Dominique Wilkins was one of Larry Bird’s fiercest rivals, and they had numerous great battles against each other. When Dominique was coming into the league, Bird had already established himself as a superstar and a first-class trash talker.
Bird gave Wilkins his welcome-to-the-NBA moment when the two played each other on April 5th, 1983. It wasn’t their first matchup, but it sure was the most memorable, according to Nique.
Larry was already an MVP candidate, and rookie Wilkins tried to make a name for himself in the league. But he sure wouldn't back down from a challenge. So the game started in your typical Larry Legend fashion. Just before the tip-off, Larry made sure to let Wilkins know he wasn't near his level of play.
“I went out for the opening tip, and I went to shake his hand. He just stood there and looked at me, stone-faced with his hands behind his back. I was like, 'Whoa.' Then we were getting ready for the tip, and he says to me, 'You don't belong in this league, Homes.'”
That wasn't something a young rookie was expecting. He was probably excited about playing against one of the league's best, hoping to earn his respect. But Bird gave none of it. Instead, he made sure Nique knew he doesn't belong on the same stage with him. It was all mind games to intimidate Wilkins, and at the end of the day, to see what is he made of.
You know Bird didn't talk in vain. He was always able to back it up, and this game was no exception. The two were matched up against each other, and the war had started. Larry caught fire right away and made sure to rub it on Nique's face. Then, he hit shot after a shot, letting Dominique know there's nothing he can do about it.
"Then they had the ball, and I was on him, and he said, 'I don't know why they got you guarding me, Homes. You can't guard me.' Then, whap, he hit a 3. Then he came down again and said, 'They made a mistake putting you on me, Homes,' and he took another 3. 'So now I’m hot. I’m hot. I mean, I’m steaming.'"
And Bird was steaming. He led the Celtics to a blowout win vs. the Hawks, overshadowing the young rookie in the process. But, despite Bird's outstanding individual performance, Dominique got his piece of revenge. A small moment of satisfaction in otherwise frustrating 48 minutes trying to contain Kodak. He delivered an iconic poster dunk over Bird, and that moment in and of itself was enough for Bird to show Nique respect.
"I came down on a break, and he was backpedaling. I just went right after him. I jumped up, and he tried to challenge, but I took that right through the rim. He fell and hit the basket support. He got up and said, ‘I like you, rookie. You’ve got(guts).’ I was happy for a second, and then he said, ‘But I’m still going for 40 on you tonight.’ He only scored 39.”
Bird was one point shy from keeping his promise. But he had a helluva game, shooting 18-for-22 having a super-efficient night. He rounded it up with five rebounds and seven assists. Nique dropped 16 points but did it shooting only .400 from the field. He also grabbed eight rebounds in the process but was far from being a severe threat to Larry. At least he dunked on his head. Not bad for a rookie who "didn't belong in the league."
Larry, a well-known trash-talker, gave Wilkins his credit on the way he played that night. He saw something in the kid and probably realized he would have to go through him on his way to a championship. And he did. The two had some epic clashes against each other when Wilkins proved he was more than worthy of having a place in the NBA.