KANSAS CITY — Both Hugh Durham and his star player at the University of Georgia, Dominique Wilkins, were to be officially enshrined in the College Basketball Hall of Fame at a red-carpet event later in the evening Friday at the Arvest Bank Theatre. But in the meantime, as they attended breakfasts and luncheons and news conferences together, the mutual admiration of which the men have always spoken was palpable.
They hugged, they exchanged genuine grins of pure joy, they pointed at each other from across the room and laughed.
Durham had a lot to say during his allotted two minutes — which he stretched to four — on the dais during the news conference Friday afternoon at the College Basketball Experience exhibit, and Wilkins during his. But something fellow inductee Doug Collins said during his remarks struck them both as an almost perfect summation of their relationship.
“I was talking to Hugh a while ago and he was looking across the way at Dominique and he said, ‘Man, I love that guy,” Collins told a couple hundred attendees at the event. “I said, ‘yeah, you love him now, but you didn’t then though.’ That’s because, as a coach, he had to push him somewhere he couldn’t go on his own. That’s what we all do as coaches. You love them later.”
All six of the honorees being inducted as players Friday — Wilkins, Collins, Mark Aguirre, Ella Boozer for her late husband Bob Boozer, Lionel Simmons and Jamaal Wilkes — spoke of coaches they played for over the years that squeezed talent out of their God-given physiques they didn’t even know they had. And Wilkins spoke that way of Durham, too. He was at Georgia for only three short years, but he credits Durham for building in him the foundation that allowed him to go on to become one of the greatest players in NBA history.
“He was tough, man, tough,” Wilkins said in an aside after his speech. “I said I didn’t know if I liked him while I was a player. That was just a joke, truly. I really don’t think there was a moment I disliked him during my college career. But that’s because I knew he was pushing me to get to that next level. He was pushing me to excellence. He stayed on me harder than anybody else on our team. Believe that. But I didn’t take it personally, because I knew he was teaching me.”
James Banks, Derrick Floyd, Chad Kessler, among several of Durham’s former Georgia players who came to Kansas City for the induction, concurred with Wilkins’ assessment.
“He was hard to play for, now, I’m not going to lie to you,” Banks said. “He was tough on you, but it was because he knew what you were capable of.”
Durham took delight in recalling the days when he would have Wilkins and his fellow Bulldogs running “suicides,” a particularly grueling form of windsprints, in The Coliseum. He said he’d tell them he was going to make them run 10 or 12 sets, a wickedly high number, knowing full well that he would let them off short.
When the group started looking sufficiently gassed, Durham would stop them and offer a challenge.
“After about six or seven reps I’d say, ‘if there’s one guy in here who can give us a 23 (seconds), we’ll wrap it up,'” Durham said, grinning at the memory. “Well, there was only one guy on our team who could do that and that was Dominique. He was always a leader in the sprints and conditioning program.”
That, Wilkins said with hardy laugh, is something he remembers like it was yesterday.
“Please, do I remember?” Wilkins said. “He used to make me run with the guards. I said, ‘Coach, I’m a forward.’ He said, ‘well, Wilky, you’re the fastest guy on the team so you run with the guards.’ And I had to run it under their time. Then he’d say, can anybody give me a 23? Everybody would look at me and say, ‘Nique!'”
But there was a method to Durham’s meanness. He drove them relentlessly in conditioning because he knew that would be the difference when came to the truly big games.
“I would always tell our guys, ‘all big games are won when you’re tired,'” Durham said. “As long as the talent is level and you’re playing a rival, you’re going to be tired because it’s competitive. And there’s only one way to learn how to play tired. You can’t talk about it. You’ve got to get tired.”
Perhaps that, more than anything else, is why Durham won 633 games in his career and left three different jobs — Georgia, Florida State and Jacksonville — as the schools’ winningest coach.
Wilkins said the only promise that Durham made to him when he recruited him to Georgia out of Washington, N.C., was he guaranteed Wilkins was going to give him everything he needed to make it to the next level. And while Wilkins brought considerable talent to the table with him, Durham made sure he got better with each passing practice.
“Good players really want to be coached. They really do,” Durham said. “Doug said it well: Coaches push you where you don’t want to do. Coaching is a lot like being a parent. You expect a lot out of your kids. Sometime your kids don’t like you when they’re growing up. But in the long run they appreciate it.”
Like most players of Wilkins’ size and athleticism, Durham said he needed to work on his jumper and develop a stronger understanding of the game and how teams were trying to defend him.
By the time Wilkins left at the end of his junior season, he’d been named SEC player of the year, averaged 21.6 points over three seasons, led Georgia to its first postseason tournament of any kind and made second-team All-American. He’d go on to a legendary NBA career — mostly with the Atlanta Hawks — that included nine All-Star selections, seven All-NBA teams and an NBA scoring title in 1986. He left the year before Georgia went to the Final Four in 1983.
“When it came time to make the decision, he said, ‘Son, it’s time for you to leave,'” Wilkins recalled. “‘I’d like to have you here for your senior year, but I don’t want to be the one to hold you back.’ That’s what he told me.
“I was a little depressed about it because I knew what kind of team we had coming back. That was a good team. They went to the Final Four. And we would’ve won it all had I still been there.”
Durham and Wilkins looked at each and laughed.