He was known as “The Human Highlight Film” during his playing days, and entered the National Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006 as one of the most popular and best basketball players of all time.
Now, Dominique Wilkins is pursuing a variety of interests in and out of the sport he loves, including taking a leadership role in spreading the word about diabetes and its impact on the African American community. Renee Shaw caught up with the nine-time NBA All-Star recently on Connections to reflect on his legendary career and learn more about his diabetes advocacy.
Born in Paris to a military family, Wilkins grew up in the U.S.A. in a rough neighborhood in Baltimore. He played basketball constantly in area parks as a kid, and credits an older mentor at the nearby Boys Club for teaching him the basics of the game.
“He said, ‘I’m going to teach you the game, and you’re going to owe me – but not like you think,” Wilkins recalls. “The only thing I want from you is for you to give to someone else what I’m about to give to you.’ And that’s how I’ve lived my life.”
Wilkins became a local legend as a teenager, known for an incredible athletic ability that enabled him to dunk on a 12-foot goal. He moved to North Carolina at age 16 and briefly lived with his high school coach before his family, including younger brother and future NBA player Gerald, joined him. After starring in high school and at the University of Georgia, Dominique Wilkins joined the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks in 1982. He left a dozen years later as the franchise’s all-time leading scorer.
Last year, the Hawks unveiled a statue of Wilkins in front of Philips Arena. Now a vice president of basketball operations with the team, Wilkins calls that statue a highlight of his career, and says it represents how he impacted the city of Atlanta and the Peach State on and off the court.
Highlight Reels from a Golden Era
Wilkins led the Hawks to four 50-win seasons in the late 1980s and was one of the NBA’s biggest superstars in a time when the league exploded in terms of television exposure and international popularity. Known for his physically aggressive style of play that attempted to get opposing players in foul trouble, Wilkins led the league in scoring in 1986 and won two slam dunk contests held during the NBA’s All-Star weekend, although he believes he should have won two more.
Wilkins competed hard in several team and personal rivalries during his prime years, especially against Eastern Conference foes Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. His shootout with Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the 1988 Eastern Conference Semifinals, in which Wilkins scored 47 points and Bird 34, is still replayed on the NBA Network and has become a part of the league’s lore. Wilkins does not agree with the current trend in the NBA, where superstar players often leave teams they have established a legacy with in order to join former foes and put themselves in a better position to win a league championship.
He never won an NBA championship, but Wilkins says that “There’s a lot of great, great players who’ve never gotten a ring. I think my ring is my career, the things I was able to accomplish, and the things that I was able to see and be a part of…. Because I look at that as being a person that had a one in a million opportunity to be a part of something you love, and have it as a career.”
Diabetes Diagnosis Leads to a Lifestyle Change and Advocacy
Near the end of his playing days, in the mid-1990s, Wilkins signed a contract to play for a professional team in Greece, where he won the Euroleague championship. During the season, he flew to the U.S. to visit his father, who had slipped into a diabetic coma. Wilkins returned to Greece, but almost immediately was called back when his father died. He did not dwell on the cause of his father’s death at the time, but soon afterward, Wilkins faced his own health crisis.
“My father passed and I got near the end of my career, and I remember going to a restaurant,” Wilkins says. “And I sat down to eat after a game, and I couldn’t get up. I was shaking, sweating – I was about 39 years old. So I ignored it. I had to eat something to get my sugar level back up, and then I was fine.
“About a year later, I went to a doctor because I hadn’t been in a while,” he continues. “I was feeling off, but I wasn’t sick. And he said, ‘We’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is, you’re not dying, yet.’ And I was like, ‘What does that mean?’ He said, ‘Don’t get alarmed. The bad news is, you’re a diabetic and you have to have a lifestyle change, right now.’ And that’s when I realized that I was a diabetic.”
Wilkins immediately followed his doctor’s orders, and got his blood sugar level under control. He has maintained a strict diet and exercise regimen ever since, and that, coupled with medication, has allowed him to live in good health for 17 years.
“I do all the necessary things to manage it, and you have to,” he says. “Because the thing about diabetes, if you manage it, and you look at it as kind of another opponent that you compete with, you can keep it at bay.”
According to the American Diabetes Association, over 29 million people in the U.S. have diabetes, either Type 1 (child-onset) or the more prevalent Type 2 (adult-onset). Wilkins says that four of his eight siblings were diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes just this year. He’s already given them advice on the most important lifestyle changes to make: a diet rich in green vegetables, fish, poultry, and a gallon of water a day; regular aerobic exercise; and routine checkups with the doctor.
Wilkins says that the increasing number of diabetes cases in the U.S. can be partially attributed to the fact that children today are forming habits that can lead to poor health down the road. In particular, Wilkins believes they spend far too much time eating fast food and engaging in sedentary activities such as playing video games. He won’t allow his own kids more than two hours per day in front of screens, and says that his entire family practices healthy habits, including his daughter who has spina bifida.
“It’s not like great changes a person has to go through, strenuous changes,” he says. “You just have to get yourself physically moving, and that doesn’t mean you have to go to a gym – go out and take walks. And you’ve got to eat the best you can.”
African-Americans have higher rates of diabetes than the general population, and Wilkins stresses that those with a family history of the disease or who have symptoms should get screened for pre-diabetes as soon as possible. “You can build a portfolio of your health, you can see exactly where you’re at, so if something goes wrong, you know how to fix it,” he says.
“I think the main message is, don’t be blind to this disease,” he adds. “This disease, if it goes unchecked, is devastating. And when you go through amputations, and things like that, that’s the beginning of the end. So, don’t wait until something bad happens before you make lifestyle changes. The biggest thing I tell people is to listen to your body. If your body tells you something’s wrong, there’s something wrong.”