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NBA legend Dominique Wilkins opens up for the first time about discrimination he faced

NBA legend Dominique Wilkins has opened up for the first time about the shocking moment he was turned away from an upscale Atlanta restaurant because of the color of his skin.

In an exclusive interview with DailyMail.com the Hall of Famer, nine-time NBA All-Star and Atlanta Hawks Vice President told how he felt the sting of discrimination as the host of Le Bilboquet looked him up and down then refused to seat him on the grounds that they were trying to ‘keep a level of elegance.’

He said, ‘I’ve never got turned down by a single restaurant in my life until this new restaurant. I’ve been to all the top restaurants in the city – that’s better food – and they’ve never turned me down.’

Wilkins, 61, who was dining with a female friend said, ‘I couldn’t believe what happened. First of all, they looked me up and down and [my friend] said, ”That’s strange.” Then we asked him for a seat outside and they had all these tables free, and said, ”We don’t have any reservations.”’

NBA legend Dominique Wilkins, 61, claimed he was turned away upscale restaurant Le Bilboquet in May due to color of skin. In an exclusive interview with DailyMail.com the Hall of Famer told how he felt the sting of discrimination and said he’s never been turned away in his life

The upscale restaurant (pictured) has apologized to Wilkins. 'I was fully dressed, and they said they tried to keep a level of elegance in the restaurant. I can't make this up!' he said

The upscale restaurant (pictured) has apologized to Wilkins. ‘I was fully dressed, and they said they tried to keep a level of elegance in the restaurant. I can’t make this up!’ he said 

According to Wilkins, ‘There’s people who came up who didn’t look like me, wearing shorts, jeans, sneakers and T-shirts and they said, ”We’ll seat you in a minute.”’

‘I was fully dressed, and they said they tried to keep a level of elegance in the restaurant. I can’t make this up!’

Wilkins said he was so angry that he had to walk away to cool down but his would-be dining companion that day stayed and pressed the host saying, ‘What’s your criteria for what’s casual? Mr. Wilkins is dressed very elegantly.’

She was told once again that the restaurant didn’t have reservations though they offered to seat Wilkins and his friend inside at the back.

Wilkins, who said that he prides himself on remaining publicly above the fray on most issues, took to Twitter to express his outrage and dismay following the incident in May.

He told DailyMail.com, ‘Anybody who knows me knows I don’t get involved in any issues, I like to stay above it all. But that situation was disturbing to me.’

Some weighed in on Twitter to accuse him of reading racism into a situation that was simply a matter of dress-code.

But Wilkins is clear, ‘A lot of times people disguise discrimination or racism through different methods. In this place it was in the form of a dress code.

‘I hate when I hear people [talk like that]. I don’t use the race card. I just ain’t about that.’

And he revealed, ‘I’ve had a cross burned in my yard before. I know what it feels like. I know what it looks like and it felt like that to me.’

Wilkins revealed that that appalling cross-burning incident took place when he was playing High School basketball for North Carolina and decided to go to the University of Georgia.

That was 1979. Wilkins was just 19 years old. He had been discovered three years earlier playing basketball in a playground in North Carolina. He had left his home in Baltimore the day before, catching the bus and heading to North Carolina in hope, he said, of helping his family and himself by, ‘finding a career in a quieter, safer environment.’ 

Wilkins, who said that he prides himself on remaining publicly above the fray on most issues, took to Twitter to express his outrage and dismay following the incident in May

Wilkins, who said that he prides himself on remaining publicly above the fray on most issues, took to Twitter to express his outrage and dismay following the incident in May

The restaurant apologized to Wilkins in a statement posted to Twitter but the manager denied race was a factor in Wilkins being turned away

The restaurant apologized to Wilkins in a statement posted to Twitter but the manager denied race was a factor in Wilkins being turned away 

Le Bilboquet is nestled in the wealthy enclave of Buckhead, where crime has been running rampant and some residence want a 'divorce' from the city of Atlanta

Le Bilboquet is nestled in the wealthy enclave of Buckhead, where crime has been running rampant and some residence want a ‘divorce’ from the city of Atlanta 

Wilkins was talking to DailyMail.com in Birmingham, Alabama during an investment drive for his next project, a documentary which will show the ‘softer side’ of the athlete – the human being and the life and forces that formed him beyond the basketball court.

