Hawks: Watching Dominique Wilkins and Larry Bird’s 1988 Duel

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Like most people, I’ve been eaten up by anxiety over the past week. Constantly refreshing Twitter and checking CNN left me in a serious funk only a few days into the social distancing experiment. It’s trivial, but usually, sports serve as a wholesome escape from stress and worry.

Luckily, NBATV has been reairing Hardwood Classics in place of the suspended NBA season. Thanks to that move, I was able to see a familiar face battling the Boston Celtics in the 1988 Eastern Conference Semifinals. There stood the Hawks current Vice President of Basketball/Special Advisor to the CEO and television analyst in his Reebok Pumps, sporting a high-top fade and short-shorts that would make Russell Westbrook blush.

Having been born the following year, I never saw this game — or ever a full game from Wilkins. Most of my knowledge about his playing career came from the hours of highlight dunks on YouTube, where he made a living embarrassing out of professional athletes.

A slightly older generation will remember this game, which became known as “The Duel.” The Hawks let Game 6 get away from them in The Omni and had to travel up to the Boston Garden in hopes of finishing off the dynastic Celtics.

Bird and the Celtics had guaranteed a win in the Garden in front of the less than hospitable crowd. In fact, there is an entire oral history detailing the game, which is worth the read.

What ensued was 48 minutes of a break-neck pace basketball. Both teams were trading haymakers and counterpunches trying to knock the other out. Eventually, the game came down to two players taking over for the final quarter of action.

Spoiler alert, the Celtics received some help from the referees down the stretch and stole the game from the young Hawks. Not to mention, Bird had 34 points (pouring in 20 in the 4th quarter).

But the Human Highlight Reel was on another level. Wilkins had 47 points on 19-23 shooting. Plus, he was tasked with guarding Bird and then would get picked up by Kevin McHale on offense. It was a brilliant moment in NBA history and a perfect example of Wilkins’ fearless demeanor.

League historians have canonized the game and made a plethora of content about the battle. But for me, it opened my eyes to the player Wilkins was and his competitive nature.

If you need to escape the terrible news cycle we’re stuck in right now, check out “The Duel.” For over 2 hours, you will be floored by the pace, physicality, and play style of these teams.

Assorted Musings

  • This game was a who’s who of future coaches/executives (Ainge, Bird, McHale, Paxson, Rivers, Webb, Whitman, etc.)
  • The pea-green paint on the parquet floor in no way matched the green on the Celtics uniforms
  • When Wilkins would take a jump shot, he would go up and look bored and then decide to elevate another 6 inches before letting it fly
  • Brent Musburger and Tom Heinsohn were a great broadcasting team despite the shabby CBS production value
  • NBA fans should be mandated to watch “The Duel” before ever saying he anything about that era of basketball


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