Wilkins was born on January 12, 1960, in Sorbonne, France, near Paris, where his father was serving with the U.S. Air Force. He attended high school in North Carolina before signing to play college basketball in 1979 at the University of Georgia (UGA) in Athens.
Wilkins lettered for three seasons with the UGA Bulldogs (1979-82), playing under head coach Hugh Durham. He still holds college records: fourth in career scoring (1,688 points), and first and second in single-season scoring. He averaged 21.6 points per game while in Athens. The Bulldogs compiled a record of 52-37 in Wilkins’s three years, and they won a berth in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) in 1981 and 1982. He was the 1981 Southeastern Conference Tournament Most Valuable Player and was All-Southeastern Conference and second-team All-American in 1981 and 1982. Although he left for the NBA after his junior season, he returned to Athens in 1991 to have his number 21 jersey retired—the first retired jersey in UGA men’s basketball history.
Wilkins was drafted by the Utah Jazz in the first round of the 1982 draft but was then traded to the Atlanta Hawks. From 1982 to 1994 he became one of Atlanta’s best-known and most-beloved athletes as he brought the city’s basketball to life by leading the Hawks to eight play-off appearances. Besides lighting up scoreboards, Wilkins was popular for his appearances in the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest, winning two championships. He participated in perhaps the best of these contests in 1988 in Chicago, where he lost a tight contest to the hometown favorite, Michael Jordan.
Much to the dismay of Hawks fans, the nine-time All-Star was traded in 1994 to the Los Angeles Clippers, where he played the remainder of the season. From 1994 to 1995 Wilkins became a free agent and signed on with the Boston Celtics. He became their leading scorer but was dissatisfied with his statistics: his average points per game were the lowest since his rookie season. After the end of the 1996 season, Wilkins played for the Panathinaikos Athens (in Athens, Greece) of the Hellenic Basketball Clubs Association and helped the team reach the European Championship for Men’s Clubs that year.
In 1996-97 Wilkins returned to the NBA to play for the San Antonio Spurs and led with an average of 18.2 points per game and 6.4 rebounds per game, but after one season he returned to Europe and played with Teamsystem in Italy for the 1997-98 season. Finally, in 1999 he played his last season in the NBA for the Orlando Magic, alongside his brother Gerald, and retired averaging 24.8 points and 6.7 rebounds per game for his entire career. At one point Wilkins was the highest-paid professional basketball player in Europe.
In 2001 Wilkins had his NBA jersey retired at Philips Arena (later State Farm Arena) in Atlanta and began working in the Hawks administrative office as special assistant to the executive vice president and as player development assistant. In 2004 Wilkins was inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame and was named vice president of the Hawks franchise. He now advises the board of managers and senior management team on basketball-related issues and serves as a member of both the executive committee and the Hawks’ Free Agent Acquisition Committee. At the end of 2004, it was announced that Wilkins would become an investor in Atlanta Spirit, the organization that owns the Hawks and formerly owned the Atlanta Thrashers. In 2006 he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.