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Dominique Wilkins on KD, Returning From an Achilles Injury, and the Hawks’ Success

In 1992, Wilkins became a model for how players can come back from tough injuries and still find success in the NBA. Now, he speaks about Kevin Durant’s return, Trae Young and Atlanta’s stunning play of late, and more.

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Dominique Wilkins can tell you exactly how many points he scored in his first game back from an Achilles rupture: 30. He can tell you his opponent in that 1992 game (the Knicks), and that despite his scoring burst, the Hawks lost. That game is seared into his memory, as is everything else that happened between his injury and return. The loss that day felt like an afterthought; what was most important was proving that he could still play. And his performance was a harbinger for what was to come.

Over time, Wilkins—who made three All-Star games and averaged 21.5 points per game after returning from his Achilles tear—became the best-case-scenario model for how players could look after suffering such a devastating injury. But that reputation didn’t come without a whole lot of work. Last month, I spoke to Wilkins about what it took to get his game back, what he’s seen out of Kevin Durant in his return from an Achilles tear, calling Hawks games for Bally Sports in Atlanta during this weird season, and more.

How has the season been for you? Calling these games with no fans or very few fans, what’s that been like on your end?

Oh man, it’s been tough, but we’ve gotten used to it. After a couple games, we were like, “Wow, we don’t know how this is gonna go. This is kind of tough.” But we made it through and had fun with it. It’s one of those things where you just have to make an adjustment.

What was the toughest part at the beginning?

Having nobody in the building on away games, that was a little tough. But we’ve gotten used to it and we just roll with the punches. It’s been rewarding getting some fans back in so that it doesn’t feel so empty, but we still call the game from afar. We miss being around the guys as a broadcast team.

When there are no fans or even just a few fans, are there things you have to do differently as a broadcaster to get yourself in the right space?

Not really. You’re looking at monitors more calling the game from a distance, so you can’t see what’s really going on on the floor in detail.

A few of the players that I’ve talked to this season mentioned having a lot of downtime on the road this season. Have you had much downtime on your end?

I’ve had too much downtime, yeah. I mean, I got to where I’ve started building stuff around the house because I’m really pretty good with my hands, so I’m always looking to improve something out in my backyard. I’ve done more than I’ve probably ever done in my life.

What have you built?

Well, I built a pergola, and I built an outdoor kitchen. So stuff like that. You learn how to do different things because you have nothing to do.

I wanted to ask you about Kevin Durant. You’re the example that people talk about when it comes to Achilles injuries and coming back from that. I was wondering specifically what it was like your first season back.

It was the toughest [season] mentally. Just not knowing what I would be as far as my skill level and quickness and explosion. But one thing I told myself, I said whatever happened, I’m gonna go all out. If it pops again, so be it, but I’m not going to hold back. And so I worked eight, nine months, twice a day every day to get back to the level that I wanted to be at—and I exceeded that. I was hearing all the sarcastic comments, you know, “Oh, when he comes back, he won’t be what he was,” or “He’s 32 years old.” And I was destined to prove them wrong. That’s the way I felt. So I was determined. And coming back, having 30 points in [the first] game and barely missing any games, that’s the most rewarding thing, you know?

To see what Kevin Durant has done, I’m very impressed with Kevin. I’m a Durant fan. We’re both from Maryland, and you tend to support those guys from that area. But I said early on, if anybody can come back from this injury, it will be Kevin Durant, and he did. Unfortunately, this is a weird year, so it’s hard to gauge where he’s really at, but one thing’s for sure: He’s proved to everybody that he can still put the ball in the basket at an elite level.

When he has played, it’s been MVP-level Durant, but he has missed 37 games. Does it feel like he’s had a few lingering issues with staying on the court?

You don’t have any practice [time this season], so I feel for these guys, man. You coming out, you’re playing every other night, sometimes every night. I mean, how tough is that, right? So for him to try to come back after this injury, the way he’s come back, it’s been amazing. All the obstacles and hurdles that he had to go through.

During that first season when you came back from the injury, do you remember having any lingering issues?

No, I had nothing. I was ready to go. I had nothing. I knew I was back [when] one day, I was in practice, and I hit the ground really hard. The first thing I did, I grabbed my ankle. But I didn’t have any pain. And I said to myself then, “If this thing’s going to pop, it’s going to pop on my terms.” Yeah, that’s when I knew I was back. And my first game, I think it was against the Knicks, first regular-season game, I scored 30 that game. And I remember saying to my teammates, I said, “I’m back, I’m back.”

