Forward Dominique Wilkins of the Atlanta Hawks probably should play pro basketball in a tuxedo! He's that kind of glitzy performer. Once on stage, he never forgets his lines. Take Wilkins' jump shot, for example. It almost always ignores the rim and ripples the twine. He doesn't run down court as much as he flows. And the way he slashes to the basket for spectacular dunks, it's little wonder why he's been nicknamed ``The Human Highlight Film.''
While admitting that Dominique's scoring ability is matched by few players, his critics say he needs the ball too much in what is a team game. Sometimes what you have is Wilkins putting on his show while four other guys stand around.
This is basically the same one-size-fits-all criticism that is frequently leveled at Chicago's Michael Jordan, Denver's Alex English, and Dallas's Mark Aguirre. It is hard to define, but something great individual performers in any sport learn to live with.
Wilkins, who won the National Basketball Association scoring title in 1985-86 with a 30.3-point average, has heard it all before. He no longer reacts to it. He knows his main job is to fill up the basket, and he does it with style and flair. Twice this year he has had 50-point games, and his average is hovering around 31 points a game, which places him second only to Jordan among league scorers. But now in his sixth pro season, he feels he has also become much more of a complete player.
``My first two years in the league, I was too much of a scorer,'' he concedes. ``That's all I could think about. I wasn't seeing the whole picture. I wasn't doing too many things to help my teammates or make them better players. But since then I've become a total player. I think most people realize now that I have more than one skill.''
When Wilkins goes up to fire his jumper, his air time is about the same as a piece of laundry hung out to dry. Lots of NBA players check for dust above the rim, but Wilkins is one of few who qualifies as a space station.
Asked what it takes to score big every year, Wilkins replied: ``Once you establish your game as a rookie and know what it is, it's always going to be there for you. The basics don't change. But when opponents start to get smarter about what you do, then you have to adjust. Not big things. Little things. A different look. Maybe working a different side of the court for a while is enough.''
When Wilkins first came into the NBA in 1982-83, he was rapped for two things: poor shot selection and little interest in defense. His critics said that he shot coming out the locker room door and that he often shot when one or more of his teammates was open. Of course he was scoring 17.5 points a game.
The important thing is that Wilkins listened and learned. His shot selection is seldom criticized anymore, and overall he has improved his game.
Dominique may never be more than adequate defensively, because most players with his kind of offensive creativity seldom are. If you are a coach, you live with this, the same way you live with a good defensive player who won't look for openings to score, and often ignores them when they are there. Not everybody can be Larry Bird or Magic Johnson.
Last year, the Hawks finished first in the Central Division with a 57-25 record, 22 of those victories coming on the road. Then, probably by looking ahead to battling the Boston Celtics, Atlanta was upset in the playoffs by the Detroit Pistons, who currently lead them in the division standings.
``That is something that we have to put behind us, and I think we have,'' Wilkins told me. ``As far as I am concerned, this year's team has the talent to go as far as it wants to go.
``But to make this happen, we can't keep going into Boston and Los Angeles and playing catch-up basketball, or continue to make mental mistakes. We have to be the aggressors. We have to set the pace. And we have to start doing it now. By the playoffs, it will be too late.''