ATLANTA (AP) _ For Dominique Wilkins, the retirement of No. 21 underlines a hard truth.

``Now, it's official,'' said the man known as ``The Human Highlight Film'' during his 15-year NBA career. ``I'm actually retired. I can't fake it anymore like I'm actually going to come back for one more year.''

Wilkins, who turned 41 Friday, was to be honored Saturday night by the team where he spent most of his high-flying career. The Atlanta Hawks planned to retire his number, raising it to the rafters of Philips Arena alongside those of Bob Pettit (9) and Lou Hudson (23).

``I give the Hawks organization a lot of credit for bringing me back and making me a part of the Hawks organization and the Hawks family,'' said Wilkins, who rejoined the team this season in a largely ceremonial position. ``I'll always be a Hawk.''

He has gotten over the most traumatic day of his career _ Feb. 24, 1994, when the Hawks traded their greatest player to the lowly Los Angeles Clippers for Danny Manning.

Manning finished that season in Atlanta, then moved on. Wilkins bounced around to Boston, San Antonio and Orlando _ with stops in Greece and Italy also thrown in _ before his once-glorious career ended with a whimper in 1999.

``I don't have any ill feelings,'' Wilkins said. ``At that time, I didn't want to go to the Clippers because we were winning. But it's one of those things that happens in a career.''

Now, the retirement ceremony just happens to come before a game against the Clippers.

Wilkins, a nine-time All-Star, averaged 24.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.5 assists during his NBA career. He retired as the league's eighth-leading scorer with 26,668 points.

No one has worn No. 21 for the Hawks since Wilkins was traded.

``That was by design, not by accident,'' team president Stan Kasten said. ``He is known as the very symbol of our franchise and our time here in Atlanta.''

Wilkins left Georgia after his junior year and was drafted in the first round by the Utah Jazz, who made one of the worst trades in NBA history when they sent him to the Hawks for John Drew and Freeman Williams.

Wilkins quickly became the leader of a team that included Dan Roundfield, Tree Rollins and Eddie Johnson. The Hawks reached the Eastern Conference semifinals three times, including a dramatic series with Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics in 1988.

In Game 7, Wilkins and Larry Bird had one of the most thrilling duels in playoff history. Bird hit 9-of-10 shots in the fourth quarter for 20 of his 34 points, while Wilkins scored 16 of his game-high 47.

``That was the greatest game because of the situation we were in,'' Wilkins said. ``Seventh game, playoffs, Larry Bird-Dominique in a very heated confrontation. It doesn't get any better than that.''

But the Celtics won, ending Atlanta's best chance for a championship during Wilkins' career.

``We were a hardworking team,'' he recalled. ``We didn't really have the individual talent to get to the next level. We had a couple of opportunities, but we never made it. You've got to remember that the teams in the East were in their prime when we were good: Boston, Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago.''

Rich Mahorn, who played for Detroit's ``Bruise Brothers'' in the late 1980s, had several memorable duels with Wilkins.

``I tried to hurt him every time,'' said Mahorn, now a Hawks assistant. ``I didn't like Dominique, but I respected him. ... I'm going to run on the floor and hit him one more time for old time's sake.''

When the Pistons played Atlanta, they knew Wilkins was the player who had to be stopped.

``We kind of like corralled him into a position where if one guy's going to hit him, we're all going to hit him,'' Mahorn said. ``We really played very physical against him and we made sure if he made shots, he was going to make a jump shot.''

While Wilkins was best-known for his scoring exploits, he also is Atlanta's career leader in steals.

``I loved Dominique as a player,'' said Golden State's Chris Mullin, who went against Wilkins for more than a decade. ``Sometimes his spectacular play overshadowed what a great player he was. The Human Highlight Film was one thing, but he was a great, great player.''

Wilkins played with five teams over the final five years of his playing career. He was waived by Orlando in 1999 after averaging just five points in 27 games, depriving him of an official retirement.

Now the Hawks are rectifying that oversight.

``It shows their appreciation for me,'' said Wilkins, who spent a whirlwind week doing interviews, photo shoots and promotional appearances. ``You'll just see your jersey up in the rafters forever. It's hard to put into words what that means.''