Lists are a timeless staple in sports culture to spark debate in and around the game.
Who’s in your top five, top 10, who’s your greatest ever? In individual cities, mount rushmores are a popular list option for debate, an idea inspired by the Mount Rushmore National Memorial site of four former U.S. Presidents carved in granite in Keystone, South Dakota.
The opinions of many may vary of who’s in their Atlanta sports mount rushmore, but two names who would probably be on most lists are Hank Aaron and Dominique Wilkins. Aaron died at the age of 86 Friday, and Wilkins met with the media over Zoom a few hours after the news broke to discuss the icon’s life.
“Hank was probably one of more instrumental people for getting me to Atlanta,” Wilkins said. “If it weren’t for guys like Hank, I wouldn’t have been here because it was Hank who went to Ted Turner and said, ‘Hey. You need to get this kid by any means necessary.”
For context, Turner owned the Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta Braves during Wilkins’ draft year in 1982.
Aaron was in Atlanta, joined by 17-year-olds Britt Gaston and Cliff Courtenay while running the bases, when he belted the 715th home run of his career to pass Babe Ruth as the major’s all-time home run king. Wilkins, who grew up a baseball fan in Baltimore, called the hit one of the greatest sports moments of all-time. The magnitude of Aaron’s accomplishment was heightened because he ended the previous season with 714 home runs. The entire following offseason, he received thousands of cruel letters filled with hatred and prejudice, as Aaron played in an era where he made his MLB debut less than a decade after Jackie Robinson made his debut on the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Wilkins emerged as the face of “Atlanta’s Air Force” in the 1980s with his entertaining high-scoring ability. Although former Hawk Pete Maravich was an electric face of the league in the 1970s, he only played in Atlanta for four seasons. Wilkins was, and still is, the franchises biggest long-tenured superstar. Oftentimes, however, his legacy has been overlooked.
The marquee game of his career was Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Boston Celtics. Wilkins finished with a game-high 47 points and Larry Bird finished with 34 points, but the Celtics were the team that advanced to the conference final. In the 1988 dunk contest, Wilkins and Michael Jordan arguably put the most memorable back-and-forth in the contest until Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon jumped over mascots on hoverboards in 2016. Wilkins lost that contest in what many people, including Jordan, called a result of hometown judging with the competition being in Chicago.
Wilkins’ shortcomings on his brightest nights as a Hawk, often results of unfortunate circumstances, made his career become overlooked in comparison to other NBA legends. His extraordinary ability to dunk overshadowed the fact he’s still 13th on the NBA all-time scoring list. His Reebok deal and fashionable box cut might get more attention than the fact he set the NBA free throw record with 23 attempts without a miss in a 42-point performance coming off a ruptured Achilles’ tendon to lead Atlanta to a victory over... Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in 1992.
In a previous interview with Terence Moore, formerly of the AJC, Aaron said he thought he “was better to baseball than baseball was to” him. Wilkins also said he felt Aaron didn’t get as much honor as he should have for his career.
“He didn’t get near the credibility or homage they should’ve paid to him, but it was the times we lived in where they refused to give him that,” Wilkins said. “Even through that, he was able to stand through it all. In baseball, you can’t talk about the history of baseball without talking about Hank Aaron. So his peers knew what he brought. His peers knew what he brought to the game of baseball, but he should’ve gotten a lot more credit than he did.”
Increased appreciation and interest in an individual typically increases near and after death. As highlighted by Artsy, in the 2017 book “The Economics of American Art,” Auburn professors and economists Robert B. Ekelund and John D. Jackson found a steady increase of 6% in artists’ work in the five years preceding death before an equal drop the year after and a steady rise again after that. Pop culture examples of increased interests in public figures after death include rapper Nipsey Hussle’s music sales increasing 2,776% after his death in 2019, according to Billboard, and Kobe Bryant Nike merchandise selling out the same day of his death in 2020, according to CNBC.
“I think it’s very important you give people their roses while they’re still here,” Wilkins said. “It’s easy to give it to them when they’re gone, but Hank should’ve been placed on a pedestal many, many decades ago.”
Wilkins later said how humbled he was to be mentioned as an Atlanta sports legend like Aaron.
“I feel honored to even be mentioned in the same breath as Hank Aaron because he put this city on the map before anybody as far as sports,” Wilkins said. “He just paved the way for me to carry that torch. I’m honored to have a statue in this city that Hank Aaron had one. All of that’s great, but oftentimes we don’t appreciate what we have until it’s gone and Hank is one of those guys. Give them their roses, give them their respect while they’re here, and he didn’t get enough of that respect.”
So for the man who averaged 26.4 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game in 12 seasons with Hawks, only to be traded for 26 games of Danny Manning, whose legacy summary has often led with how great of a dunker he was, Wilkins admitted he hasn’t always felt appreciated Friday.
“I feel the love, especially from the people of this city,” Wilkins said. “This city has made me one of their native sons, so from that aspect, yes, but could there be more credibility and homage paid? Yeah, of course there could, but now with our new ownership we have now, I couldn’t be happier with any ownership we’ve ever had or have been a part of with the Ressler group, but before that, yeah, I thought there were a lot of times where I wasn’t given that credit. I wasn’t given that respect, it changed when he (Tony Ressler) came along.”
For the generation of Atlantans born after Wilkins’ last game with the Hawks in 1994, Wilkins might just represent the name on the back of a popular Hawks’ Pac-Man jersey. To others, he might represent the statue in front of State Farm Arena. For some, he might even just be the guy alongside Bob Rathbun who makes them laugh whenever he calls out an opposing player’s bricked shot attempt or every time he says “heat check” during a broadcast. In the same vein, it’s how that same generation might have known Aaron as the guy who passed Babe Ruth, the man with the statue, another guy with a street named after him near Georgia State Stadium or just the most famous dude who lives off Cascade Road.
It can be easy to take greatness for granted when it’s so accessible. It’s easy to sit back and say, “Oh, that’s what LeBron’s supposed to do,” when you’ve watched LeBron James play on national television since 2002. It can be easy to take Aaron for granted because he threw out the first or final pitch at so many Braves games.
In the midst of the social media and microwave generation, it can be easy to skip a moment to stop and appreciate some of the city’s athletic icons like Chipper Jones, the Braves’ pitching big three, Ilya Kovalchuk, Angel McCoughtry, and even the superstars with shorter tenures like Michael Vick and Deion Sanders. If there’s any silver lining in the loss of a beloved monumental figure, it might be the reality check to ask another legend how they would like to be remembered while you still can.
Is it the dunks? Is it the statue? Is it the philanthropy work with a social media challenge fundraiser? Is it the joy the viewing audience has when they hear the question if someone opened the door after an air ball?
“I would like to be remembered as a person who brought his all, who gave 110% all the time,” Wilkins said. “Never quit on you. Never made excuses, and always looked to make other people happy. That was my biggest thing, to see someone happy, and what I gave. I gave so much and got so little back, but never made excuses. That’s the thing I would like people to know about me is the person who stood for others as well as he stood for himself.”