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In North Carolina: The Strange Case of Dr. Dunk

8 minute read
Jack E. White

In North Carolina: The Strange Case of “Dr. Dunk”

If the used-car dealer in Washington, N.C., hadn’t got rid of that red and white 1978 Chrysler Newport so fast, it would have been easier for the big-city reporter to unravel the mystery that is still swirling around this little town. Because if the reporter had been able to examine the Chrysler, he might have found tell-tale traces of paint. And according to Gertrude Baker, the paint happened to be there because an outraged neighbor splattered it on the car after Dominique Wilkins, her son by an earlier marriage, decided to enroll in the University of Georgia last spring.

Why should anyone be moved to anger by the educational plans of a 19-year-old black kid from a small town on the sandy banks of the Pamlico River? Because North Carolina is basketball country, that’s why. It is a state where few issues besides tobacco prices and Joe Califano’s antismoking campaign can generate as much passionate controversy as basketball. To Tar Heels, especially those in obscure backwaters like Washington (pop. 9,000), young men like Dominique Wilkins tend to be regarded as state monuments. Dominique is 6 ft. 7 in. tall. He can hang in the air like a bat and do things with a basketball that Dr. James Naismith, who invented the game, never contemplated. Like slam it through the basket from all sorts of odd angles, with such style that by the time he was a high school junior, sportswriters were already calling him “Dr. Dunk.” Led by Dominique, the Washington High School Pam Pack won back-to-back state Triple-A league championships and built up a 56-game winning streak, then the longest in the nation. In his senior year, Dominique averaged nearly 30 points and 16 rebounds a game. He was named to Parade ‘s high school All-America team.

By last spring Dr. Dunk’s achievements had made him one of the most sought-after high school players in the U.S. More than 200 colleges were hoping to snag him. Dozens of coaches or their representatives made the long trek to the Washington H.S.

gymnasium to watch Dominique do his stuff. Naturally, North Carolina State, a perennial basketball power, was interested. Concedes its athletic director, Willis Casey: “We wanted him in the worst way.” David Thompson, a former N.C. State forward who is now one of the highest paid players in the National Basketball Association, sent Dominique a personal, written-by-hand letter. The school gave him free tickets to its home games. And when that snazzy red and white Chrysler showed up in the driveway outside his mother’s modest apartment in the Runyon Creek public housing project, everyone assumed that it was the clincher in N.C. State’s sign up Dr. Dunk campaign. After all, she wasn’t working. How could she afford an expensive car like that? Besides, weren’t red and white the Wolfpack colors?

That was good news to the folks in Washington, which hitherto had little to boast about but the Pam Pack and the fact that it was the first town in America to be named after George Washington in 1776. It is still trying to live down the bad name it got five years ago when Joan Little, then doing time in the Beaufort County Jail, put an ice pick into a white jailer who had sexually molested her. “That was the godawfullest mess I ever did see,” says Sheriff O.E. (“Red”) Davis, who is still smarting over his description in a book about the case by James Reston Jr. Says Davis, with evident outrage, “Why, that man called me a redneck.”

As the Washington Daily News (circ. 10,000) noted, the subject of where Dominique would play college ball was “the talk of the town.” Most Washingtonians were pushing N.C. State. They wanted Dr. Dunk close by (Raleigh is 100 miles away), so they could see him whirling and stuffing and bringing glory and perhaps a second national basketball crown to the school. Donny Daly, who runs a T shirt store, turned a handsome profit by printing up a Dr. Dunk model with a caricature of a player wearing Dominique’s No. 21 embossed on it. Jack’s Card and Gift Boutique on West Main Street sold a lot of Dominique Wilkins posters.

A shy youth, Dominique often hid out at the recreation center on the other side of town to escape recruiters. When people inquired—and they inquired often —about what schools he was considering, he reeled off a list of Atlantic Coast Conference colleges starting with N.C. State. Not once did he mention Georgia. His reason: “I was scared.”

His fear may have been based on a certain ambivalence in the town’s admiration for its basketball team. Coach Dave Smith has put the team into the state finals four times in seven years and won nearly 90% of the games he coached. But, as one white resident puts it, “People would like him better if he played more white kids, even if he lost.” Unlike most small towns with championship sports teams, Washington has erected no signs at the city limits proudly proclaiming that fact. “Peopie are always getting on me to get more black deputies,” says Sheriff Davis, sipping a free cup of coffee in the Holiday Inn. “But the biggest bunch of discrimination I can see around here is all those blacks playing basketball out at Washington High School.” The sheriffs son tried out for the team and was cut.

Even so, the winning ways of Dr. Dunk and his teammates stirred good feelings in a town that still holds separate proms for black and white high school seniors. With each victory, says Mrs. Baker, townsfolk seemed to become friendlier. “I wasn’t working,” she recalls. “I didn’t have any credit references. But I walked into the car dealer, and the man asked me if I was Dominique’s mother. I put down $600, and they let me have the car.” The family also acquired a velvet living-room suite and several other items on favorable terms, she says.

All that changed on the day of infamy, Mar. 11, 1979. That was when Dominique signed with the University of Georgia Bulldogs in a secret ceremony in faraway Athens, Ga. Next morning, a Washington High student remembers, the halls, usually buzzing with noise, were silent. Soon home-room teachers were announcing to stunned students that Dominique was going to Georgia. Georgia! A team that is not even in the Atlantic Coast Conference! And suddenly people remembered that the Bulldogs’ colors, like the Chrysler’s, are red and white.

The shameful truth was clear. Dominique had sold out to another state. Mrs. Baker says that when she got home on March 12 the windows were all broken. A barrage of threatening phone calls and letters began. She claims the furniture store attempted to repossess the living-room suite in retaliation for Dominique’s defection. The housing authority commenced eviction proceedings. Dominique’s brothers, all of them star basket ball players, got into fistfights with classmates, who accused Dr. Dunk of selling out. Finally in June, Mrs. Baker returned the Chrysler to the dealer, put everything in a U-Haul and left town.

“He didn’t have any special reason to stay in North Carolina,” says his mother. But there were powerful incentives at Georgia, a team that has not had a winning record in seven years. At Georgia, notes Bulldog Coach Hugh Dur ham, Dr. Dunk could be guaranteed a slot on the starting five from the beginning of his freshman year, while at talent-laden A.C.C. schools, he might not be able to beat out an experienced upperclassman. Says Durham: “We pointed out to him that at N.C. State, every time he made a fantastic shot, they would say, ‘Doesn’t that remind you of David Thompson?’ But down here, in two or three years, every body will be talking about Dominique Wilkins.”

The folks in “Little Washington” have a different version of events. George Cochran, director of the public housing agency, says Mrs. Baker had fallen be hind in her rent. Her neighbors say they never saw the broken windows or the spattered Chrysler. Don McDermott, sports editor of the Daily News, thinks Mrs. Baker’s story is not fair to this community. “Once Dominique’s decision was made, people accepted it. He is not a subject of conversation here any longer.”

Maybe not. But when you mention to any Washingtonian, like Sheriff Davis, that you’ve just come up from Georgia, he invariably asks: “Is Dominique playing any ball? When’s his next game? Is it going to be on TV?” For the record. Dr. Dunk scored 21 points in the Bulldogs’ opening game. Mrs. Baker has moved into a comfortable rented house in Atlanta, where she works as a motel maid. Dominique’s brothers and one of his sisters are playing basketball at Southwest High. In late November the Pam Pack lost by a score of 74-71, its first defeat in two years.

−Jack White

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