Imagine being a 9-time NBA All-Star and the NBA scoring champion. Now, imagine leaving all that behind to play on a different continent, for a team that’s never even won a EuroLeague title. That’s exactly what Dominique Wilkins did in 1995 when he joined Panathinaikos Athens in Greece.
Wilkins is regarded as one of the best scorers of his time, and the Atlanta Hawks have a statue of him in front of their home arena. The six-foot-eight forward averaged an excellent 24.8 points during his NBA career, had two seasons of scoring more than 30 points per game, and came close to it multiple times.
Wilkins’ Best NBA Dunks:
Back in 1994, Wilkins signed with the Boston Celtics where things didn’t go according to plan. Coach Chris Ford benched him early in the season, and Wilkins averaged his lowest points per game since his rookie season and shot a career-low 42 percent from the field.
Wilkins has later said that he never wanted to leave the NBA, but Panathinaikos made an offer he couldn’t refuse. The Greek side had to persuade Wilkins to even look at the contract, and once the American saw the dollar signs, he was ready to pack his bags and get on the plane.
Panathinaikos Paid Millions
Wilkins was 35 when he moved to Europe, and reports differ on how long the contract was and how much he earned. The most popular version is that the contract was for two years and brought him 3.5 million dollars per season. At the time, this was the richest deal for a player outside the NBA, and this wasn’t a lot of money only back in 1995; a net income of 3.5 million dollars per season is rare in the modern Euroleague.
Panathinaikos presidents Pavlos and Thanassis Giannakopoulos adored Wilkins and granted almost his every wish. Winning over the head coach Božidar Maljković was a far tougher challenge, as the Serbian regarded Wilkins as uncooperative and defensively deficient.
Maljković had a rule that if a player doesn’t practice, he won’t play. Wilkins went back and forth between Greece and the USA to visit his mom and dad who fell ill, but he once got fined 50,000 dollars for too many personal trips back home and complaining how he was treated like crap. One time when Wilkins hurried back for a game, Maljković refused to use him because. Why? Because he hadn’t practiced…
In the Euroleague, Wilkins was pretty much nothing but great. He especially impressed during key battles, such as the deciding game three of the quarterfinals when his 26 points and seven rebounds helped Panathinaikos beat Treviso by a single point.
In the Euroleague Final Four that was held in his birthplace of Paris, France, Wilkins had 35 points and eight rebounds in the semifinal against Moscow CSKA. In the final, he scored 16 points and grabbed 10 rebounds to help Panathinaikos beat Barcelona 67 to 66 and lift their first Euroleague crown. By the way, on his way back to Greece after the festivities, Wilkins crashed his car and just left it on the side of the road. It was his fourth crashed car in the season.
Wilkins Dominated Against CSKA:
Wilkins Had A Lot Of Help
It’s important to note that while Wilkins shined in the Euroleague, Panathinaikos had a strong team overall and it wasn’t just the American who got them the title. Point guard Panagiotis Giannakis is considered one of Greece’s finest players of all time, and the seven-foot-two Stojko Vranković was one of the best centers in Europe. Coach Maljković had won a lot of trophies before his time with Panathinaikos and was a three-time Euroleague champion before 1996.
Wilkins, who was named Euroleague Final Four MVP, failed to lead Panathinaikos to the Greek league title as the Greens fell to Olympiacos. It was reported that before the finals, Wilkins started receiving death threats and one of his friends, Gino, got into a fight with about ten Olympiacos hooligans. The fight ended with Gino in a coma and six Olympiacos fans in the intensive care unit.
Wilkins missed the fourth and the deciding fifth game of the series against Olympiacos due to injury. A claim that Panathinaikos later refuted.
Three days before Panathinaikos would have to pay a 1.75 million dollar advance on his next season’s salary, the team sued Wilkins and accused him of faking injuries and leaving without notice at times. Needless to say, Wilkins didn’t continue with Panathinaikos.
The Last Dance in Italy
Even though things ended on a very sour note, Wilkins’ time with Panathinaikos was a huge success. Not only did they win the Euroleague, but Wilkins also bagged the first trophy of his club career when Panathinaikos won the Greek Cup, and the forward was the Finals MVP.
After a season with the San Antonio Spurs, Wilkins signed for the Italian giant Teamsystem Bologna, and statistically speaking, he was again very good.
But with Bologna, Wilkins didn’t win the Euroleague; he made it to the quarterfinals. In the Italian league, Kinder Bologna beat Wilkins and Teamsystem three to two in a very memorable series, and Wilkins played a big part in Kinder’s title.
In game five of the finals, Teamsystem was up 72 to 68 with just 17 seconds to go. The Italian title was almost secure, but then Kinder’s Predrag Danilović hit a three and was fouled by none other than Wilkins. Danilovic scored the free throw, David Rivers turned the ball over in the last offensive play for Teamsystem, and Kinder won it all in overtime.
Wilkins made a huge splash when he came to play in Europe, and at the time, he was the most high-profile NBA star to come across next to the two-time NBA champion and the 1975 NBA MVP Bob McAdoo, who played six years in Italy and won the EuroLeague twice.
By winning the EuroLeague, McAdoo became one of the select few who have won the NBA and EuroLeague. To this day, there are only 11 players who have managed that feat, with Bill Bradley being the first to do so when he led Milan to its first EuroLeague crown in 1966 and helped the New York Knicks win NBA titles in 1970 and 1973.
Beverley’s Humble Beginnings
Europe has had famous American NBA stars in the 21st century too. During the 2011 lockout, three-time all-star Deron Williams played a couple of months in Turkey for Beşiktaş. The year prior, the same team signed the legendary Allen Iverson, and the 2001 NBA MVP finished his career with the Turkish outfit but only played ten games in that season.
An interesting name to throw in the mix is Patrick Beverley. Currently, the guard is considered one of the premier perimeter defenders in the NBA, but his professional career started in Ukraine 16 years ago when he signed for Dnipro.
The American then played for Olympiacos and Spartak St. Petersburg, being named the EuroCup MVP in 2012, and finally made the jump to the NBA on January 7, 2013, to suit up with the Houston Rockets.
Of course, Beverley isn’t the first American who played multiple seasons in Europe before going to the NBA. But he is the most notable and perhaps even the only one in terms of putting together a long and successful career in the world’s strongest league.
Overall, it’s hard to see someone following Beverley’s footsteps, as the NBA’s developmental league, the G-League, is paying players more and more, and there are two-way contracts between the NBA and the G-League. This means there really isn’t any rush for Americans who are dreaming of the NBA to come to Europe and build their careers over here.