Dominique Wilkins: Hank Aaron was a ‘gentle soul’

February 9, 2017 Atlanta - Hank Aaron, Braves Senior Vice President, shares a laugh with his Billye Aaron (right) during a press conference to make dedications at the new SunTrust Park to former vice president of player personnel Bill Lucas at SunTrust Park on Thursday, February 9, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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February 9, 2017 Atlanta - Hank Aaron, Braves Senior Vice President, shares a laugh with his Billye Aaron (right) during a press conference to make dedications at the new SunTrust Park to former vice president of player personnel Bill Lucas at SunTrust Park on Thursday, February 9, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Before Dominique Wilkins ever played basketball competitively, he was a baseball player. He cheered for the Baltimore Orioles and followed Hank Aaron’s career closely.

When Aaron hit his 715th home run to break Babe Ruth’s home run record in April 1974, Wilkins remembers the pride he and other people of color felt. Wilkins, an NBA Hall of Famer and Hawks superstar in the 1980s and ’90s, was 14 years old at the time.

“Babe Ruth was a god,” Wilkins said. “He was a god. To break his record was to a lot of people blasphemy. But Black people really cheered and really celebrated.”

Aaron died Friday two weeks shy of his 87th birthday. He and his wife, Billye Aaron, were close friends with Wilkins for more than 30 years, Wilkins said.

The Utah Jazz selected Wilkins with the third overall pick of the 1982 NBA draft after he left the University of Georgia. He didn’t want to play for the Jazz, and the team traded him to the Hawks in one of the more lopsided deals in league history.

Wilkins said Aaron used his influence to help convince team owner Ted Turner to acquire him.

“It was Hank who went to Ted Turner and said, ‘Hey, you need to get this kid by any means necessary,’” Wilkins said. “I remember those comments he made. He really showed a lot of respect to me.”

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Wilkins enjoyed his conversations with Aaron up until his death. When discussing the past with either him or former NBA stars Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilkins said he always was struck by the amount of hate they received.

“All that does is make you stronger,” Wilkins said. “I can’t imagine what these guys went through. Especially Hank, the things he had to keep his mouth closed (about) and endure to be accepted and break a record in sports. People hated it.”

Wilkins said he also encountered racism. When he decided to attend Georgia, he said he saw a cross burning in the front yard of his Wilmington, North Carolina, home.

Wilkins said he leaned on Aaron throughout his career. Aaron advised him to be yourself, but also to stand for something larger. Wilkins said Aaron wasn’t confrontational and possessed a “gentle soul.”

As the most iconic sports figure in Atlanta, Aaron deserves to be immortalized by more than a statue, Wilkins said.

“You can’t talk about the history of baseball without talking about Hank Aaron,” Wilkins said. “His peers knew what he brought to the game. He should have gotten a lot more credit than he got.”

“Man, what a wonderful man he was,” Wilkins said.

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