TrueHoop: Dominique Wilkins

LeBron not first to play NBA numbers game

July, 28, 2014
By Adam Reisinger
LeBron JamesAP Images/Mark DuncanLeBron James will return to wearing his original No. 23 for the Cavaliers in 2014-15.

LeBron James announced Sunday that after four seasons of wearing No. 6 with the Miami Heat, he'll go back to his original No. 23 when he rejoins the Cleveland Cavaliers this season. When James originally announced his decision to change to No. 6, he did so out of respect for Michael Jordan -- who, coincidentally has his jersey hanging on the wall in Miami, despite never having played for the Heat.

However, James is far from the first superstar to change his number, then have a change of heart and change back.

Ray Allen (34 to 20 to 34)

James' old Miami teammate Ray Allen has some experience with this type of jersey switch. Allen came into the league wearing No. 34 -- his college number -- for the Milwaukee Bucks, then held on to it with the Seattle SuperSonics. However, when Allen was traded to the Boston Celtics, 34 was taken by Paul Pierce, so Allen switched to 20. Upon signing with the Heat, Allen had his choice of 20 or 34, and went back to his original number.

Dominique Wilkins (21 to 12 to 21)

Dominique Wilkins most famously wore No. 21 for the Atlanta Hawks, where his number hangs in the rafters. He kept the number when he was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers late in the 1993-94 season, but when he signed with the Celtics, 21 wasn't available (it's retired for Bill Sharman). Wilkins played one season in Boston wearing the unfamiliar No. 12, before bolting for Europe. When he returned to the NBA in 1996-97 with the San Antonio Spurs, he was back in his trademark No. 21 -- becoming the last Spur to wear it before Tim Duncan.

Charles Barkley (34 to 32 to 34)

After Magic Johnson announced his sudden retirement due to HIV, Charles Barkley chose to change his jersey number from his original 34 to 32 to honor Johnson -- getting permission from Philadelphia 76ers legend Billy Cunningham to have the number temporarily unretired. However when Barkley was traded to the Phoenix Suns in the offseason, No. 32 was already being worn by Negele Knight, so Barkley switched back to 34, before finishing his career in Houston wearing No. 4.

Shaquille O'Neal (32 to 34 to 32)

In the exact reverse of Barkley, Shaquille O'Neal started his career wearing 32, switched to 34, then went back to 32 (before moving on to 33 and 36 in his twilight years). O'Neal actually wanted 33 -- his college number -- when he was drafted by the Orlando Magic, but that was taken by Terry Catledge, so O'Neal settled for 32. When he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers, both 32 (Magic Johnson) and 33 (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) were retired, so he took No. 34, which was available after George Lynch was traded to the Vancouver Grizzlies. When O'Neal was traded to the Heat, he had his choice between 34 and 32, and decided to go back to his original number.

Michael Jordan (23 to 45 to 23)

Perhaps the most famous jersey number reversal, Michael Jordan wore No. 23 during his original stint with the Chicago Bulls, up until his retirement in 1993. When he returned to basketball in 1995, he chose to wear No. 45 -- the number he'd worn during his brief professional baseball career -- and leave No. 23 in the rafters. However, during the Bulls' Eastern Conference semifinal loss to the Magic, Jordan switched back to his customary No. 23, a move he said made him more comfortable, but cost his team a $25,000 fine. Jordan remained in 23 for the rest of his time with the Bulls, and kept the number during his brief comeback with the Washington Wizards.

TrueHoop TV: Human highlight films

November, 8, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
In Part 1 of our two-part chat, Dominique Wilkins discusses the challenges of returning from a severe Achilles injury like the one Kobe Bryant suffered.

In Part 2, the Hall of Famer chats about the new-look Atlanta Hawks and reminiscences about the Hawks teams of the 1980s, including the bizarre team video, "Atlanta's Air Force."


Tips for the live NBA experience

November, 30, 2011
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Most hard-core travelers I know have at least one personal ritual they abide by, no matter where they are in the world. I like to be on the street between 8 and 9 in the morning because the best way to experience the kinetic energy of a place is to soak up the morning rush.

This morning, Kottke pointed readers to a smart list of travel tips from a blog called My Little Nomads. I liked this one:
Buy your own fruit. It sounds simple. It is simple. Just do it. You’ll love it. And I don’t mean, if there happens to be a fruit stand outside your hotel door you should buy some, because you need to have 9 servings a day. What I mean is, find fruit and buy it. Make it a daily task that you’re going to track down a fruit stand, a farmers’ market (they’re not just in San Francisco) and get some good fresh fruit. The entire process will expose you to elements of daily life you would have otherwise ignored. Trust me: You’ll have memories from your trips to buy fresh fruit.

