Before evolving into a team with the NBA’s best record — and I still can’t type that without my fingers going into spasms — the Hawks were punchline central. But it seemed appropriate Thursday that when a statue honoring Dominique Wilkins was unveiled, one of the league’s greatest icons took a little shot at the franchise for not fulfilling embracing the part of its history long worth celebrating.
“This is a change agent for the franchise,” Julius Erving said. “This is something that will open the door for Pete Maravich, Lou Hudson, Walt Bellamy, Dan Roundfield, as well as the alumni who live in this city. Because a lot of those people live in this city. I think the organization might have neglected them. They took them for granted.”
He’s right. We tend to live in the moment in sports. And when there are so many bad moments in a franchise, so many bumbling general managers and polarizing players, we forget the times created by individuals that are worth bottling and putting on a shelf to occasionally admire.
Or in this, casting in bronze.
Erving, a close friend of Wilkins and the last speaker before the guest of honor stepped on stage at star-filled luncheon at Philips Arena, said the Hawks, “have to take more of a family approach. Just because your family gets a little older or maybe moves out of the house doesn’t mean they stop being your family. If you don’t pay attention to history, it will come back and bite you.”
What matters’ most: Wilkins’ greatness and lasting impact is being recognized now. A 13½-foot tall statue depicting the Hall of Famer gliding through the air and winding up for a dunk was unveiled on the arena floor.
Among those in attendance and/or giving tributes (live or via video): Erving, Larry Bird (via video), Clyde Drexler, Bernard King, Charles Barkley, Kevin Willis, Karl Malone, Dikembe Mutombo, Detlef Schrempf (video), Mike Fratello and NBA commissioner Adam Silver, as well as the entire Hawks’ teams.
Also, the Wilkins-preferred part of the ownership group. More on that shortly.
Wilkins said he preferred to “save my thank you’s” for fans at ceremonies planned for halftime of Friday’s game between the Hawks and Cleveland. But after pushing a button to raise the drape that was over the statue, he seemed to choke up for a moment.
“This is a surreal moment for me,” he said.
Then he told a story about growing up poor in the projects in Baltimore and coming home to find his mother crying, who told him she didn’t have any food for dinner.
“I told her, ‘Don’t cry any more because one day I’m going to make you rich,’” Wilkins said. “The proudest moment of my life was when I bought my mother her first house.”
Atlanta hasn’t had many sports heroes. Some, like Erving, may believe Wilkins was overdue to be celebrated. But at least this comes at a time when the current team has captured the city’s attention to this extent for the first time since the Wilkins’ era in the 1980s.
Wilkins isn’t getting merely a statue. A long stretch of Centennial Olympic Park Drive, from Marietta St. to Martin Luther King Drive, is being renamed, “Dominique Wilkins Lane.” Celebrations will go on. The statue will find a permanent home outside of Philips Arena, by the “Atlanta” sign.
Fratello, the former Hawks’ coach, said Wilkins “never asked for a day off.”
Willis, a former teammate, said he plans to “hug the statue,” adding, “We didn’t win a championship but we won the heart of Atlanta fans.”
Bird provided a typically jabbing humorous moment during his video tribute: “Congratulations on getting a statue. I‘m pretty sure it wasn’t made with you in a defensive stance.”
Gerald Wilkins claimed to be the first to spot his brother’s talent. He told a story about eight kids sleeping in a room and spotting a roach on the wall.
“I said, ‘Nique, they’re coming to get me,'” Gerald said. “He jumped up and ‘Bap!’ The roach fell on the floor. I said to myself, ‘That boy is going to be something.'”
Wilkins thanked several individuals, including three of the franchise’s owners: Michael Gearon Jr. and Sr. and Rutherford Seydel. There was no mention of controlling owner Bruce Levenson, who’s been excommunicated since his race-infused email that precipitated the franchise being put up for sale. There was no mentioned of his partners, Ed Peskowitz and Todd Foreman.
Atlanta businessman Tommy Dortch, the driving force behind the statue, also mentioned the Gearons and Seydel, but not the others.
Also absent, both physically and by mention: Danny Ferry, the Hawks’ general manager (still, although in purgatory and with an uncertain future). Wilkins hasn’t publicly supported Ferry’s return and believes Ferry didn’t back the push for the statue.
Wilkins did manage to praise the Hawks’ players and coach Mike Budenholzer, saying, “Coach Budenholzer is the orchestrator of what’s going on here.”
Read into that what you will.
Fortunately, however, the executive spitball fight was a minor part of the event.
“We talk about being immortalized in your life,” Wilkins said on stage. “What bigger stage to stand on than to have a statue of you in front of the franchise and building that you love? I know nobody who loves this organization like I do.”
The love now has been returned, in bronze.
•Some recent ramblings from the digital jukebox
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