ATLANTA — Julius "Dr. J" Erving stood alongside close friend Dominique Wilkins, conducting the countdown from 10 to one before 25-foot curtains featuring images past and present of the Hawks great fell to the Philips Arena floor.
There stood a bronze, 18,500-pound lasting reminder of the Human Highlight Film, a statue that, fittingly, had Wilkins in mid-air, his right arm cocked back and his face a twist of determination and try-and-stop-me bravado.
"The statue stands for change in this city and this franchise," Wilkins said. "It stands for history."
In front of a crowd that included fellow Hall of Famers Erving, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Bernard King and Karl Malone, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and a cast of current and former Hawks, the tribute to Wilkins was unveiled Thursday.
"We talk about being immortalized in your life," Wilkins said. "What bigger stage to stand on than to have a statue of you in front of the franchise and building that you love?"
An emotional Wilkins — who stood in front of a massive white No. 21 that included his career stats in red — composed himself after seeing the work of sculptor Brian Hanlon in full for the first time. It’s the culmination of an 11 1/2-season run in Atlanta that saw the forward become an 11-time All-Star and set the franchise record for points (23,292) and games played (882).
"I never took this game for granted," Wilkins said. "I never took nights off. … I felt like if I didn’t play, I let me teammates down."
Wilkins wasn’t named to the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players list in 1996, a point of contention that multiple speakers brought up, including Drexler, who was a part of that team.
"There were franchise players and there were marquee players," the former Trail Blazer said. "Dominique was a marquee player."
And he’s one in rare company. The list of NBA statues is short, including just Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, George Mikan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Scottie Pippen, Bill Russell, John Stockton and Jerry West.
Sculptor Brian Hanlon settled on a pose for Wilkins statue that he said captured the "anticipation of the dunk."
"Dominique Wilkins has meant so much to us," said Hawks chief executive officer and co-owner Steve Koonin. "The celebration with the gift of the statue is our gift back to you."
Taken with the third pick in the 1982 draft from Georgia by the Jazz — future Hall of Famer James Worthy and Terry Cummings were taken ahead of him — Wilkins was reluctant to play for Utah. He would be part of one of the most lopsided trades in history as Atlanta landed him for John Drew and Freeman Williams.
Drew and Williams would play a combined four seasons for the Jazz, while Wilkins became part of seven All-NBA teams, won the 1986 scoring title (at 30.3 points per game) and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.
"With this statue, Dominique takes his rightful place as a legend of the game," Drexler said.
Wilkins helped establish the Hawks as one of the 1980s elite, winning at least 50 games in four straight seasons. But the backbone of Wilkins legacy was what struck Hanlon as he searched through photos and highlights to find the proper pose for Wilkins’ tribute.
He won Slam Dunk Contests in 1985 and ’90 and in ’88 dueled with Michael Jordan in what is considered the greatest edition in the event’s history, with Wilkins throwing down windmill after windmill and culminating in Jordan’s iconic free-thrown line leap.
Jordan won and that result was brought up multiple times Thursday from speakers who say Wilkins should have won. Among them were former teammate Kevin Willis.
But this wasn’t about what Wilkins didn’t accomplish and videos played with tributes form fans — including actor Chris Tucker — current Hawks Al Horford, Kyle Korver and Paul Millsap. They came from former players Horace Grant, Gary Payton and Mitch Richmond and fellow Hawks great Bob Pettit.
The best of them though, came from Larry Bird, who added a dig at Wilkins, saying "Congratulations on that statue. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t made with you in a defensive stance."
Wilkins’ career took him beyond Atlanta, as he was traded to the Clippers in 1994 and played for the Celtics, Spurs and overseas before retiring in 1999 with the Magic. But the Hawks never left him and he now serves as a SportSouth analyst and is vice president of the team.
"Nobody loves this organization more than I love it," Wilkins said. "I bleed and breathe Hawks. Even when I played for other teams I felt funny, because I was a Hawk."
Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed was on hand, announcing that a stretch of the street that runs near the arena has been renamed Dominique Wilkins Lane.
Friday, with that tribute in sight, will be another as the statue will be revealed to the public, taking its place in front of Philips Arena ahead of that night’s clash with the Cavaliers.
It’s part of Dominique Wilkins Night and the final piece of Nique Week, which includes an hour-long special entitled ‘Celebrating Nique" on SportSouth.
"Dominique’s greatness on and off the court as a Hawks player and now a broadcaster is unmatched," said Jeff Genthner, senior vice president and general manager, FOX Sports South. "’Celebrating Nique’ will put a well-deserved spotlight on the most iconic player to ever wear the Hawks uniform."
But Wilkins’ is an impact that goes beyond a night a week or an hour of television. Of that, there’s now a 13 1/2-foot testament.
"This statue stands for so much more than just your accomplishments on the court," Silver said. "It’s a symbol of the fabric of the community that you’ve become and all that you’ve accomplished on and off the court."