ATHENS – The irony is not lost on either of them, that Hugh Durham would lead Georgia to its first and only NCAA Final Four appearance the year after he lost to the NBA the greatest player he ever coached, Dominique Wilkins. Anyone familiar with the intense competitive nature of Wilkins will find it no surprise how he rationalizes that unique phenomenon today.
“If I was there, we probably could have won the whole thing,” Wilkins says matter-of-factly.
For that, the man known as the “Human Highlight Film” will get no argument. But both men see it as fitting that they would achieve one of their greatest personal accomplishments together. Durham and Wilkins are among eight individuals who will be inducted into National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday night in Kansas City.
“It’s meaningful because Dominique had so much to do with establishing Georgia basketball,” Durham said. “My thought on great players is if their teammates like them, they’re really good people to have. A guy like Dominique got so much publicity, so much attention, if he hadn’t been a good person, if he had been back at the dorm talking about himself all the time, guys wouldn’t like him. But it was just the opposite. All the guys liked Dominique.”
Said Wilkins: “The biggest thing for me is going in with my coach. That’s what makes this special.”
Joining Durham and Wilkins in the 11th enshrinement ceremony at the
Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland will be DePaul’s Mark Aguirre, Kansas State’s Bob Boozer, Illinois State’s Doug Collins, La Salle’s Lionel Simmons, UCLA’s Jamaal Wilkes and coach Mike Montgomery of Montana, Stanford and California fame.
For Wilkins, this is just another honor in a lengthy list of awards and decorations that have come his way since leaving Washington, N.C., to pursue his basketball dreams in 1979. Jacques Dominique Wilkins already has been enshrined in the “big hall of fame” — the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame — in 2012. The Atlanta Hawks long ago retired his No. 21 jersey and his NBA accomplishments have long overshadowed most everything that happened before.
But in a lot of ways, Wilkins said the collegiate hall of fame is an even more special honor to him. He said consideration must be given to the number of athletes it represents and the fact that he spent only three years playing for a Georgia program that previously had not registered on the college basketball map.
‘Hell of an honor’
“It’s a hell of an honor,” said Wilkins, who remains a vice president and special adviser for the Hawks and provides color commentary on their radio broadcasts. “You’re talking about college basketball where there’s over 350 schools in this country. To be recognized as one of the greatest players to ever play in college basketball, man, that’s a huge, huge honor. Look at all the schools and all the players that went through the system. That’s amazing. From a collegiate standpoint, it’s the biggest honor you could receive, and it just doesn’t get any better than that.”
For Durham, it represents a lifetime of achievement. While the bulk of this honor is certainly the result of a long and successful 17-year career as Georgia’s basketball coach, it is also a recognition for his accomplishments as a player at Florida State, where he still holds some records; as a coach at Florida State, where he made his first run to the Final Four and also notched a runner-up finish; and as a coach at Jacksonville, his third stop where he left as the school’s winningest coach.
All told, Durham posted 633 victories in 37 seasons (230 at FSU, 297 at UGA, 106 at JU). He remains the only coach in Division I history to lead two schools to their only Final Four appearance and one of only 12 to take two schools to the Final Four.
“Well, it sounds like coach-speak, but you’ve just got to have good players,” Wilkins said. “Great players make great coaches. That’s true in every sport, and especially in basketball.”
Indeed, Wilkins was like the mythical white whale of recruiting when Durham and his lead assistant Roger Banks landed him in 1979. Not only did Georgia sign one of the greatest players to ever play the game — over local favorite N.C. State and other traditional ACC powers — the Bulldogs did it at a time when they had virtually no basketball tradition or accomplishments to sell. Georgia hadn’t been to any postseason of any sort before Wilkins’ arrival in 1979.
They put Georgia on the map
But that’s actually what Durham sold.
“Well, he was a charismatic guy,” Wilkins recalled this week. “And he was brutally honest, about everything. You know, he said, ‘you can go anywhere you want to go. But you can go to Georgia where you don’t have to be compared to anybody; there’s no one to compare you to. There’s some talent we’re putting together there and we will win.’ And we did.”
With Wilkins, Georgia would finally reach the NIT, and then the NIT semifinals. But it was after Wilkins left UGA at the end of his junior year that the Bulldogs achieved their greatest basketball accomplishment. They would make one of the most unlikely runs to the Final Four ever witnessed.
After sweeping through the SEC tournament to qualify for its first-ever NCAA Tournament, Georgia defeated powerhouses St. John’s and North Carolina on the way to winning the East Regional. The Bulldogs finally fell to eventual champion N.C. State in the semifinals in Albuquerque. It was the Wolfpack that became known as the Cinderella team of 1983.
Life after Dominique
Retrospectively, it should not have come as such a surprise that the Georgia team Wilkins left behind in 1982 fared so well. While it was a tremendous accomplishment to land Wilkins, a top 5 national player in 1979, he wasn’t the only top-flight recruit the Bulldogs were getting those days.
Along with Terry Fair, Derrick Floyd and Lamar Heard, Wilkins was part of a recruiting class considered one of the best in the country that year. And it was followed the next by a group that included All-Americans James Banks and Vern Fleming.
“We all wanted to start a tradition, not join a tradition,” said Derrick Floyd, a backup guard on the ’83 team who came to UGA as a major recruit in 1979. “We all knew Coach Durham had done the same thing at Florida State, with Dave Cowens and all those guys down there. He was doing a good job at FSU, so for him to take a leap of faith to come to Georgia made us feel like we could, too.”
