1-on-1 with the previous no. 21


A forgotten year in San Antonio Spurs history, the 1996-1997 season in many ways set the foundation for the culture of the Spurs. Before the multiple foreign All-Star imports stolen with late draft picks, or mining Europe for role players, or even before Tim Duncan–back when an inexperienced front office Gregg Popovich was acquiring the Vernon Maxwells, Charles Smiths, and Carl Herreras of the world–there was a MASH unit of players led by a future hall of famer wearing a familiar no. 21 jersey.

Dominique Wilkins signed with the San Antonio Spurs before the 1996-1997 season looking to get back in the NBA and perhaps win a title as an experienced backup small forward to Sean Elliott. Instead, Wilkins found himself playing a prominent role on a losing team decimated by injuries and poor depth, leading the team in scoring at 18.2 points per game and adding 6.4 rebounds.

In a stretch, Wilkins loosely represented the prototype for all future acquisitions for Popovich. In one move Popovich acquired a veteran role player with something to prove (the former human highlight film was trying to get back in the NBA at the end of his career), that role player was found overseas (Wilkins played in Greece the season before), and of course, small ball (Wilkins alternated between all three front court positions due to injuries).

Last week I was able to briefly catch up with Dominique Wilkins before the Spurs 108-92 victory over the Atlanta Hawks and get a few of his thoughts on the 1996-1997 season.

On expectations:

“When I signed, we had a good team. I think we had a legitimate chance of winning the west but too many people got hurt. David was hurt, Sean Elliott was hurt. We had so many guys injured that we couldn’t get any chemistry or continuity on the floor.

When your top guys go down, especially David Robinson, man…You know, with that team I had to play the four a lot, some five. Now, I’m a natural three, but we just had guys playing out of position. Especially me and Monty (Williams) going back and fourth between the three and four spots. It was tough.”

On Monty Williams as a head coach:

“We both played a lot of minutes that year and he was a guy that always studied, listened to whatever the coaches told him, and worked hard. So from that standpoint it kind of makes sense, but to see him as a head coach now, it just hasn’t really sunk in yet.”

On Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich:

“I was on the bus when he took over. He just walked on the bus, told everyone, ‘I’m taking over the team today, let’s go out and try and get a win.’ Just like that.

It wasn’t that much of a shock. [Former Spurs head coach Bob] Hill was a good coach as well, but they were just two different types of coaches. Pop is a very detailed, very precise guy. He wants things done a certain way. His way. And his way usually works as he’s shown over time–he has four championships.”

On the Spurs culture and success:

“San Antonio is a great place to live, and a great place to raise a family, so it’s not that surprising to me to see a lot of guys really come together and settle down here. It starts with great ownership, guys really cared about each other and I really enjoyed my time here.

Then there’s Pop. Pop is one hell of a coach, he was then and he is now, as we now well know. He’s done a great job gradually putting this team together, slowly adding pieces, and building that great chemistry over time. If you look at the team, there’s not a whole lot of movement. I mean, guys have come and gone, but they’ve managed to keep their core together through the years.”

On NBA 2k11 and the Jordan challenge:

“You know, that’s an amazing game. I haven’t really gotten a chance to play, but I’ve seen it a couple times and it’s amazing how life-like and realistic it is. It’s not easy holding me under 25 points.”

  • jacob

    I was really excited when we signed Nique, to have someone who can score like that coming off the bench was going to be awesome. Vernon Maxwell was still pretty good at that point too, we would have had a great bench, but of course the injuries came and our bench was our starting five. Tough year for Spurs fans, but that one bad year was well worth the success that followed.

  • http://www.bpifanconnect.com Alix Babaie

    I was a huge ‘Nique fan when he was with the Hawks and thought it was a solid signing when the Spurs acquired him that season. The team was not in the position to compete for a title even before the injuries but thank goodness they happened, otherwise a nobody named Tim Duncan would have never cursed the Spurs with his presence. :)

  • DorieStreet

    Not only was Dominique Wilkins one of the most dynamic & exciting players in the NBA, for most of his professional career he was durable. He missed only 18 games his 1st 9 seasons as an Atlanta Hawk. When he tore his achilles tendon during the 1991-92 season he missed the last 42 games. But he bounced back in ’92-93, playing the last 71 games. The following 2 seasons he played before joining the Spurs, he played in 74 & 77 games respectively, still logging over 30 minutes a game, just as he did before the injury.

  • SAJKinBigD

    ‘Nique was awesome and I thought the signing would pay off and that team was headed for their first title… Naivete being what it was at the time…

    Nice post and some pretty good insights. Thanks!

  • christian

    awesome article….i can’t tell you how excited i was when we signed nique…he had a lot of highlights, and from that season came tim duncan…

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  • Texxus_Boi

    I agree with you all, I wonder if it would’ve worked out had he stayed the next year to receive a an NBA title?

  • rob

    Yeah. It was a shame Wilkins couldn’t have stuck around to get a ring in the nba. Most definately one of those players who deserved one.

  • Ruel

    I agree with you all, I wish Dominique Wilkins could stay for two more season with our Team? He’s a great guy and his personality fits really well. It’s was a let down season for that year because of injuries but it is what it is and I’m glad our coaching staffs and front office made the right decision that following year/season Drafting Tim Duncan which was my top wish list and I’m glad they pulled it!!! Playing Simple and Basic Basketball with an high IQ during his College Ball? It’s very hard for the Team to passed it and the rest is History!!! Go Spurs Go!!!

  • titletown99030507

    Pop took advantage of a struggling Spurs team because of the absence of DR knowing they would tank and possibly get lucky with the ping pong ball. A perfect opportunity to see the future so he fires Coach Hill. Carpe Diem. Seize the day or shall I say “stab you in the back” 4 Championships later. Nice going coach or General manager. What a ballsy move. By the way coach Hill was a good coach up until David packed in for the season.