Dominique's big day certainly worth the wait

It's a birthday party, followed by a jersey retirement.

It's actually hoopla stretched over several days, for a hoopster whose biggest fans, truth be told, are probably SportsCenter producers.

It's called 'Nique Week in Atlanta, and it's certainly a unique week in the life of Dominique Wilkins. He isn't used to being the hero.

"It's really hard to put into words," Wilkins admits, "but it's a great feeling."

'Nique is speaking of the Buckhead banquet that will be held in his honor Friday, the same night he turns 41. He is referring to Saturday evening's halftime ceremony (Hawks host the Clippers), during which the Hawks will hang his familiar No. 21 on a couple of Phillips Arena sky hooks.

Wilkins wants to enjoy the moments, savor them, because they will be highlights of the highest order. And, fact is, there have been too few of those in a career synonymous with the word.

So few that this special installment of 'Nique At Night could represent the last enduring snapshot for basketball's renowned Human Highlight Film. Next stop Hall of Fame? You'd like to think it's a slam dunk, but for 'Nique? Not likely.

"I don't see how you can keep him out," argues Hawks president Stan Kasten. "I don't know what would. At the end of the day, his numbers are stupendous. Put them against modern-day players and I think your eyes will pop out."

'Nique always had numbers, which is why you always saw him on SportsCenter -- 6 p.m., 9 p.m., midnight and beyond. He is the NBA's eighth all-time leading scorer, having totaled 26,668 points in 15 seasons. In nine of his 11-plus Hawks seasons, Wilkins' average offensive output hovered between 25.9 points per game and a league-leading 30.3 ppg in 1985-86.

Numbers, of course, don't always take you to the NBA Finals, or even the Eastern Conference finals. Wilkins was never seen on those programs, never the winner in a single seven-game series.

The numbers didn't earn Wilkins a spot on the NBA's 50 Greatest Players list, and you didn't hear many hoop historians raising a fuss about the omission.

Nor did those eye-popping totals prevent Kasten himself, and Pete Babcock, from banishing Wilkins to the Clippers at the trading deadline in 1994 for Danny Manning, in the midst of the Hawks' best season ever.

Ask the Human Highlight Film to pick out his own favorite SportsCenter highlight and it's always the same answer: Game 7 at Boston, Eastern Conference semifinals, 1988. Wilkins engaged Larry Bird in what Red Auerbach later described as "the greatest quarter I ever saw."

But Bird beat the Hawk, 20-16. For Wilkins, with highlights always came heartbreak.

"When you're a star player, you take the bad with the good," Wilkins said during a brief respite from 'Nique Week festivities and his new duties as a special assistant to Lee Douglas, the Hawks' vice president of marketing and sales.

"I always gave it my all, never quit, never took a night off," Wilkins continued. "Unfortunately, we never made it to the championship, but it doesn't make me less of a superstar."

Adds Kasten: "We still won an awful lot of games, had a lot of 50-win seasons, and surely that was because of Dominique and not in spite of him, as his critics like to say. Whatever turmoil we had over the years, there was never a moment where you stopped loving Dominique."

Yet you wonder whether history will be so forgiving, especially those of us whose fondness for 'Nique stems from years of watching the Hawks on TBS. In the '80s, before regular-season exposure on national TV became so standard, we all loved No. 21, not just Kasten.

Now, though, there's little love. Wilkins has inherited the only-a-scorer stigma that plagued Bob McAdoo for so long, and he doesn't quite have Doo's resume. While McAdoo also failed to secure a berth on Team Top 50, Doo did win MVP honors in Buffalo and a championship ring with the Lakers. Hence the Hall pass McAdoo secured in October.

Wilkins? Rewind through the reels and remember how 'Nique's Georgia teams never made the NCAA Tournament. And how Michael Jordan won the Chicago slam-dunk contest in '88 that should have been his. And how Wilkins bounced from Boston to Greece to San Antonio to Italy to Orlando, after that brief stint in Clipperdom he often likened to "hell."

How his career finally ended in the lockout-shortened 1999 campaign, with the Magic waiving 'Nique and brother Gerald within two weeks of each other. How he was forced to play mostly in Jordan's shadow, and for years in an Eastern Conference that makes today's Leastern lineup look frightfully bad. Even before the Bulls got good, the Hawks had to contend with Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia and Milwaukee.

Better yet, don't rewind. It might spoil 'Nique Week, which wouldn't be very nice. It's bad enough that No. 21's big night ironically comes against the Clips, to conjure up reminders of the trade that "took me a couple years" to get over.

" 'Nique," Jordan remarked several years back, "gets shafted."

Said Wilkins, focusing instead on what he insists is a real interest in coaching: "I don't look back on the negatives. All the positive things happening now are the only things that matter. I'd like to be remembered as a guy who always gave the fans something to see. All that personal stuff doesn't really mean that much."

Marc Stein, who covers the NBA for The Dallas Morning News, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.