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It’s a boy! So went the gender reveal at Bankers Life Fieldhouse late last month, when Damien Wilkins and his fiancée Jasmine Mitchell found out who would be joining them later this year in Indiana. (I am much, much too old to understand how gender reveal parties have become a thing. We didn’t know the sex of our first child until he was born, and we didn’t want to know.)
That Wilkins was in Indiana at all was one of the cool stories of this season -- one that came to an end, at least temporarily, when the team requested waivers on him. (Indiana could, conceivably, look at bringing Wilkins back after the trade deadline, one league source said Sunday afternoon.)
At 37, Wilkins worked his way back to the NBA after four years away; he’d last played with the 76ers in 2013. But he thought he had more to give, so he’s spent the last four years playing around the world -- China, Venezuela, Puerto Rico -- along with G League stints in Iowa and Greensboro. But Wilkins continued to believe he would be back in the NBA.
He worked in the Players Association’s management training program at the Summer League in Las Vegas in July, and the Pacers’ GM, Kevin Pritchard, ran into him during the “speed dating” portion of the meeting between the teams and the players, who were and are interested in front office careers. The Pacers brought him to camp on a non-guaranteed deal, and he made the team, playing in 19 games. But his biggest role was as a veteran who could help some of the team’s young players through the ups and downs of an NBA season.
The only thing about Wilkins getting released from his standpoint may be that at least he’ll get to watch his alma mater, the University of Georgia, play in the college football national championship game tonight against Alabama. The Pacers are playing Milwaukee tonight; Wilkins had been working with people at Bankers Life Fieldhouse to get regular updates during the game.
This interview was done Saturday, before the team decided to let Wilkins go.
Me: I know Georgia’s a football school; were you tight with any of the football players back when you were there?
Damien Wilkins: Back then, it was like an immature competition between us and them. It took me a while to realize that that was just a competition we weren’t going to win as basketball players. It took me leaving to realize that. Guys like D. J. Shockley was there while I was there. Fred Gibson was there. The guy that works on ESPN now, David Pollack. I was there with those guys. They had a good team them. You know, Georgia always represents the SEC well. If you’re a Bulldog, it’s a proud time right now.
Me: What’s that feeling like for you?
DW: It feels good. Like I said, it’s a proud time to be a Bulldog right now. I’m sure no one went to class this week. Everyone’s already in Atlanta. I think that more than anything is what’s special about it, because they’re playing that game actually at home. To play that game in our home state, that kind of makes it even more special. It’s surreal, I’m sure, for those guys. Kirby Smart has done a great job. He’s completely turned that thing around, man. He’s got it going in a direction even more so than it was before. Not that we had fallen off any at all, but he’s getting some great recruits. People are staying home to play at Georgia. I mean this guy Jake Fromm is unreal, man. It’s hard to believe he’s a true freshman. We’re extremely proud of those guys right now. But we’ve got a tough task ahead of us, because Alabama sure looked like they played with a chip on their shoulder against Clemson.
Me: I think JaMychal Green is the only Alabama guy playing in the league right now. You got any bets down with any ‘Bama guys?
DW: One of our video coordinators, one of our video coordinator interns went to ‘Bama. We haven’t spoken all week. He’s been wearing his ‘Bama gear; I’ve been wearing my Georgia gear. So we got a little thing going on right now.
Me: What has it been like being back in the league this year?
DW: It’s been great. I remember seeing you in Vegas (at the Summer League), and we were talking. I can’t really put it into words. The game has changed so much since the last time I was playing in Philly four years ago. I’m fortunate enough to have been playing and keeping my eye and focus on the game. It’s nothing that surprised me, but it’s been great. It’s just been unbelievable. The experience of being back here and helping these young guys, getting the opportunity to play here and there being back on the floor, being in this element has meant everything to me and it’s all I’ve been working for the past four years.
So many people told me I was dumb to play in the D League for two years, I was dumb not to go to Europe and go get money over there, I was dumb to think that this would happen again. It’s just a testament to the perseverance that I had that I was not going to give up until there was just no way out. During that time that I’ve been away, no one was telling me there wasn’t a chance. No one that was able to make decisions for me, basically, was saying ‘no, you don’t have a chance.’ That’s not what I was hearing. So I was going to give it all that I had to be back. And now that I’m back, it’s just unbelievable.
Me: So how has the game changed in the last four years?
DW: It’s a lot faster, that’s for sure. You can tell that people now are like, in a hurry to get the ball. That’s how it seems. Everyone’s in a hurry to say, okay, go ahead. Literally, go ahead and score so we can get the ball back. That’s exactly what it feels like sometimes. Everyone’s like, we want to score, so do what you gotta do so we can get the ball inbounds so we can score. And the teams that play defense are the teams at the top of the league. It’s not rocket science. I’m surprised everyone hasn’t figured that out yet. You look at the Spurs and Golden State, even with their frantic pace, they still defend well. Boston is at the top of the league in defensive rating. Toronto, all those teams at the top. Houston has a better defensive roster this year, so it’s no surprise that they’re at the top of the league. That’s the changes I see; the game is a lot faster and everyone’s in such a hurry to get baskets, or to get shot attempts.
Me: You’re one of the last active guys who actually played in Seattle. What are your memories from there?
