By Ross Forman
Dominique Wilkins was in 11th grade at Washington High School in North Carolina when he was nicknamed, “The Human Highlight Film.”
Wilkins was the back-to-back MVP for the school’s consecutive Class 3-A State Championships (1978-1979), and he appeared in the popular “Faces in the Crowd” section of Sports Illustrated while in high school for a game when he scored 48 points, had 27 rebounds, 9 dunks, and 8 blocks.
But, Wilkins admitted, “I hated (the nickname).”
Decades later, after a standout career at the University of Georgia and an NBA career that landed him in the Basketball Hall of Fame, he still is The Human Highlight Film – and now he embraces the moniker.
“I thought it was corny (in high school),” Wilkins said during his autograph session at the 39th National Sports Collectors Convention in Cleveland, where he signed balls, photos, cards and more – and many with the nickname, which he abbreviates.
“As I got older I realized, hmmm, maybe I can make a little money off this (nickname),” Wilkins said.
Without question, Wilkins was The Human Highlight Film.
Wilkins was an NBA star from 1982-1999, primarily for the Atlanta Hawks, with time also spent with the Los Angeles Clippers, Boston Celtics, San Antonio Spurs and Orlando Magic. He was a nine-time NBA All-Star, the NBA Scoring champion in 1986 and a two-time NBA Slam Dunk Contest Champion.
He scored 26,668 points in his NBA career that spanned just under 1,100 games, with 7,167 rebounds and 2,677 assists.
“For me, it was the level of competition and great players who I had to play against every night, every single night (that stands out the most),” he said. “There were no nights off. The physicality and intensity that these guys played with … that’s the thing that I miss.
“The love for the game was off the charts. Guys competed on an unbelievable level.
“I competed against some absolutely great players at that small forward position. One night I (went against) Larry Bird; one night I got Alex English; one night I got (Adrian) Dantley, (James) Worthy, Dr. J, Bernard King … I could go on and on about the list of great players I opposed, including Mark Aguirre, Orlando Woolridge, Larry Nance, Terry Cummings and others.”
Wilkins’ basketball career also included time with a team in the Greek Basket League and a team in Italy’s top-tiered LBA.
But it was his run in Atlanta that stood out, and why his jersey – No. 21 – was retired by the Hawks on Jan. 13, 2001. He is one of four players whose jerseys have been retired by the team.
The Wilkins-led Hawks had four consecutive 50-win seasons in the 1980s.
“The thing for me that was most memorable was when I tore my Achilles tendon and all the critics said I was done, that my career was over. But instead I came back and had my best all-around season, averaging 30 per game, and we had the best team in the Eastern Conference,” he said.
Wilkins snapped his right Achilles on Jan. 28, 1992, thus was out for 40 games during the 1991-92 season and 11 at the start of the following season.
He averaged 28.1 points on 46.4 percent shooting in the 1991-92 season.
He averaged 29.9 points on 46.8 percent shooting in the 1992-93 season.
Despite all the on-court heroics, Wilkins never won an NBA Championship. Still, he said, “I have no regrets. If I had to do it over again, I’d do the exact same thing; I wouldn’t change a thing. I had the chance to do something that most people only dream of doing.
“There are a lot of iconic players who also never won a ring. You just have to be lucky, end up on the right team for it to work.
“We had some great teams, but, unfortunately, in the East, everyone had great teams. That’s something that not everyone realizes – that everyone had great teams. Even the teams that weren’t so good, they too were good.”
Wilkins said that, if he hadn’t been injured and stayed in the NBA throughout his career and not played overseas, he definitely would have hit the 30,000-point plateau.
“No question about that (total),” he said.
Wilkins said a 1984 dunk was his most memorable – a baseline jam at the end of a game against Milwaukee and over Bob Lanier.
“We often talk about that one play,” he said. “I remember, when I went to the basket, I had no idea what I was going to do. I think I turned around in the air, sideways. As he was coming down, I was still going up. It just happened.”
So Dominique, can you still dunk?
“Yes – on Fridays,” he said, laughing. “I need a week to warm up … going up is the easy part; coming down is the hard part.”
Now 58, Wilkins works for the Hawks as the team’s vice president of basketball, mixing his work within the team’s basketball and business areas, and more.
“I’ve collected a lot of stuff and have it in the house, mostly stuff I held on to for the kids,” said Wilkins, whose collection includes All-Star Game jerseys, Atlanta Hawks game-worn jerseys, trophies, a European Championship ring and much more.
“I have very few autographs that I’ve ever collected, mostly (they are) for my kids,” he added.
Three special autographs in his collection include Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – players he long admired.
“I had the pleasure of meeting Wilt when I came out of high school, and was at the Hall of Fame (with) the 12 top high school players in America. He was a really cool guy, very charismatic,” Wilkins said.
“It never ceases to amaze me the stuff that is here (at The National) that people want you to sign,” Wilkins said. “At a show like this, (the memorabilia) is off the charts; you can’t keep up with all of the stuff here. Every year it seems like (the memorabilia business) just gets bigger and bigger.
“One of the coolest things for me at shows like this is getting to see guys who I know and legendary players in every sport. That’s amazing, so much fun.”
Case in point, Wilkins re-united at The National with fellow former Atlanta athlete Dale Murphy. The two had not seen each other in a while, he said, so “it was cool to see him.”
Wilkins over the years has signed baseballs and just about everything else possible.
Even a kid’s arms.
“A lot of body parts,” he added, laughing. “You’d be surprised what people ask you to sign.”
In his hey-day, Wilkins said the autograph demand was “insane.”
Wilkins said he is, and long has been, “amazed” with basketball cards.
“Even now, I see things on cards that I hadn’t seen before,” he said. “And the cards from years past, they are still amazing.
“I’m just amazed at how many cards are out there.”
He said there have been too many Wilkins cards to pick just one favorite.
“Cards seem to get nicer and nicer each and every year,” Wilkins said.
Ross Forman is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at Rossco814@aol.com.