Sports

Wilkins remains successful off the court

Dominique Wilkins may be running a fast-break toward his 50th birthday, but he still knows how to connect with a demographic whose members were in diapers the last time he dunked a basketball for the Atlanta Hawks.

Dominique remains unique partly because he’s a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame member with his own MySpace page.

The 407 friends linked to his online forum represent an interesting collection of black and white, young and old, American and foreign, celebrity and nobody.

LoB from France wants ’Nique to know he was robbed by Michael Jordan in the 1988 NBA Slam Dunk Contest, as if Wilkins didn’t already realize this.

SweetNsoFLyy wants Wilkins to check his MySpace messages more often, but that’s kind of tough now that the Hawks are gearing up for the NBA draft and he happens to be the team’s vice president of basketball.

Inprovision wants advice from Wilkins on how to apply for business grants.

Mounir wants Dominique Wilkins to write an autobiography because ‘‘we need to set the world straight about your achievements.’’

So let’s set the world straight since Wilkins happens to be the speaker for tonight’s 7 p.m. Celebration of Sports Excellence, which will honor the Ledger-Enquirer’s All-Bi-City athletes at the RiverCenter.

Most of the high school students in the audience possess, at best, vague memories of Wilkins as an NBA player. They know him best as some old guy who went into the hall of fame last year alongside Charles Barkley and Joe Dumars.

They don’t necessarily know what it took for him to get there or understand the scope of his work now, but there are lessons to be learned from both.

His career path, from third overall draft pick in 1983 to suit-and-tie executive now, stands as a testament to what can happen when you’re willing to embrace change.

When Wilkins left Georgia at the end of his junior season, he was regarded as little more than a dunker. The Hawks needed him to be more than that and Wilkins obliged.

Wilkins’ MySpace friends may acknowledge the world above the rim as HisSpace, but he became a nine-time All-Star because he worked tirelessly to expand his game. His detractors assign his 24.8-point-per-game career scoring average to a shoot-first, pass-if-you-can-pry-the-rock-from-my-cold-dead-hands mentality. In truth, the Hawks needed him to shoot until his elbow got sore, dunk over anybody in his way and create highlights. They needed him to do all of it to put bodies in seats and momentarily interrupt their tradition of terminal lousiness.

What gets lost in the shadow of the Human Highlight Film nickname and the misfortune of sharing an era with Jordan is that Wilkins turned himself into a great player. He improved his ball-handling, developed a jump shot and displayed the calm of a safecracker in pressure situations. After a couple pro seasons, he emerged as the sort of player who did wondrous things when the shot clock and game clock were winding down.

Best of all, he didn’t stop maximizing his immense potential after the shot clock expired on his playing career. So many professional sports stars rest on their laurels after retirement. They don’t know what to do with themselves when the cheering stops. They only step outside their mansion gates for the purposes of playing golf or meeting with their accountant to find a good tax shelter.

Now 47 years old, Wilkins maintains a pace as intense as the one he set on the court. He’s made a seamless transition from the locker room to the board room.

He puts his time and money into such local and national charities as the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Special Olympics, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, American Lung Association and Muscular Dystrophy Association. Wilkins remains busy as a motivational speaker and member of the Hawks’ front office.

His work as the former continually gets put to the test by the latter.

Hopefully his pre-draft advice for Atlanta general manager Billy Knight will sound something like this: Enough with all the small forwards. Go get a point guard.

Ohio State’s Mike Conley Jr. would fit the role nicely.

The Hawks are in position to get him because of the good mojo Wilkins brought as the club’s representative at the NBA draft lottery last month. Wilkins watched the ping-pong balls bounce around and eventually produce the No. 3 pick for his team.

That should send another clear message to the Atlanta Spirit ownership group.

The more influence Wilkins gains in the front office, the better the Hawks’ prospects for rediscovering the success they enjoyed with him on their front line.

I could be wrong, of course.

But it’s safe to say Wilkins’ 407 MySpace buddies would back me up on that.

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