Giving credit where it’s due

Atlanta had visits from royalty last week, to honor one of our town’s icons.

Basketball royalty, that is.

At several events, including the final one where his statue was unveiled, former Atlanta Hawk Dominique Wilkins was feted by some of the biggest names in the sport.

On the surface, “’Nique Week,” as Hawks CEO Steve Koonin dubbed it, was about basketball. About our town appreciating one of its own. About athletic stars honoring another. About the team giving Wilkins another chance to shine.

But not really. The ceremonies took on a greater significance than just basketball for several reasons.

The Hawks shed an oddly intransigent tone, and the team finally honored the best player they’ve ever had. The franchise is for sale, in the aftermath of revelations of alarmingly racist statements by its majority owner and its general manager – neither of whom participated in the ceremonies. All that after the National Basketball Association had been dragged through a previous scandal by the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers for racist statements. That franchise, too, changed hands.

And in the middle of all this, when things could have fallen apart, when the guys running this year’s team don’t know who their next boss will be, the Hawks are in first place.

The current team and their coach attended.

For even the most casual fan, the ceremony at Philips Arena that preceded showing off the statue, was impressive. And it was clear that Wilkins’ accomplishments go well beyond his prowess on the court

Speakers included co-owner Michael Gearon Jr., NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, former Hawks coach Mike Fratello, former Hawks player Kevin Willis and Basketball Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler.

One of the most hilarious parts of the show was a fake segment of “Inside the NBA,” the show hosted by TNT’s Ernie Johnson and former NBA stars Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal. When O’Neal asked the outspoken Barkley if there was a statue of him anywhere, Barkley had to admit that, no, there isn’t. O’Neal then pointed out that Barkley lacked a statue because he had never been part of a championship team, thereby giving a lighthearted nod to the one hole in Wilkins’ resume, and making clear how little it mattered on this day.

The speakers were emotional, and all found the way to make an important point: Wilkins has always well represented the Hawks and the league with his conduct, and he has never wandered into scandal as former stars can. Even now, as one of the Hawks’ executives and one of its broadcasters, he continues to be the face of the team.

Julius Erving, the famous “Dr. J,” found the best way to express that sentiment. He said players like Wilkins have found a way to belong not just on the court, but in boardrooms. Erving said he’s proud of that legacy, which he helped establish.

And, in between speeches, the crowd was treated to highlight videos of the man nicknamed “The Human Highlight Reel.”

Of all of them, standing out was the 1985 All-Star Slam Dunk Contest, which Wilkins won against Michael Jordan and Erving. Erving said he realized then that his days were numbered as basketball’s dominant star. It was also the time when Wilkins became the superstar who represented Atlanta.

Seated alongside me at the ceremonies was Rev. C.T. Vivian, the civil rights leader who was one of the big reasons that Selma, Ala. became an epicenter for the movement.

He mentioned to me that he’d be in Selma this weekend, to take part in the ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of the historic march.

But on the day before he planned to travel there, he attended the ceremony honoring Wilkins.

And in his way, he made a statement by being there.

The crowd, by my count, was mostly African-American. For this team and this time, that was no small matter. It seemed to be a way of highlighting all that is best about the Hawks, and about sports. When a winning and exciting team takes the floor at Philips Arena, it’s a place where people come together; what we have in common overwhelms how we’re different. And in sports, people are judged by what they accomplish, which is the way things should be.

And Wilkins accomplished a lot. He made clear that he understands his town’s history, and he could see beyond his team’s recent controversy.

“This will never be forgotten,” Wilkins said of his statue. “This is so important to my family. This is so important to me. More important, it’s so important to the city of Atlanta. That is who this is for. It’s not just for me. It’s for the city of Atlanta.”

Dominique Wilkins united a town by captivating crowds by what he could do on the court. The pose of his statue captures that thrilling moment just before he’s about to dunk; as you look at his bronze figure you can sense a crowd about to rise to its feet in unison.

We need as many of those moments as possible.