When I was a kid, I liked to watch the middle of the second quarter of every Hawks game I attended from the very top row of the Omni. When Dominique Wilkins took a seat, I'd dash upstairs. When you're 11 years old, vertigo from the top of a 16,000-seat arena is intoxicating -- the place looks like an ant farm from above -- but looking back, the memories I have of getting up there are far more vivid.

Roaming an NBA arena unsupervised spoke to every sense. The Omni smelt like pizza and burned popcorn. The ushers wore bright red sateen jackets, some of them even smoked and most of them knew my face. The structure was made of weathering steel, so the acoustics were trippy -- a tinny refraction of horns, music and basketball. The final ascent the top row meant a trek over a steep swath of orange, gold and purple vinyl seats.

Last night, a friend asked me what I was looking forward to most now that the NBA was returning and, for some reason, I immediately plucked this from my catalog of memories. The Omni was demolished years ago and I don't spend much time buzzing around the upper concourses of arenas, but the live experience of going to an NBA game is the thing I enjoy most.

The league is back, and if you live in an NBA city, you'll have 33 chances to attend a live game. In most places, it's still an event -- the buzz outside the gate, the pageantry, the way the colors pop on the court.

Here are some tips for enhancing your game-night experience:

Get to the game early
If your schedule allows for some flexibility, plan on arriving 90 minutes before tip-off because there are few things more glorious than watching an arena come to life. It's like your own, personal time lapse video as the lower bowl fills up little by little. You'll get a glimpse of how a game production unfolds and, most of all, you can witness pregame rituals. Watch the biomechanical miracle of a 7-foot center being stretched out by a professional trainer. See shooters like Ray Allen or Steve Novak drain 19 consecutive 3-pointers -- and figure out how they do it. Beckley Mason of HoopSpeak likes to watch Steve Nash's pregame routine -- a barrage of elbow jumpers in quick succession. Get a glimpse of which guys yuk it up with opponents at center court and which guys look like they're about to mobilize for a major ground offensive.

Sit in a seat other than your own for 10 minutes
NBA arenas have gotten fussy about your moving around, but if you can finagle it, find a different vantage point from your assigned seat. If you're down low, head upstairs and study the choreography of the NBA from above. If your seat is out of earshot from the court, try to sneak your way to closer proximity and listen to the sound of the game -- the directives from the sidelines, trash-talk, the lobbying of officials. If you're at a Wizards game, just listen to Sam Cassell.

Take people who took you when you were a kid
This suggestion comes from my friend, Jeff, a Portland native and Trail Blazers fan. Invite your dad, mom or grandfather -- whoever used to haul you to a game. Maybe it was your father's friend when your parents worked late, or maybe it was your uncle who'd lecture you on the way home from the game about the virtues of three-to-make-two or the evil genius of Red Auerbach. Whoever it is, buying a ticket to a game for another person without the expectation of repayment is one of the cooler rites of passage as a grown-up.

Smuggle in healthy food
I've never met anyone over the age of 15 who has ever been satisfied with a meal purchased at the concession stands of an NBA arena. Even the stuff that's tasty requires a second mortgage and an angioplasty. Security at the gate has gotten stiff over the past decade, but a crafty smuggler can find enough room in the pocket of a winter coat for a couple of tangerines. If you're really creative, you can press your luck. Between 2001 and 2005, an estimated 150 onigiri rice balls from a local Japanese market were smuggled into NBA arenas -- all of them by a single individual in Los Angeles.

Take rail or a bus
Sports is still a communal civic outing in many cities, but in a lot of places it's becoming less so. Hopping the subway in New York, BART in the bay, the T in Boston or light rail in Salt Lake will remind you that cities and the commonalities of the people who live in them matter. In an era when modern convenience has provided us with a lot more solitude, it's fun to reacquaint yourself with that idea, even if it adds a few minutes to your trip.

Parlor games
Before you leave the house, declare it -- best throwback jersey in the crowd, least tolerable song most likely to be played during a timeout, over-unders on number of blocked shots by players under 6-foot-5 and player on the floor most likely to win a gauntlet match. These diversions come in particularly handy if you're staring at a 24-point game midway through the third quarter.

Leave your phone behind
This isn't always a practical option, but if there's nothing in your life that's calling out for immediate attention, we dare you to attend a game phone-free. You won't have easy access to stats and you won't be able to confirm who got dealt for Joe Smith, but attending a game without the constant itch to check your inboxes is a liberating, unfiltered experience. It will bring you back to a time when going to an NBA game was an activity that completely captivated you -- almost like travel.

