Dunks for the Memories: Atlanta's Lord of the Sky, Dominique Wilkins, Scores on Slams Fit for Posterity
05/02/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT
He is called the "Human Highlight Film," a player with a four-foot vertical leap and a repertoire that begins when he gets up there. He's averaging 31 points a game, but Dominique Wilkins knows that no matter how many times he's a National Basketball Association all-star (three so far) or how many times he wins the NBA scoring title (once so far), basketball is not his best sport. "Marbles," says the Atlanta Hawks forward and former marbles prodigy. "I was the Larry Bird of marbles." His younger brother Gerald, a New York Knicks guard, concurs. "He was one of the best ever," he says.
There's no telling how great at marbles Dominique might have become, but one day he discovered something irresistible about basketball: Money. At 15, he started playing one-on-one for a dollar a game against men in their 20s. His opponents weren't exactly school yard legends—"Some were winos," he admits—but he beat them steadily and gave the money to his mother to buy food for his four sisters and three brothers.
"I always thought he was doing odd jobs, raking grass," says Gertrude Baker, 48.
"She thought I was stealing it," corrects Dominique, 28. "She was always second-guessing me."
This week he leads the Hawks into the first round of the NBA play-offs, and both the competition and the money have improved. He has a five-year, $6.5 million contract that his mother negotiated for him, although he's happier with it than she is. "I think he should be paid more," she says.
He seems content. He lives in a four-bedroom, two-hot tub, suburban-tract mansion outside Atlanta that requires the services of three Wilkins sisters just to dust and clean. He drives a red Ferrari Mondial and a black Mercedes 500 SEC. He owns about 100 pairs of shoes, as his frugal sisters gleefully point out. He isn't married, but that's no surprise in the Wilkins family—only Gerald, 24, is engaged. "Everybody else is under my mother's wing," he says. "She's a little protective, but only because she loves us."
With her blood-red, 2-inch-long (fake) fingernails, Gertrude doesn't look like a mother a kid of any age would cross. She watched over Dominique when he was small, and she is just as vigilant now that he's 6'8". "He's the target for crooks and leeches because he trusts everyone," she says.
Jacques Dominique (the name was chosen by a nanny) was born near Paris, the son of an Army sergeant stationed in France. He's the second of eight children produced during Gertrude's fruitful 11-year marriage to John Wilkins (Baker is the name of her second ex-husband). Dominique was 13 when his father left home, but he says, "I still love him. Everybody makes mistakes in life." He's a father himself, and while he readily admits that news of his former girlfriend's pregnancy was unwelcome—"I screamed"—he has no regrets now. His daughter, Aisha, 4, lives part of the time with him and part of the time in West Germany with her mother and stepfather. "I love my daughter to death," Dominique says.
The accident of birth should not have been totally unforeseen because Dominique's dating is almost as legendary as his dunking. He says he has slowed down and is seeing only two women; one is rumored to be actress Tracy Camila (She's Gotta Have It) Johns, but he nervously denies they're anything but friends. He remains enormously popular with almost all Atlanta women except his sisters, who complain that they are weary of cleaning up after him ("I am a mess," he admits) and that they don't get paid enough by him. To his defense comes Gerald: "He isn't cheap. Maybe he doesn't give them the $300 or $400 to clean the bedroom that they expect."
It's a measure of how far Dominique has come that while he gets criticism for being undisciplined at home, he is no longer accused of that on the court. "I don't see any part of his game that hasn't improved," says Mike Fratello, the Hawks' coach. When Dominique came into the league six years ago from the University of Georgia, he was a run-and-dunk man, so loaded with pure talent that he might well have become an all-star without ever becoming a very good player. He remains, along with the Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan, one of the NBA's acknowledged masters of the dunk, even if the 1988 NBA Slam Dunk competition in Chicago did nothing to settle the competition between them. Dominique's climactic two-handed, spinning, windmill slam received a suspiciously low score, while Jordan won on a move that, though impressive, would not have beat out Dominique's but for the hometown judges. It was enough to make Dominique remember how much he liked marbles, a sport where both feet stay on the ground.