The film will be produced by actor and producer Brian Yang and directed by Reuben Atlas who directed award-winning Netflix documentary ‘Sour Grapes’ about a scandal in the world of fine wines.

Wilkins said, ‘I want to illustrate more about the person… the making of being, becoming, that athlete – those early years of my struggles, the life I had to live at that time. Because being the man of the family at 12 years old I never really had a childhood.’

Nor did he ever have anything handed to him, he said, recalling one formative day in his childhood when he vowed he would never depend on anyone for anything.

Wilkins was talking to DailyMail.com in Birmingham, Alabama during an investment drive for his next project, a documentary which will show the 'softer side' of the athlete

Wilkins was talking to DailyMail.com in Birmingham, Alabama during an investment drive for his next project, a documentary which will show the ‘softer side’ of the athlete 

He said, ‘I was walking one day with my brother. I remember…like it was yesterday, and I was 13 he was 12. We had a situation where family members would let us come into the house after walking three miles in the sun to get there and they wouldn’t give us food or water. It’s hot too. I remember my brother was crying.

‘I said, ”Stop crying, pull your pants up, clean your face.” And from this day forward we’ll never ask anybody for anything, and we never did. I never did. Not to this day.’

He said that he was fortunate to have mentors in the streets of Baltimore who, even then, saw his talent and saw that he had a chance of getting out and making something of his life.

He said, ‘They taught me how to play and they took care of the young guys. They didn’t let me get in trouble. They would never let me get involved in gang stuff. They said, ”You are going to be the first one to get out of this neighborhood, so you can’t do that.” And I look back on it and I thank them because they helped me to become something that I didn’t think I was. But they saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.’

Wilkins’s career has been beyond illustrious with his ability to dunk earning him the nickname, ‘The Human Highlight Reel.’

But according to the man himself, ‘So many times people don’t look at the personal side of your life. You know, everybody looks at the athlete, the athletics, the glitz and the glamor but you need to see what it took to get to that point and what we went through as young people.

‘We are just human like you. We’re not superhuman…and so I want people to see a more sensitive side of me that I’ve never really told.’

And part of that side is, he said, dealing with failing and handling difficult situations and difficult questions.

Tennis champion Naomi Osaka recently cause uproar when she withdrew from the French Open over her refusal to take part in post-match interviews. Asked on his views on her stance Wilkins said, ‘I’ve always been a guy who gives something back.

‘I embraced the interview. I embraced talking to people about things that a lot of times is uncomfortable. I embraced it because that’s what made me who I ultimately became – not being afraid of adversity, being willing to step out on faith and the belief in myself that I can do it.

‘So now I’m shutting down because someone asks tough questions? You know, I’m back at square one.

‘We go through ups and downs in life but it’s not how many times you fall. It’s how many times you pick up that defines you as a person.’

The NBA legend (pictured playing for Atlana Hawks in 1998) has had a tremendous career, with his ability to dunk earning him the nickname, 'The Human Highlight Reel'

The NBA legend (pictured playing for Atlana Hawks in 1998) has had a tremendous career, with his ability to dunk earning him the nickname, ‘The Human Highlight Reel’

Wilkins has been credited with playing a huge part in the growth of his adopted city of Atlanta from his days as a player for UGA to his years with the Atlanta Hawks as a player and now as Vice President.

He admitted that it troubled him to see the rising crime and sense of division within the city he considers home. Recently DailyMail.com covered the growing schism within the city that has seen some residents of the wealthy enclave of Buckhead call for a ‘divorce’ from the city as a whole following a spike in shootings and other violent crime.