You said over those nine months you were out you were practicing twice a day. What did those routines look like?

It was water therapy, it was weight training, it was explosion drills, it was just everything you can think of to get yourself back to where you once was. I was very, very, very active and pretty sure of what I wanted to do. So I had no fears after doing all of that work. You can’t worry about what the outcome is. You just got to go out here and do your thing. So that’s what I did.

Over the rest of your career, did you feel like you had to make any adjustments to your regimens or routines, even your diet, because of the injury?

It helped me to become more fundamentally sound, because you had to learn how to play the game on the ground as well as in the air. And that was the thing I had to concentrate on most.

What, specifically, were you doing to help with the ground game? Were there drills or other things you were looking at?

I just worked on different things, more ballhandling, posting up, midrange, and just doing more of those things where I’m not expending so much energy trying to explode to the basket. But when I needed my explosion, I knew I had it. That’s the way I looked at the game.

When you look at KD, he has that midrange game that you’re talking about, that on-the-ground, effortless game. Is that part of why you think that if anybody can return well from this injury, it’s him?

Yeah, that’s the thing he has. A lot of guys try to discredit the midrange game. He has mastered [it], which makes his game a lot easier because being the pure shooter that he is and being 6-foot-10, 6-foot-11, he has an advantage that most don’t have. And that’s the height with the ability to put it on the floor and get to anywhere he wants to go. He doesn’t have to explode at the rim all the time—only when he needs it. And so that’s one major advantage when you’re coming back from that injury.

This season has been weird, like you said, and teams have been trying to pace guys for the playoffs. I imagine that wasn’t a thing your teams did, but what are your thoughts on how players manage their effort levels these days?

I think it’s good to a point. I think sometimes guys take it to the limit, you know? But it’s about the level of injury or rest that you may have or you may need. The [load managing] can determine where your team potentially ends up because a lot of times when you over-rest some of these guys and then try to fight to get a [playoff] position, you just never know.

It’s a different era, and I can’t speak for these guys. It’d have been hard for somebody to keep me off the floor; it would have been hard for the staff to keep me off the floor. I’m just speaking for myself, right? And a lot of guys that I played against and played with felt the same.

Do you think that evolution toward being more mindful of player health and rest has been positive?

It’s always good when you’re concerned about the players’ health, I’m all for that. But there’s still a level to that, to representing that uniform, and that jersey becomes just as important. I understand you’ve got to get your rest and take care of your body, but we also have a responsibility to compete. That’s what we signed up for.

You call games for an Atlanta team that has a lot of offensive firepower, and around the league, offensive numbers have been skyrocketing the past few years. It was not like that when you played, so what is it like to watch a team routinely put up 120, 130, 140?

It’s different times. The defense is different; it’s a more offensive-oriented, offensive-minded [game]. For me, it just boggles my mind because I like to think that all of us like and want to see a little more defense, on a regular basis every night. But it’s a different time. And our time was definitely bump and grind and getting out and running fastbreaks when you could. But, you know, you had a team like the Denver Nuggets, who at the time were averaging 119 points—that was considered a ton of points [then], and it still is a ton of points.

Do you enjoy watching this style of play?

I love it. I love basketball on every level. Always have, always will. And it’s just that, it’s their time. We’ve had our time. I still have a major love for it.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the Hawks. What kind of growth have you seen from them this season?

I tell you, it’s been really great to see how some of our young guys have grown, particularly Trae Young and John Collins, and De’Andre Hunter and Kevin Huerter. And then you add the veteran guys like Bogdan Bogdanovic, you have Danilo Gallinari and Clint Capela—even though Capela hasn’t been around 10 years, he’s still a pretty veteran guy because he’s been in the playoffs. You put that nice mix of guys together and you’ve created a pretty nice squad. I like our squad a lot because we do bring so much firepower offensively. And now we have Capela, who I think is the Defensive Player of the Year. He’s become a presence on both ends, and that’s a luxury to have a guy like that.

What do you think Nate McMillan has brought to the team that’s helped them go on this run?

Defense, defensive principles, and respect. Once you have the respect of your players, you have players who trust you, will go to bat for you. And that’s how it should be.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.