DW: I was there three years, four years. I had a great time. That’s an unbelievable city, it’s an unbelievable sports town. Great food, great people, great atmosphere to play basketball, and to play any sport. Look at the Seahawks. It’s just a sports town. I miss it there. It’s a shame that a team isn’t there, and those people there, I know they miss having themselves a basketball team, and hopefully one day it’ll happen. I miss it every day. It’s a great place to play. One of my favorite places. I was fortunate enough to be there my first year. That city kind of raised me -- myself and Nick Collison and even KD for the year that he was there. It was just a great time.
...The game is a lot faster and everyone’s in such a hurry to get baskets, or to get shot attempts.
Me: When Nate told you he wanted you to be a mentor to the young guys, did you accept that role immediately, or was there any part of you that said, ‘Hold up -- I can still hoop a little?’
DW: He knew that. He said it to me. He said, I know you still can give us something and I’m probably going to need you at some point. I just don’t know if I need you immediately. And he said to keep up, to stay ready, which he knew I was going to do, anyway. He just said, I’m going to need you to help me with these young guys, call upon you. I obviously know you’re going to be ready. I know you can still play. I said I’ve been waiting four years to hear that. I’m here. I understand how long the season is. The foundation of my career was built on being ready when the opportunity came. It wasn’t anything that was new to me. I’m good with that. As long as I can impact and help these guys mature and grow and be more professional, that’s fine with me.
At the end of the day, when it’s all said and done, I really do want to work in the NBA. I want to work in a front office. I want to be a front office exec one day. If that means starting from the coaching standpoint and moving up, that’s fine, too. I’m actually learning on the fly how to lead. I have no problem with that at all. It’s been great so far. I just had dinner last night with Myles Turner. He and I sat and talked for a while. He got some things off his chest that’s been kind of bothering him, and I told him how I felt about some things. Hopefully that helped. It’s things like that that a lot of people probably wouldn’t do. I told him, I don’t ever want to have a regret where I didn’t have that conversation with you. I don’t want to leave here and have it be, man, I wish I would have spoken with him. Man, I wish I would have said this or done that. That was a good thing. He said he lacked veteran leadership in the past, and he appreciated that. And that right there made me feel like my purpose is here. This is the job I’m called to do, and I’m going to do it the best that I can.
Me: How are the young guys coming along, like Myles and Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis?
DW: We’re coming along fine. We’re coming along just like a young team would. We’ve lost five in a row, so young guys respond to things the way you expect young guys to respond. After you lose two, guys’ confidence gets a little low, or you start to see a little slippage as far as our togetherness goes. But that’s with youth, and that’s with maturity. Guys that have been around before like myself understand that damn near every team in the league goes through a spell where they lose a few in a row. But the good teams, the great teams bounce back. We’ve got an opportunity to bounce back…how this league goes, you get a win, it cures everything. We’re one win away from guys being back, getting our heads back right and getting our confidence back right.
Me: So, when’s the last time you got either your dad or your uncle out on the floor?
DW: Oh, man, it’s been a while. I don’t think either one of them want to get out there with me. They just talk about it. I was just with ‘Nique in Atlanta, and he was like, ‘Yeah, man, I can do this. I can go out and get 15 right now.’ I said, ‘No, you can’t -- not with all the screens these guys are running off of. No, you can’t.’"
TWEET OF THE WEEK
The Fmr. POTUS has a sneaky left hand hoops game, Ginobili-like. Those guys are the toughest to guard. And I’m sure he’s played more basketball than me in the last year. Odds are against me. https://t.co/erNBNESItP— Shane Battier (@ShaneBattier) January 6, 2018
-- Former NBA player and current Heat exec Shane Battier (@ShaneBattier), Saturday, 2:23 p.m., breaking down an imaginary one-on-one game with former President Barack Obama. Both will be at Daryl Morey’s Sloan Sports Conference in Boston Feb. 23.
THEY SAID IT
“I’m actually thrilled because Bob Myers and I had a conversation this morning and I said, ‘You know, Bob, Gruden’s got one title and I’ve got two, and a hundred mil over 10 years? I don’t know. Maybe we need to talk, Bob.’”
-- Steve Kerr, on Bay Area radio station 95.7 The Game’s Damon Bruce Show, joking about the impact of Jon Gruden’s reported 10-year, $100 million contract to return to coach the Oakland Raiders on his own bottom line.
“I have my days, I ain’t going to lie to you. I have days where I don’t want to do [expletive]. I just want to sit there and think about her all day. I take a minute to myself here and there, as I should. I think about her every day. But I think it’s set up to be a special year because a lot of stuff has been going on. I feel like I put a lot of time into my work and hopefully it pays off for me. I know she would want me to do that. Whenever I get down on myself or get down on life, I just try to revert to my work and ask myself, ‘What would she want me to do?’ Because she was my biggest supporter. I would talk to her after every game. It’s tough not to have her here.”
-- Jae Crowder, to the Boston Globe, on the difficulty he’s had concentrating at times this season after the death of his mother, Helen Thompson, last year. Helen Thompson’s death came just after Crowder found out he’d been traded from the Celtics to the Cavaliers, after playing in Boston the previous three years. Crowder’s return to Boston for the first time since the deal last week was slightly less covered than that of his teammate, guard Isaiah Thomas.
“One thing I’ve learned is that you have to keep your bags packed. You never know. If it happens, it happens. But I’ve made great relationships in this locker room and with this club. If I leave, I’ll look them in the face, shake their hand and thank them for the opportunity.”
-- Kings guard George Hill, to the Sacramento Bee’s Ailene Voisin, on his frustrating first season with Sacramento after signing a three-year, $57 million deal with the Kings last summer.
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