The most concise and common analysis goes like this:
“Comes to work each day and gets it done and does what he needs to do.”
That’s Thaddeus Young’s summary of Damien Wilkins, who likely is the oldest new player ever to arrive in the Pacers’ training camp. He’s even older than Young, which is harder than it sounds. Thad is 29, long in the tooth by NBA standards, but Wilkins is 37, just a few months shy of 38.
He’ll never be as old as his father, though, at least as long as dad is around to do something about it. Gerald Wilkins played 12 seasons and three games in a 13th, from 1985 through 1999. But that was nothing compared to Damien’s uncle, Hall of Famer Dominique, who played in 17 NBA seasons and two others in Europe.
Damien lacks the freakish athletic gifts that allowed his father and uncle to log so many hours in the NBA, but he has their stamina for wanting to play, which explains why he’s competing against players nearly half his age for a spot on the Pacers’ roster. He’s played in 563 games over nine seasons in the NBA, starting 149 of those games. But he hasn’t played in one since 2013. His most recent NBA appearance, in fact, came against the Pacers, while playing for Philadelphia, on April 17, 2013, in the final game of the regular season.
With playoff positions – or in Philadelphia’s case, the lack thereof – already settled, the Pacers rested all their starters except Lance Stephenson. The Sixers went with their regulars, including Wilkins, who started the final 21 games that season, and won by 10. Wilkins scored 15 points, hitting 6-of-11 shots, in one of those games that seems more interesting in retrospect than it did in real time. Young also started for Philly in that game, as did another future Pacers forward, Evan Turner. Yet another future member of the Blue & Gold, Lavoy Allen, came off the bench for the Sixers.
Little did Wilkins know then it might have been his last NBA game. That wouldn’t have been such a bad thing, retiring after nine seasons at age 33. But like his familial forebears, he wanted to keep playing. When no NBA team would have him, he trudged off to the minors. He got a training camp contract with Charlotte two years ago, but that lasted only eight days. Last season, he played in Puerto Rico and for the Greensboro Swarm in the NBA G League.
“I was always told to play until I couldn’t no more,” he said following a practice this week. “I can still play. I feel great.”
Not that Wilkins hasn’t been thinking about life after basketball. He leaves no doubt about his desire to become an NBA coach or general manager, and has participated in the National Basketball Retired Players’ Association’s Career Transition Program.
Because of that, he was scouting the Las Vegas Summer League this year when he bumped into – literally, he says – Pacers coach Nate McMillan. Wilkins had played for McMillan in the 2003-04 season in Seattle, making the team as an undrafted rookie. Even then, he showed uncommon maturity and dedication, qualities McMillan thought would be valuable to the team he’ll be coaching this season.
“I’ve got a young group here,” McMillan said. “You need those guys on a roster like this.”
Wilkins also knows Pacers president Kevin Pritchard, who tried to sign him for Portland following Wilkins’ rookie season. And, he became acquainted with general manager Chad Buchanan two years ago when Buchanan was Charlotte’s assistant general manager.
“I guess you can say things came full circle,” Wilkins said. “They knew my makeup and what I was about.”
They also know Wilkins is 37 years old, which is why they didn’t give him a guaranteed contract. He’ll have to make the team, just like he did in Seattle in 2003 as an undrafted rookie. He doesn’t mind, though. He has no bargaining power, having been out of the league the past four seasons. He also doesn’t know any other way.
“I’m good with that,” he said. “I’m right in my comfort zone. If it wasn’t like that, I’d be a little nervous. I have nothing to lose.”
One might think Damien’s path has been all downhill because of his relation to two NBA stars. It hasn’t. His father and uncle encouraged him and worked with him, but couldn’t pass on their genetics. Damien is a classic NBA tweener, a 6-foot-6 wing lacking the NBA’s version of exceptional athleticism. He’s gotten by on shooting, smarts and stubbornness, which Uncle Dominique made a point of mentioning in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech in 2006, after Damien had completed his second season with Seattle.
“I’d like to give a special, special word to my nephew, Damien,” Dominque said then. “I never got a chance these last few years to say something to him, and I wanted to tell him that I’m very proud of him. He’s been through a lot. Nobody believed this kid could play. A lot of talk that, “Well, he’s Dominique’s nephew, we don’t really think he can cut it.’
“But through hard work and determination – and I remember telling him, there’s nothing wrong with making it the hard way, take that Wilkins name and you make not only yourself proud, you make your family proud. And he proved all the doubters wrong.”
Still, bloodlines bring privileges. Gerald Wilkins was just 16 when Damien was born, so Damien was able to attend many of his NBA games. He was 19 when his father played his last game for Orlando. A lot of lessons have been passed along over the years.
Confidence, for example. Gerald Wilkins was the last player selected in the 1985 NBA draft, by the Knicks – the same draft in which the Knicks grabbed Patrick Ewing with the first pick.
“He told me in his interview they asked him how he would feel about playing with Patrick Ewing,” Damien recalled. “And he said, ‘Patrick Ewing needs to be excited about playing with me.’ He was a confident, hard worker. That’s what I remember about him most. He instilled that in me. When I told him I wanted to play basketball, he said, ‘Follow my lead.’ And that’s what I did.
“There were exhausting, long hours. Just learning the game, learning nuances of the game. Most importantly, just learning to be a professional off the floor. I think that’s what carries more weight, and that’s what he’s proud of more than anything. I have a good reputation with every coach I played for, every organization I’ve been in, whether it be the NBA, the G League, or overseas, I don’t think anyone can say I was a bad guy or a bad teammate. More than anything, that’s what you want to (have) when it’s all said and done.”
Still, it’s unlikely any player has found re-entry to the NBA after a four-year absence, and Damien knows the odds. The Pacers have two openings on their 15-man roster, but also a core of promising players – young players – who are viable candidates for them. Most teams prefer young players with untapped potential over a 37-year-old still trying to prove doubters wrong.
It seems, though, Wilkins also can still play. He scored 40 points in a game for Greensboro last season, and 36 in another. Then he averaged 20.2 for his team in Puerto Rico. He’s shot well in the Pacers’ training camp scrimmages, and while not the most athletic player in camp, he doesn’t appear to have lost much of what he’s always had.
He also brings the intangibles that would be welcome in any NBA locker room. He’s been practicing with most of the players since August, and has left an impression with his work ethic and wisdom.
“He’s a good fit here,” Stephenson said. “We need a guy who can put you in your place and also tell you the right things.”
In other words, just go to work each day and do what needs to be done. Until they make you stop doing it.
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