According to Wilkins, ‘That’s not who we are in Atlanta. The type of violence that goes on in Buckhead, that’s not who we are. Atlanta is one of the most diverse cities in America and to see some of the crime that’s going on is disturbing and hopefully we can get control of it and get back to being who we are.

‘And that’s a wonderful Southern city that people would love to visit. I came to Atlanta in 1979, it’s where my family live and I want to the University of Georgia and so I’ve seen the growth of the city and how the entertainment worlds kind of came together.’

The growth of the Atlanta Hawks had a key role in that growth, he said, ‘You know, when I came to Atlanta people would come to see other teams. They wouldn’t come to see the Atlanta Hawks. So, we built our own personality and culture and the music world kind of rallied around that and we became that household name.’

It was an inclusive, unifying growth.

But, Wilkins admitted, ‘I’ve never experienced the type of division [in the city] that I’ve experienced of late. Again, Atlanta is my home but it’s disturbing to see how some mentalities have changed.

‘I don’t know if it’s because of the things that we’ve been through in the past or if it’s COVID, but you can’t blame it for all this stuff because at the end of the day you know right from wrong. And so, I just hope that we can rally people to think more logically. At the end of the day, you commit a crime, what have you accomplished? Nothing but hardship for other people’s family and yourself.’

For Wilkins it comes down to personal accountability and respect and, he said, ‘Until we come together as a whole it’s going to be hard solving this problem.’

He said, ‘We have got to come together. There has got to be a level of respect and I think this country has lost a lot of respect and we have got to find a way of getting it back.’

Wilkins admitted that it troubled him to see the rising crime and sense of division within the city he considers home. 'That's not who we are in Atlanta. The type of violence that goes on in Buckhead, that's not who we are,' he said

Wilkins admitted that it troubled him to see the rising crime and sense of division within the city he considers home. ‘That’s not who we are in Atlanta. The type of violence that goes on in Buckhead, that’s not who we are,’ he said

Bill White (pictured), Chief Executive Officer of the Buckhead Exploratory Committee, is leading the charge for Buckhead to split from the rest of Atlanta

Bill White (pictured), Chief Executive Officer of the Buckhead Exploratory Committee, is leading the charge for Buckhead to split from the rest of Atlanta

That day in May when he was turned away from Le Bilboquet for his ‘lack of elegance,’ was a day on which Wilkins was shown no respect. It remains a tough pill to swallow and the apology that was subsequently issued by the restaurant was, Wilkins said, ‘too late.’ The damage was done.

He said, ‘They tried to reach out to me, give me an apology. The CEO of the Hawks really got behind this, it really ticked him off along with our whole organization and ownership. And he said [to the restaurant], ”You know you guys have to do diversity training, whatever kind of training’s out there, if you guys don’t do this, we want to shut you down.”

‘And so, the team stepped up big time, they didn’t have to, but they have respect for me. They know I don’t get involved in anything and for that to happen they know Dominique’s p****d off.’

Wilkins said, ‘[The restaurant] sent out two statements. One was a lie. One was a kind of half statement. Then when the pressure got deeper, they gave me a real statement, a real apology.

‘They’re trying to create a culture there that only applies to a certain group of people instead of the people who are paying their hard-earned money to patronise your establishment. It shouldn’t matter [who a person is] so long as they don’t come disrespecting your establishment.

‘At the end of the day I worry about what’s going on in Atlanta and I’ve been to some of the best restaurants in Atlanta and been treated with nothing but respect because that’s who those people are. They’re caring, they’re loving, and I’ve never had an experience like that until then.

‘So, for me to speak publicly about it you know it had to be bad. We’ve had some things happen in Atlanta and I’ve never said a word because I like to be above it all, but I just couldn’t believe what happened in that restaurant.

‘I would never go there again; ever. But it’s a learning experience hopefully for them as well – what not to do.’

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk