No! We wanted to kick each other’s a… uh, butts. I won’t say the word I really want to say (laughs). But that’s just the way it was!
If you guys had teamed up, what would the reaction have been like around the league? What would your peers have thought?
DW: They probably would have been a little mad or upset. It would’ve been a little controversial. But those things weren’t even thought about. We never would’ve even thought about [teaming up]. And, like I said, I’m not blaming any guy for doing it. Do what you do. I’m just saying that it was a different era. And that’s why the comparisons between eras are so unfair. It’s unfair to us and it’s so unfair to today’s players! The game is the same, but it’s so different.
I think a big reason for the super-teams is that today’s players are friends off the court, so teaming up is the logical next step for them.
DW: Right, and what created that was AAU. I mean, these guys grew up being friends in AAU and it brings that camaraderie between competitors, so now those competitors want to play with one another. It’s been set up that way.
I saw that DeMarcus Cousins recently tweeted about your amazing recovery from your Achilles injury and how it’s motivating him as he goes through the same rehab process. You injured your Achilles in 1992 and then had one of the best seasons of your career the following year, averaging 30 points per game. That’s an injury that many players never fully come back from, so what was the key to your recovery and what advice would you give players, like DeMarcus, who are going through that now?
DW: One thing that I would tell DeMarcus is, “Believe in yourself, not everybody else.” Because everybody else is going to have their own opinion about what they think he should do and if he’s even going to be able to come back. Critics are, a lot of times, pretty unfair. When you have a player like him, who’s an iconic player and who plays the game at a very high level, some people expect you to be this invincible guy. But nobody is invincible! Your character and your toughness are what really dictate if you can come back from such a devastating injury. I think he’s going to be just fine. He just needs to keep working on his game and rehabbing and not worrying about what the outside world has to say.
Before games, I’ve seen many star players go up to you and chat with you for a long time. Many of today’s players say that you were one of their favorite athletes when they were growing up. It’s clear that they have so much respect for you. What does it mean to have had such a big impact on this next generation of NBA players?
DW: It’s just incredible. The level of respect that these current players show is great. I’m around these guys all the time and so when they see me, they often come up and give me respect and ask me questions about basketball and see what kind of advice I can give them. I always like talking basketball with these guys. That’s my fun! That’s my relaxation, sitting down with guys and talking about the game!
In addition to serving as the Hawks’ Vice President of Basketball, you’re also doing television for the team. What has your transition to the broadcast booth been like?
DW: It’s been great, man. It’s a transition that I prepared myself for before I retired. But all I’m doing is talking about the same stuff that I’m talking about every day with my friends, so it’s fun! It’s easy!
Do you feel like you were robbed during the 1988 Slam Dunk Contest? Should you have beaten Michael Jordan?
DW: How many years ago was that? Thirty years ago?! (laughs) This is the thing I tell people: Does Michael think he won? Yes. Do I think I won? Yes. But, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who won because the fans got their money’s worth.
Who are some players who, in your opinion, don’t get the respect they deserve?
DW: It’s a lot! Well, I wouldn’t say that they didn’t get respect, but there are some guys who people quickly forget about. We often talk about iconic, superstar players. How about the guys like George “The Iceman” Gervin? David Thompson? Artis Gilmore? What about guys like that? These are guys that really changed the game! And, a lot of times, people don’t even talk about them!
I’ll give you another prime example: Wilt Chamberlain. He averaged 50 points and 30 rebounds, but do you ever hear him mentioned in the greatest [discussion] among the top three or four guys? It’s crazy. And you have to understand something: His era was even more physical than our era! And with the pressures in life that he had to deal with and go through, it was not easy for him! You’re talking about a time when there was a lot of racial tension and those sort of things. He had to worry about competing and worry about social issues. People don’t really understand or realize that. I mean, look at how many 60-point games this guy had throughout the course of his career! And to average 50 points? That’s just incredible!
Interview, Evergreen, Interview, Artis Gilmore, Danny Ainge, David Thompson, Dominique Wilkins, George Gervin, Julius Erving, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Atlanta Hawks