One legend reflects on another

NBA/GETTY IMAGES

NBA/GETTY IMAGES

To be the best in any line of work takes dedication to the craft, character and a solid foundation to build upon.

Most of the time, parents construct that crucial foundation, giving their children the fundamental tools to succeed later in life.

Washington native and basketball Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins is a small town success story with the resume to prove it. A nine-time NBA All-Star, the league considers the former Pam Pack standout to be “one of the NBA’s true marquee players.”

Wilkins’ father, a member of the U.S. Air Force, wasn’t always around during Dominique’s time in Washington. Well spoken, amiable and one of the best to ever dribble a basketball, Wilkins, the current vice president of basketball for the Atlanta Hawks, found his inspiration from a different source — his coach, the late Dave Smith.

“Before a big game, he used to make me get up in front of the team and recite this poem called ‘Don’t Quit.’ I hated it, but he really made us understand what it meant, and it motivated us,” Wilkins said.

The poem begins, “When things go wrong, as they sometimes will; When the road you’re trudging seems all uphill; When the funds are low and the debts are high, And you want to smile but you have to sigh; When care is pressing you down a bit; Rest if you must, but don’t you quit.”

John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem is modest, yet directly applicable and relatable to the players that made up the late-‘70s Pam Pack basketball teams. Even with an exorbitant amount of talent, including four future Div. 1 players, selfishness was a trait not associated with the Pam Pack, as the team conformed to its head coach’s philosophy.

“Sure, we have guys that can put up 35 a night, but he taught us to be a unit,” Wilkins said. “That ’79 team, being the best player, he stayed on me more than anyone else. I remember that like it was yesterday. And he could never say my name right. He would call me ‘Dom-nac.’ He would never say my name right. It was amazing.”

With Wilkins as the floor leader from 1977-‘79, the team recorded an unprecedented 76-1 record and went on to win two North Carolina State Championships. To this day, the 1979 squad is the last Pam Pack team to win a state championship. To his players, Smith was more than just a good coach. To Wilkins, he filled the paternal void.

“He knew that I could play right out of high school, but he taught me how to be a young man first and a basketball player second,” Wilkins said. “I think that was the biggest reason why I did go to college because I wasn’t ready to play professional basketball from a mental standpoint. He helped me a great deal in growing as a man. I’ll never forget those days. He was that father figure in our lives, particularly in mine because my father figure, at the time, wasn’t around. He was a major figure in my life.”

Wilkins took his coach’s advice and went on to score 26,668 career points, good for 12th all-time, earning the nickname “The Human Highlight Film.” Despite all the accolades, Wilkins, now 54, credits his former coach as being the foundation behind his success on and off the court.

“I’ll tell you the truth, he’s the best coach I’ve ever had on any level,” Wilkins said. “He was an unbelievable coach, an unbelievable communicator. You look at coach Smith as like a figure in life that will never die. He was larger than life because he was so tough, such a big man in stature. We all loved coach.”