Straight Talk

Wilcox energized by prospect of winning environment

Chris Wilcox has signed a two-year contract with the Pistons as a free agent.
Fernando Medina (NBAE/Getty)
Posted Wednesday, July 2009

The dreadlocks Chris Wilcox has sported throughout his seven-year NBA career are gone. So, too, he hopes, is the curse of playing for nothing but lottery teams from coast to coast over that time, from the Clippers to the Knicks with a stopover in Oklahoma City by way of Seattle.

So when he and Joe Dumars talked late last week about the prospect of joining the Pistons, some fresh talk was music to the ears of a player desperate to start fresh at age 26.

“He said this is a winning program and if you aren’t trying to win, then don’t come,” Wilcox said this afternoon after signing a two-year contract with the Pistons as a free agent. “That was basically what it was – straight, real talk. After that conversation with Joe, I felt I already knew the organization. If he was carrying it that way, I knew everybody else was going to carry it the same way.”

Wilcox has looked at the Pistons enviously during his hopeless seasons since leaving Maryland on the heels of the 2002 NCAA championship. At 19, he was chosen No. 7 in the draft by the woebegone Clippers. Not only has he never played a postseason NBA game, he’s never begun an NBA season with a team that had more than a faint chance of avoiding the lottery. It’s the type of hopelessness that wears on teams, breaks spirits and often unfairly stigmatizes players caught in the vortex of losing.

“I think people look at me and say, ‘OK, put him over there’ because I haven’t been on a winning team,” Wilcox said this afternoon after signing a two-year contract with the Pistons as a free agent. “But on the teams I’ve been on, I’ve done everything I could to put me into a situation to develop into a better player.”

When Wilcox surveyed the summer landscape, knowing in a sluggish market he’d be best served by signing somewhere fast, he considered entreaties from winning franchises. Dallas, Phoenix and Washington inquired. But when Pistons vice president Scott Perry called, his ears really perked up.

“I never thought Detroit was interested,” Wilcox said, “then one day (last week), out of the blue Scott called. ‘What do you think about Detroit?’ ” When Perry, who spent one year as Seattle’s assistant general manager while Wilcox was on board before returning to Detroit as Joe D’s second in command, let Wilcox know of the Pistons’ interest, things moved very quickly. Wilcox instructed his agent, Jeff Schwartz, to get on the phone with Dumars and work out a deal.

Of course, the recruiting process had actually begun four months earlier. A few weeks after Oklahoma City had traded Wilcox to New York at the February trade deadline, the Knicks beat the Pistons in overtime at The Palace. Wilcox, still adjusting to Mike D’Antoni’s style, didn’t get off the bench that night.

“After the game, Tayshaun (Prince) was like, ‘What’s up? Why you didn’t play? We might have a spot for you at the end of the season.’ It’s so crazy he said that and I’m here.”

Prince and Wilcox go back to the 2002 draft when their paths crossed at rookie orientation, and even before that, to that March’s NCAA tournament when Wilcox’s Maryland Terps beat Prince’s Kentucky Wildcats in the regional round.

They’ve maintained a casual friendship ever since, with Wilcox a little envious of the winning environment Prince has known throughout his career.

“It’s different when you’re playing for a team that’s winning,” Wilcox said. “It’s a different feel. When I was playing with the Clippers or Seattle, you know you’ve got to bring it every night because you know the situation you’re in, but everybody is not together. With a program like this, every time we played Detroit, every time we played teams that had their stuff together, you know exactly what you’re going to get from the jump ball. With the teams I’ve been on in the past, it’s been rough because you don’t know which team you’re going to see tonight and which team you’re going to see tomorrow.”

Wilcox is going to see a starkly different Pistons teams than he’s accustomed to playing against, he being just one component of a radical overhaul. He’ll fit in up front with fellow free-agent newcomer Charlie Villanueva and holdover veterans Kwame Brown and Jason Maxiell. Though the roster could be further altered, it appears as if Wilcox will be playing more center, which he played with Seattle, than power forward. And that’s fine with him.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “I just want to be a part of a winning program and I want to help in any way possible. I don’t care what it is. Even if I’m not playing in a game, but if I know I can make somebody better in practice, that’s what I’m here for.”