In April of 1983, Dominique Wilkins was just finishing up his rookie season with the Atlanta Hawks. His first season in the league was memorable — he averaged 17.5 ppg and around 6 rpgs — but one moment stood out more than others. The first time he played against and guarded Larry Bird.
According to Wilkins’ account of the night, the veteran Bird trashed talked him up and down the court. It was a baptism by fire for the man who would eventually become known as The Human Highlight Film (which is one of the more underrated nicknames of all time).
Via The Boston Herald:
“One of the first times I ever played against him, I went out for the opening tip and I went to shake his hand. He just stood there and looked at me stone-faced with his hands behind his back,” Wilkins said recently.
“I was like, ‘Whoa.’ Then we were getting ready for the tip and he says to me, ‘You don’t belong in this league, Homes.’ I couldn’t believe it, but it happened so fast, I didn’t know what to think.
“Then they had the ball and I was on him and he said, ‘I don’t know why they got you guarding me, Homes. You can’t guard me.’ Then, whap, he hit a 3. Then he came down again and said, ‘They made a mistake putting you on me, Homes,’ and he took another 3.”
Getting into the story, Wilkins began to act things out with his facial expressions.
“So now I’m hot,” he said. “I’m hot. I mean, I’m steaming.
This anger is understandable. If anyone repeatedly called me HOMES I’d murder them, no questions asked. No, “Hey, why are you calling me that?” or “Did you ever, for one moment, stop and think about my feelings, Larry?” Just murder.
“Then a little while later, I came down on a break and he was backpedaling. I just went right after him. I jumped up and he tried to challenge, but I took that right through the rim. He fell and hit the basket support.
“He got up and said, ‘I like you, rookie. You’ve got(guts).’ I was happy for a second, and then he said, ‘But I’m still going for 40 on you tonight.’ ”
He then paused the story, stepped back and smiled.
“But I got him,” Wilkins said. “He only scored 39.”
Hey! The Hawks might have gotten slaughtered that night by the Celtics 117 -95, but holding Bird under 40 is still a small victory. And sometimes it’s those small victories — you know, the ones that aren’t really victories at all — that keep us going.