“101 Greats of European Basketball,” a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades’ worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball’s roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
Dominique Wilkins – An American from Paris
In 1951, the movie “An American in Paris” was named Best Picture by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The famed musical cleaned up with six Academy Awards as the combination of the dancing of stars Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron and the music composed by George Gershwin, worded by older brother Ira and orchestrated by Saul Chaplin, conquered the world. Nine years later, a true American was born in Paris and his personal history has always been related to the French capital. Jacques Dominique Wilkins was born in Paris on January 12, 1960, and later reached one of his greatest triumphs in Paris. It was there, on April 11, 1996, that Dominique Wilkins had one of the most memorable days in his brilliant career: he became a EuroLeague champion.
Wilkins had been a nine-time all-star, was voted to the All-NBA team seven times, won a pair of slam dunk contests, and was the league’s top scorer in 1986 with 30.3 points per game. Despite his brilliance, Wilkins’s Atlanta Hawks never managed to win the title. He would have to leave the NBA and join Panathinaikos Athens in Greece to lift his first club trophy. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Dominique Wilkins was born in Paris because his father, a member of the United States Air Force, was working in the French capital. I am guessing that his two very French names have something to do with that fact, too. However, when it was time to go to school, Dominique’s family was already back in America, in the small coastal town of Washington, North Carolina. There, a young Wilkins led his high school team to back-to-back state titles in 1978 and 1979. From there he moved on to play college basketball at the University of Georgia, which ironically enough is located in the city of Athens. Wilkins became a star for the Bulldogs and was named the 1981 South Eastern Conference player of the year.
Three years at Georgia were enough for Wilkins to prove his worth and readiness for the next level. In the 1982 NBA draft, he was selected with the number 3 overall pick, behind James Worthy and Terry Cummings. Wilkins was drafted by the Utah Jazz, but in what would turn out to be a one-sided deal, his rights were acquired by Atlanta in exchange for John Drew, Freeman Williams and cash.
Thus, began a brilliant NBA career. When he retired, Wilkins had played in 1,074 games, scored 26,668 points (24.8 ppg.) and pulled down 7,169 rebounds (6.7 rpg.). His best season came in 1985-86 when Wilkins led all NBA scorers with 30.3 points per game. He scored a lot of points and did so in spectacular fashion. His enormous physical power allowed him to execute unbelievable plays, including thrilling dunks. Accordingly, he was dubbed The Human Highlight Film. At the 1985 and 1990 all-star games, Wilkins beat the great Michael Jordan in the dunk contest with his 360-degree slam. It was simply unforgettable.
At the 1994 World Championships in Toronto, Canada, a 34-year-old Wilkins won the gold medal with the Team USA along with Shaquille O’Neal, Reggie Miller, Joe Dumars, Alonzo Mourning, Kevin Johnson and Mark Price. Wilkins, with a total 101 points (12.6 ppg.) was the third-best scorer on the second “Dream Team”, behind only O’Neal (144) and Miller (137). And in the title game against Russia, Wilkins led the Americans with 20 points en route to a 137-91 victory.
In Athens for the titles
When he was 35, Wilkins decided to leave the NBA and try his luck in Europe. Many doubted that a player his age, despite his experience and individual qualities, would be able to contribute much. They were wrong. Apart from a new challenge, Wilkins had four million reasons to sign for the Greens of Athens, as that was the number that European media mentioned when talking about his contract: $4 million for a single season.
In Athens, Wilkins found a solid team with a great point guard (Panagiotis Giannakis), a good young forward (Fragiskos Alvertis) and a tower in the paint (Stojko Vrankovic). Additionally, the talented prospect Nikos Ekonomou, an experienced American playmaker of Greek heritage, John Korfas, and Greek players Evangelos Vourtzoumis and Tzanis Satvrakopoulos made for a strong squad. Panathinaikos had failed in its two previous Final Four appearances, in Tel Aviv 1994 and Zaragoza 1995, but that didn’t tone down the ambitions of the club to make Panathinaikos the first Greek team to become European champion. That’s why, aside from Wilkins, they had also signed Coach Bozidar Maljkovic, a three-time champ, twice with Jugoplastika Split and once with Limoges.
In the beginning, the tough and demanding Maljkovic and a star like Wilkins were not a good match, but little by little Maljkovic’s work and Wilkins’s versatility started to bring results. Panathinaikos made the playoff ranked third from Group B with a 9-5 record, behind FC Barcelona (10-4) and tied with Real Madrid. In the quarterfinals, the Greens got rid of Benetton Treviso (2-1) and advanced to the Final Four in Paris. In Game 3 of that series, in Treviso, Panathinaikos clinched a spot in Paris behind 26 points and 7 rebounds by Wilkins. It was his best game with Panathinaikos to that point, but the best was yet to come.
Before the Final Four, Panathinaikos won the Greek Cup in March by defeating Panionios in the final, 85-74. That was the first club trophy in Wilkins’s career, but he wanted more – much more. And as usually happens with great players, Wilkins played the best when his team needed him the most. In the Final Four semifinal against CSKA Moscow, he led the way with a season-high 35 points plus 8 rebounds as Panathinaikos was victorious 81-71.
In the title game, on April 11, 1996, after a dramatic finish complete with some mistakes by the scorers’ table and the referees, Panathinaikos defeated Barcelona 67-66. Wilkins contributed 16 points and 10 boards and was named Final Four MVP. His first season in Europe ended with 20.1 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. The season was not perfect, however. In the Greek League finals, with Panathinaikos leading 2-1, Wilkins suffered an injury and didn’t play in Games 4 or 5. Olympiacos used that to turn the series around and take the title with a 2-3 series win.
San Antonio and Bologna
After succeeding in Europe, Wilkins decided to return to the NBA: He signed for the San Antonio Spurs, where he finished the 1996-97 season at 37-and-a-half years old and with a worthy average of 18.3 points in 61 games. The following season he decided to return to Europe, this time to TeamSystem Bologna in Italy. In the Italian League, he averaged 17.8 points and 7.3 rebounds while in the Euroleague he averaged 17.9 points and 7.0 rebounds, but his club’s archrival, Kinder Bologna, put an end to the team’s European dream this time.
In the EuroLeague quarterfinals, Kinder eliminated TeamSystem 2-0 and then in the Italian League final series, Kinder succeeded 3-2 after an unbelievable fifth game. If April 11 of 1996 was the happiest day Wilkins experienced in Europe, May 31, 1998, was one to stick in his memory forever for the opposite reasons. With 13 seconds to go, his team was 4 points ahead, 72-68, and the title was almost secure. But then one of the most famous plays in European basketball took place: Predrag Danilovic hit a three with an additional free throw from a foul committed by… Dominique Wilkins. Danilovic scored the free throw, David Rivers turned the ball over on the last offensive play for TeamSystem, and Kinder won it all in overtime. It wasn’t the happiest of endings to a brilliant career.
On January 13, 2001, Wilkins saw his jersey No. 21 (in Europe he played with that number reversed, 12) was retired in Atlanta. Only Bob Petit and Lou Hudson before Wilkins had received that honor at the Georgia Dome. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 2006.
Dominique Wilkins wasn’t even the winningest American player in European basketball, not the best American player to ever play in Europe, but I would say that, together with Bob McAdoo, he was the biggest NBA star to ever play here.
Dominique Wilkins, an American from Paris.