“Oh no, no way,” Wilkins said. “I’m not coming back.”
The 53-year-old Wilkins was in town as part of Independent Health Foundation’s Fitness for Kids Challenge. Wilkins, who serves as a Novo Nordisk Diabetes Ambassador, was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes at age 40. He spoke to more than 400 fourth- and fifth-graders from three Buffalo schools on Wednesday at Canisius College.
Wilkins also took time to reflect on his Hall of Fame career and today’s NBA. Once the game’s most exciting player, Wilkins’ reputation for dunking has been a blessing and a curse.
“Most people think all I did was dunk,” said Wilkins, who also serves as the Atlanta Hawks’ vice president of basketball. “It’s hard to get to over 26,000 points in dunks.”
To Wilkins, the respect he feels a player of his caliber deserves has been slow to come. He was a nine-time All-Star and a seductive talent who never came close to winning an NBA title. When that happens, holes in your game are inescapably exposed and you’re labeled a novelty. The nickname didn’t help.
“It ticks me off a lot of times,” said Wilkins, who played for the Hawks from 1982 to ’94. “When you really think about it, being called the Human Highlight Film wasn’t because of my dunks, it was because of the way I scored and that started in 11th grade in high school. That’s where I got the name.”
It was in the summer of 1977 at the Five Star Basketball Camp, after Wilkins scored 41 points in an all-star game, that camp founder Howard Garfinkel gave Wilkins the moniker.
“It was the different ways that I scored,” he said. “That’s how I got that nickname. Most people think I got that name in the pros but I didn’t.”
His lack of a championship is more about circumstance. The Hawks’ lineup during Wilkins’ prime in the mid-’80s featured Doc Rivers, Kevin Willis, Randy Wittman and Tree Rollins. Combined career All-Star appearances: two. One each by Rivers and Willis.
“A lot of things that I did a lot of guys today couldn’t have done, especially on a team where you didn’t have another superstar,” Wilkins said.
“Basically everything I did, I did on my own shoulders. I didn’t have another player or two to play with as far as great players. You look at the Lakers and the great players they had, you look at the Celtics and the great players they had, Chicago and on and on and on. We didn’t have that in Atlanta.”
Not having a sidekick was challenging in an era of premier small forwards.
“If you look at the small forward and power forward positions, those are very skilled positions,” Wilkins said. “You had to play against a legendary guy every single night.”
He rattles off the names of the nightly foes: Adrian Dantley, Alex English, Julius Erving, Bernard King, Larry Bird, Larry Nance, Orlando Woolridge, Mark Aguirre, Jamal Mashburn.
Wilkins never took games off because he couldn’t.
“Every single night,” Wilkins said. “Too many guys at that position.”
And they varied in skill sets. Blink and James Worthy would take you on off the dribble; Bird, Dantley and Aguirre would take you inside and out.
“You played against these quick small forwards who were skilled and very athletic, then you go against the brute small forwards who were very physical like Terry Cummings,” Wilkins said. “Charles Barkley was a small forward when he first came into the NBA. You had a lot of tough guys at that position.”
There isn’t a player today who resembles Wilkins; the closest would be a younger version of Vince Carter. Wilkins said you can find elements of his game in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony.
“If you put D-Wade, the way he attacks the basket, LeBron as far as the versatility, and from a scoring standpoint Carmelo,” he said. “I think there’s a mixture of guys and not just really one guy. I always prided myself on taking one thing from a great player, practicing it over and over again until it becomes something that I perfected.”
He was more of a student of the game than given credit. Wilkins’ spin move came from Earl Monroe and the high release on his jump shot was copied from Bob Love. He watched closely how the good Doctor J filled the lanes on the fastbreak and worked with a shooting coach for two weeks during each offseason.
“I found creative ways to score,” he said. “I went to the line eight or nine times a night, I had a mid-range game, post-up game, I could shoot the three when I needed to and go off the dribble. Those are things I practiced over and over again.”
And that’s how he wants to be remembered.
“One of the greatest players to ever play this game and I think I’ve proven that in many ways,” Wilkins said. “A lot of the times you don’t get the credit for that.”