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Wilkins leads the way for Team USA in Pan Am Games

Veteran hopes to convert Toronto experience into NBA return

POSTED: Jul 28, 2015 10:37 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Damien Wilkins played nine seasons in the NBA, most recently with the Sixers in 2013.

Damian Lillard's feelings clearly sounded hurt. He had been one of the last cuts a year ago from the FIBA World Cup national team. So when the topic came up again this summer -- Team USA will hold a mini-camp in Las Vegas Aug. 11-13 for players hoping to participate in the 2016 Olympics -- the Portland Trail Blazers' All-Star point guard didn't sound interested.

"I did it the last few summers, and last summer I didn't make it," Lillard said over the weekend on CBS Sports radio. "I don't know why I would go. After I got cut last summer, I don't think I'm a part of it."

Lillard has done well in his young career, to the tune of a $120 million contract extension signed this offseason, by turning perceived slights into motivation.

But Damien Wilkins and Mike Brown want to caution Lillard against turning some slight into a bigger regret.

"I don't know him at all," Wilkins said. "But if I were in his corner, that would be something I would advise him to not do or not even say. Because it's bigger than you."

Lillard is 25 years old, with all sorts of basketball possibilities headed his way. Wilkins is 35, a veteran of nine NBA seasons but two years removed from his last league appearance. Brown is 45, the twice-fired former head coach of the Cavaliers and the Lakers.

Wilkins and Brown just got done competing on behalf of the United States in the Pan American Games that ended over the weekend in Toronto. It's an off-year event from the Olympics and even the World Cup, and the U.S. team's showing -- taking the bronze medal with its victory Saturday over the Dominican Republic -- might have made it feel more low-wattage still.

Not a chance. The experience, the atmosphere, the satisfaction, everything about it was golden.

"I don't have a medal. At all," Wilkins told this week. "I know a lot of people who don't have one and probably never will have the opportunity to get one. For me, the color of it says third-place, but for me this is my gold medal."

In the immediate aftermath of the U.S. team's final game, after scoring 18 points with five rebounds to spark a second-half comeback, Wilkins told anyone who would listen that he didn't want to take off his red, white and blue uniform. Ever since the original Dream Team in 1992, most of those participating in the big international competitions have been NBA stars or future stars. Wilkins never got the chance before and was grateful -- after spending last season with the D League's Iowa Energy, sandwiched between stints with the Beijing Ducks (China) and Indios de Mayaguez (Puerto Rico) -- to finally be invited this time.

I'll never forget that moment or this experience. To be a part of something where you represent your country, represent USA basketball ... so many great players have worn those colors and that uniform, to put my name alongside theirs in those annals, it means something to me.

– Damien Wilkins

"I'll never forget that moment or this experience," Wilkins said. "To be a part of something where you represent your country, represent USA basketball ... so many great players have worn those colors and that uniform, to put my name alongside theirs in those annals, it means something to me."

Wilkins was the oldest player on the squad; Keith Langford (31), Ryan Hollins (30) and Bobby Brown (30) were the only others even close. Seven of their teammates ranged in age from 20 to 22. For someone who has played 578 NBA regular-season and playoff games, has earned upwards of $18 million in the game and comes from some basketball royalty -- his uncle is Hall of Famer Dominque Wilkins and his father, Gerald, spent 13 seasons with four teams -- the Pan Am event might not have moved Wilkins' needle.

But he was thrilled when agent Jim Tanner told him about the chance to play. Made the most of it, too.

"Having a guy like Damien was exactly what we needed," said Brown, one of two assistants on Gonzaga coach Mark Few's staff; Tad Boyle of Colorado was the other. "He was a natural leader for us from Day 1. On the court, in the locker room. He took the guys to dinner a couple of times. It just made our jobs easier as coaches. We didn't have to say a ton because he was preaching the same message in his own voice."

Having a few older players helped against opponents whose national teams had more continuity and maturity. "Brazil had been training for 60 days before they got to the tournament," Brown said. "You could see it: They had an older group and they've all been together for many years."

The U.S. squad beat Venezuela and Puerto Rico, lost to Brazil, then got beat in the medal semifinals by Canada. It trailed 48-35 at halftime against the Dominican Republic and eventually trailed by 21 before clawing back. The hasty practices and bonds built through four games in five days kicked in, with Team USA finally functioning as one.

"They played their best basketball in the first half and we couldn't play any worse," Wilkins said. "And we didn't give up. We had a bunch of guys who just refused to walk away from that tournament empty-handed."

For Brown, who has coached LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and (in 2009) the Eastern Conference All-Stars, the Pan Am games were his first shot at competing internationally. "Putting a team together, going after one common goal, not representing a city, not representing a state but representing every single citizen of the U.S.A.," he said. "That honor, it's unbelievable when you take the floor and listen to the national anthem. You get a different feeling when you have 'USA' across your chest compared to 'Cleveland' or 'Lakers.' It's hard to describe."

That's what Brown wanted to get across to Lillard, while respecting whatever views or feelings the Portland player has about USA Basketball after this summer. "I hope he does reconsider because he's a very talented player," the coach said. "Shoot, we've all been cut in some way, shape or form in our lives. That's part of the process. But he definitely could be an integral part of anything involving Team USA going forward."

A change in World Cup qualifying for the 2019 tournament, with some games to be played during the NBA season in November 2017, could mean more opportunities for players such as Wilkins, D Leaguers or other Americans playing abroad. But Wilkins has another, more immediate goal in mind.

He wants to be in an NBA training camp come October. It's the reason he played in the Des Moines last season, averaging 20.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg and 3.6 apg in 50 appearances for the Energy. It's what he was hoping for with the exposure of, and his performance in, the tournament in Toronto.

A lot of times, we want to do things -- either go in or go out -- on our own terms. You work so hard for so long for a goal you're trying to achieve, you just never want to give up on it when you know you can still be effective.

– Damien Wilkins

Brown said the other U.S. coaches -- Few and Boyle -- told Wilkins they'd welcome him onto their college staffs if either got an opening. "I know if I was coaching [in the NBA], at minimum, Damien would be invited to my vet camp," Brown said. "Not only can he still play, he's a locker-room guy who brings the right stuff to winning organizations."

Said Wilkins: "Now it's kind of a waiting game. I think I've done everything I can possibly do this year to prove that I can still help someone. Judging by what the Cleveland Cavaliers put out there on the floor against Golden State, I could do some of that, I know that."

Wilkins was teasing about that. But he understands how precarious such opportunities are. He saw his friend Keith Bogans, also age 35, gutting through another Summer League with Boston's entry earlier this month, hoping to earn one more look or at least change a few opinions late in the game.

"A lot of times, we want to do things -- either go in or go out -- on our own terms," Wilkins said. "You work so hard for so long for a goal you're trying to achieve, you just never want to give up on it when you know you can still be effective.

"You're trying to do what you can to prove that. You're trying to get as many eyes on you or get in front of as many people as you can. That's all a part of controlling what you can control. Now you can't control the decisions they make, but you can show how you've prepared and what you do when you get to play."

You can humble yourself. You can crave being a part of something special, at least one more time. You can win yourself a medal, which isn't a bronze or gold or silver medal so much as its your medal.