Nobody had ever seen anything like Wilkins when he landed on campus for the 1979-80 season. It was a truly magical time to be a student and a sports fan at UGA. The football team was just embarking on its greatest period in history. Led by a tailback named Herschel Walker, the Bulldogs would win a national championship and three straight SEC titles from 1980-82.
‘Human Highlight Film’
Simultaneously, it was over at Stegeman Coliseum — then known simply as The Coliseum — that Wilkins first earned the nickname “Human Highlight Film.”
Students would show up for games just to see him throw down one of his patented behind-the-head dunks.
And Wilkins wasn’t just a one-trick pony. He could score pretty much any way he wanted any time he wanted. Only a knee injury his freshman year would slow down his steep ascent.
Wilkins averaged 18.6 points in 1980, 23.6 in ’81 and 21.3 in ’82. He was named both SEC player of the year and MVP of the SEC Tournament in 1981. He almost turned pro then and there.
“It was a fun time to be at Georgia,” Wilkins says with chuckle.
After Wilkins left for the NBA and was made the No. 3 selection by the Utah Jazz in 1982, the narrative outside the program was that the Bulldogs would fall back into mediocrity without their star player. But that was not the thinking inside the locker room.
‘Chip on our shoulder’
They knew they had a strong nucleus returning and they were determined to prove there was more to them than Wilkins.
“We kind of had a chip on our shoulder going into that year, because we felt as though we were pretty good, too,” said Banks, who started alongside Wilkins at forward for two years at Georgia. “I was an All-American, Terry Fair was a high school All-American as well. Vern (Fleming) was. I think Derrick and Lamar were, too. So there was that in itself, and we just really came together and kind of had something to prove to people who thought we wouldn’t be as good without Dominique.”
Banks, who averaged 9.2 points his last season with Wilkins, averaged 14.0 in 1983. In fact, four of the Bulldogs’ five starters averaged in double figures, with Fleming’s high of 16.9 and Gerald Crosby’s low of 11.0. Heard averaged 7 points and 6.6 rebounds and Floyd was a force off the bench. They were the epitome of balance.
“Dominique was such a Human Highlight film — and he really was — that we all wanted to watch what he was going to do, too,” Banks said. “We were good with him but, without him we just really jelled as a team.”
Georgia had indeed been a competitive team in what at the time was a very deep and talented basketball league in the SEC. But the Bulldogs had only a meager 17 wins when it entered the month of March in 1983.
They’d win seven straight — including a hallmark 82-77 win over Michael Jordan and North Carolina — before finally succumbing to N.C. State 67-60 in the national semifinals. Georgia hasn’t made it as deep in the tournament since.
“I just think it was God’s will,” said Banks, now a high school coach at Athens Academy. “Coach Durham built that team from the ground up. He wasn’t used to coaching anybody like Dominique. I don’t think anybody was. So it was hard to get us to really play collectively without standing around watching him.”
Said Floyd: “As a player when you’re playing with a guy that you know two years ago could have went pro, you know you have to get better. We got a taste the year before in the NIT when ‘Nique got hurt. We knew we’d have to pick it up.”
Nobody got more out of negative reinforcement than Durham. Wilkins, Banks and Floyd all described Durham as “brutally honest” when it came to the assessment and development of their games. Floyd, who serves as the official scorer at Georgia’s home basketball games, still laughs hard at the lengths at which he and his teammates would go to avoid the wrath of Durham.
It led to the advent of “The Belt” during the 1982-83 season. If Durham came into the postgame locker room and ended up scolding one of his players for their role in a particular egregious breakdown in the game, the Bulldogs’ players would wait for their coach to leave the room, then present the scolded party with “The Belt.”
It wasn’t anything fancy, just a regular belt that usually came off Floyd’s waist. But it became perhaps the most important symbol of what the Bulldogs were doing during that run in 1983. They’d hang it on the side of the locker room chalkboard and Durham would occasionally glance at it inquisitively.
“You didn’t want the belt; it was a bad thing,” Floyd says, laughing. “It got to a point where we’d be in the middle of a game and somebody messed up and they’d look up and we’d all be pointing to our waist, pointing to our beltline, as if to say, ‘pick it up or you’re going to end up with the belt.’”
Time to celebrate
Banks and Floyd will be among a party of people in Durham’s group attending the enshrinement ceremonies on Friday. He’ll be joined by his wife, Malinda, of course, and his sons David, Doug and Jim, and their families. But there will also be several former players and assistant coaches and a good number of fans, a crowd of about 78 in all.
UGA Athletic Director Greg McGarity will fly up with a small school contingent on Friday and fly back Saturday morning for the Georgia football game versus Louisiana-Lafayette.
There will be a news conference on Center Court at the College Basketball Experience exhibit in Kansas City on Friday afternoon. Friday evening there will be a red carpet event in the Grand Lobby at The Sprint Center. The big event, the induction ceremony, won’t take place until 8 o’clock local time. It will be recorded and replayed on ESPNU at Dec. 15.
Durham, 79, is now retired and splits time between homes in Banner Elk, N.C., and San Marco, Fla. He’s excited about this weekend for a lot of reasons, but mostly for the chance to get some rare quality time with the greatest player he ever signed.
And he still wishes he could’ve had him one more year.
“I’d never say we wouldn’t have had chemistry had Dominique made the decision to stay, because he was a good guy and he fit right in,” Durham said. “He gave a lot of thought to going out after his sophomore year and made the decision not to and then his junior year he did. Looking back on it, it was probably the right thing to do. That doesn’t mean we wanted him to go but, big picture, that was probably the best thing for him.”
Things seem to have turned out all right for both parties.