Mike Looks Back: Still waiting for my invitation ‘Nique

This week my former player Dominique Wilkins celebrated his 50th birthday. We had a chance to catch up at the Nets game in Atlanta and had a laugh about one of Dominique’s birthdays that I remember very well. It was my second year with the Hawks and we were going into a game at home against the Celtics. Much like now, Boston was the team to beat in the East. It was a sell-out crowd but the stands would be full of Celtics fans wearing green jerseys.

At the morning shootaround I gave an impassioned pep talk about how this was our opportunity to win back the fans. I felt going into the game our team’s best effort could get us a win over the Celtics and start turning those green jerseys into red jerseys.

That night when I was in the locker room writing the notes for the game on the board, I happened to notice that each of the players walked in carrying garment bags to their lockers. I didn’t know why because we weren’t going on a road trip or anything but I didn’t pay much attention to it. Anyhow we went out, delivered a poor effort and were beaten resoundingly. So much for my pep talk.

I was so mad because the momentum and credibility we had worked really hard to gain over the last couple of weeks were conceded without much of a fight. Let me put it this way, after the loss I called for an 8 a.m. practice the next morning. Well, I don’t think any of the players had their eyes open when they arrived at practice on Sunday. I called the morning practice because I wanted the players to see the construction workers outside of the Omni Center parking garage with jackhammers repairing holes in the street.  And as they came into to the arena there were people upstairs cleaning and picking up the mess from the night before.

I asked the players, “How many of you people saw the guys out there repairing the streets on the way in? How many of you saw the people cleaning up the arena at 7:45 a.m.? That’s what life is about. That’s the real world. That’s when you’ve got to work to survive – when you’ve got to go out and earn a living to support a family. And we need to have a better effort. We can’t come out and perform like we did last night because that’s not what we’re about.”

We were a very young team and I wanted them to understand you can’t cheat our fans and cheat our team with that kind of performance. We were blessed to have the privilege of making a living in sports and getting paid to play the game we love and there was no excuse for mailing a game in, especially when we had the opportunity to prove ourselves against one of the best teams in the NBA. It should have been a “war.”

I quickly realized it wasn’t going to be a very productive practice. Once I made my point there was no reason to keep the guys there so I told them to go home. I wasn’t trying to punish them. I just wanted to turn a negative into a positive learning experience. That was it. What I found out later was that the day before was Dominique’s birthday. After the game the players all went to an elaborate private party – the reason for the garment bags. If I were a betting man I’d say that most of them came straight from ‘Nique’s birthday celebration right to practice.  And my speech was probably not the way they wanted to cap the evening.

Watch Dominique and Devyne discuss the Human Highlight’s NBA career and the events planned for his 50th birthday week in Atlanta.