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MIKE DOWNEY

This Fan Can't Get Enough of 'Nique

March 13, 1994|MIKE DOWNEY

Dominique Wilkins doesn't watch the Atlanta Hawks any more--not on pay TV, not on free TV, not on any TV. For the better part of 11 years, Dominique Wilkins was the Atlanta Hawk. 'Nique was unique. He was as much a part of Ted Turner's life as Jane Fonda was, and one thing you have to say for Turner, the man surrounds himself with people who keep in great shape.

But then came the trade. The one that changed Dominique's address and his life. The one 'Nique didn't even know about until he came home to his wife, Nicole, and discovered that team officials had just dropped by their house looking for him, in order to break the news. After years and years of shooting the lights out in Georgia, he was being told to go away.

He was going to L.A., city of angels, land of earthquakes.

"Mmm-hmmm, that was the first thing I thought of," Dominique said, sitting inside an arena in Los Angeles that actually had to be closed for a while after the January quake.

I asked, "And are you still thinking about quakes?"

And with a sheepish smile, Dominique said, "Oh, you better believe it. Every time I cross a bridge."

Well, welcome to L.A., anyway, 'Nique. Hope you settle down and hope you stick around. Because this city can use every class act it can get. I, for one, feel just fine about Dominique Wilkins being our town's compensation for the loss of the sulky Danny Manning, and I trust that Clipper executives are sincere in their pledge that Dominique will be here for the remainder of his career.

Although there might be more overpasses than actual bridges here in 'Nique's new community, we need to give the man plenty of time and room to make the necessary adjustments. After all, the cross-country voyage that turned him into a Clipper was the most disconcerting trip of Dominique's life. It transported him to the city of the 1984 Summer Olympics, held when his NBA career was in its infancy, from the city of the 1996 Summer Olympics, where this career could very well end.

Dominique is a member of "Dream Team II." He will be right there in Atlanta to put the finishing touches (including finger rolls and dunks) on his life in basketball, and won't that be a party for the folks back home?

His first return engagement will be a week from Friday, when he and the Clippers will visit the Omni.

"Ever watch the Hawks on TV anymore?" I asked.

"Nope," 'Nique said.

"By circumstance or by choice?"

"By choice," he said. "I don't really want to know what they're doing."

Not from hard feelings, exactly.

Dominique shook his head and said, "They made a choice. They felt this (the trade) was something they had to do for the team. I don't agree with it, but that was their decision. So now I'm here and I'll take it from there."

What people have to understand is, Dominique Wilkins is Dale Murphy. It took me a few weeks to realize this. 'Nique did for Atlanta basketball exactly what Murph did for Atlanta baseball. He carried the team during the lean years. Same as Murphy. He represented it at public functions, in promotions and in advertisements. Same as Murphy. He suffered through down season after down season. Same as Murphy. And then, when the team finally improved enough to challenge for a championship, the first person traded was him . Same as Murphy.

What a shame. Particularly in the case of Wilkins, who spent his collegiate years at Georgia and was so popular back home that the Hawks couldn't stand the thought of him playing for Utah, which drafted him in 1982, and promptly gave up two players and cash to bring him back before 'Nique could hit a single note for the Jazz. Back then, people from Atlanta couldn't imagine him playing anywhere else.

Jacques Dominique Wilkins was born in Paris, France, but it was in Atlanta that 'Nique became magnifique.

The man can fly. He is 34, but his legs remain young. The ruptured right Achilles' tendon is, forgive me, behind him, and as for his game, well, to quote one former NBA star, Rick Barry, "Night in, night out, nobody plays harder."

The man can score. He already is averaging more than 30 points per game for the Clippers. He has led them in scoring in six of his first seven games. He is still a lean, clean scoring machine.

Can the man rebound? Well, no one has ever confused him with Dennis Rodman. (In shooting touch or in hairstyles.) Wilt Chamberlain once observed that even the lead-footed Larry Bird had a far better rebounding average than Wilkins. "Why?" Wilt asked rhetorically. "One of them always thinks his jumping ability is enough. The other knows he has to do something else to get that ball."

Nevertheless, Dominique can dominate. He can fill up a basket faster than anybody since Red Riding Hood. He has the hangtime of Elgin and the wingspan of Dr. J and has moves even Earl the Pearl must envy. The man can do everything with a basketball except slide it under a door. And he has accepted this virtual betrayal by the Hawks as well as anyone in his position could have been expected to handle it, so the least we can do is make him feel at home.

"Everybody's made it feel like home, so far," he said.

"So, you'll stay?" I asked.

Dominique Wilkins gave a shrug and another sheepish smile and said, "Who knows? I never thought I'd leave the last place."

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