Hawk-eye: Wilkins on Griffin, Kobe and LBJ

January, 2, 2011
Adande By J.A. Adande
LOS ANGELES -- Dominique Wilkins was a spectacular dunker, as Blake Griffin is now. Wilkins was an older player adjusting to diminished physical abilities, as Kobe Bryant is now. And Wilkins was a star who competed in the dunk contest ... something LeBron James has yet to do.

Wilkins was a five-time participant in the dunk contest, beginning with the inaugural contest in 1984 and going out by winning for the second time in 1990. He squared off against the likes of Michael Jordan and Julius Erving, back when the sport’s biggest names had no problems battling for slam supremacy.

Today’s players “don’t want to know who the best is,” Wilkins said at Staples Center before his color commentating duties on the Hawks-Clippers broadcast Sunday afternoon. “Simple as that. They don’t want to know who the best is. We always wanted to know. It’s that competition thing, where guys don’t want to compete on that level, in a one-on-one situation. It’s not just for you as an individual, it’s for the fans. That’s what we did it for. Yeah, we wanted to win, but it’s for the fans. Guys just don’t want to do it anymore.”

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty
Dominique Wilkins showed no fear of flying during dunk contests.

Entering the dunk contest would be a great opportunity for LeBron to win back some of the public relations points he lost with “The Decision” and add some luster to an All-Star Weekend event that felt so flat in Dallas last year some called for it to be eliminated. Some believe there’s too much downside, that if he lost the contest it would be another setback for him. The man who once lost to 5-foot-6 Spud Webb doesn’t want to hear it.

“Even if you lose the dunk contest ... so what?” Wilkins said. “’He lost. It doesn’t hurt his potential legacy later in life. It’s a dunk contest for a weekend for his fans.”

Wilkins dunked at every opportunity when he entered the NBA with the Hawks in 1982, similar to the way Griffin is assaulting the rim in his rookie year.

“Being a great athlete, you think you can play at one speed your whole career,” Wilkins said. “And you can’t. You’ve got to pick your spots by finding a way to get yourself some easy baskets to conserve some of that energy. Because when you play at that 100 percent speed all the time eventually it’s going to catch up with you as you get older.

“When you’re a young man, you can get away with it. But I found out early on ... put it this way: I used to come out to the games, right? I would come in the game in the warmup line, I would put on a show. By the fourth quarter, I ain’t got no energy. I stopped doing that. I stopped really dunking in warmups. I was trying to conserve my energy for the fourth quarter.

“Lou Hudson [a Hawks star in the 1970s] told me something a long time ago. He just told me to look at the game as getting three buckets a quarter. Just three buckets. If you add those three buckets up a quarter, what do you have? 24 points. That’s not even counting free throws. If you concentrate on getting that, you’re conserving your energy.”

Wilkins had no choice when he finished his career with the San Antonio Spurs and Orlando Magic.

“I knew I couldn’t go all out against a guy, especially athletically,” Wilkins said. “I knew I had to become more of a basketball player, doing the fundamentals. When I had to do those explosion plays, I still had those reserves in the tank where I could do that.

“I had a game in San Antonio where we’re playing against Dale Davis and Antonio Davis [of the Indiana Pacers], where I had to play the four. I had to conserve my energy to box those big guys out. And I had [16] rebounds. And those guys were relentless on the glass. Maybe you had to sacrifice a little bit of your scoring. It depends on the situation and the player you’re going against.”

That was in Wilkins’ 14th season, when he was 37 years old. He still averaged 18 points per game that year and topped 30 four times. Kobe is also in his 14th season, even though he’s only 32. His game is more grounded, he’s looking to pass more … he’s going through the same transition Wilkins did.

“Just getting older, man,” Wilkins said. “Just getting older, where he has to pick his spots, where he can’t just blow all his energy out in the first half. ‘OK, I’ll go hard here, then I’ll pull back a little bit and try to get somebody else involved, then third quarter I’ll go hard again.’ Then fourth quarter…"

Against the 76ers on Friday, Kobe had paced himself well enough to hit the Lakers’ last basket and final free throws to preserve the victory. And he even soared for a two-hand dunk over Spencer Hawes in the first half.

Wilkins had those moments as well late in his career.

“Afterward I’d say, ‘I did that?’ When you’re caught up in the game, you don’t think about it.”

Dunkers dunk. A lesson for LeBron.