After four years away, Damien Wilkins finds way back to NBA

At age 37, Indiana Pacers use veteran to provide leadership figure on and off court

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Damien Wilkins is so old — How old is he? — the team for which he first played is out of the league before he is. (We’re talking about Seattle, not Rochester or Fort Wayne.)

Of the 21 other players who participated in Wilkins’ first NBA game on Nov. 3, 2004, 19 of them are retired or otherwise inactive. Shaun Livingston and Nick Collison also made their pro debuts that night, the former as a 19-year-old freshman out of Peoria Central, the latter as a 2003 first-round pick who lost his initial season to shoulder injuries.

Wilkins? He had gone undrafted out of Georgia in 2004, only landing a contract after a strong Summer League showing. He was two months shy of his 25th birthday when he scored three points with four rebounds in 10 minutes off the Sonics’ bench that night in L.A.

John Kerry’s Presidential bid had ended 48 hours earlier. Jamie Foxx’s “Ray” and the horror flick “Saw” would dominate theater box offices that weekend. And Wilkins’ role then in his highly competitive business was the same as it is now as the old guy off the Indiana Pacers’ bench.

“It’s easier now, just knowing I’ve got to be ready,” Wilkins said after a recent game in Chicago. “For the most part, that’s been my whole career: I’ve always had to be ready. Had to work as hard as I could to make a team my rookie year, and that story has been the same throughout my career.

“I wouldn’t change it if I could.”

That is a little hard to believe, given this man’s heritage and underpinnings in the NBA. He is the son, after all, of Gerald Wilkins, 54, who played 13 seasons and 900 games mostly for the Knicks, Cavaliers and Magic in the 1980s and ‘90s. And he is the nephew of Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins, a nine-time All-Star who ranks 13th in NBA/ABA scoring average (24.8) and 15th all-time in points.

Both older Wilkins played their final NBA games as teammates in Orlando in 1999, Gerald at age 35, Dominique at age 39. So longevity has been on Damien’s side. So, at new-millennium pay rates, have earnings – Damien will top an estimated $20 million if he sticks all season, right between his pop’s $15.8 million and Uncle ‘Nique’s $22.6 million.

But Damien’s trek through the league has been more humble and more trying. His elders were known as scorers; he never has averaged double figures or started more than 31 games in a season. And while they had detours in their careers – Gerald missed the 1994-95 season with injuries, Dominique spent a season each in Greece and Italy near the end – neither had to navigate anything approaching the four-year hiatus from which Damien only recently returned.

After the offer-sheet deal Wilkins signed with Minnesota (and matched by the Sonics/Thunder) as a restricted free agent in 2005 ended in 2010, he bounced through three teams – Atlanta, Detroit, Philadelphia – in as many seasons on veterans’ minimum deals. He played his last game with the Sixers in April 2013.

By December of that year, he was a member of the Beijing Ducks. Five months later, he wrapped up that basketball season playing for the Indios de Mayaguez team in Puerto Rico. Wilkins spent the 2014-15 regular season with the Iowa Energy of the NBA development league before again joining the Indios for their playoffs.

That summer, he was the old head on a U.S. team that earned a bronze medal at the Pan American Games in Toronto (“The color of it says third-place, but for me this is my gold medal,” he said soon afterward). Then it was on to Venezuela to play for the Guaros de Lara, followed by another season in the now-G League with Greensboro, followed by a playoff tour back in Puerto Rico with the Brujos de Guayama.

All of which got Wilkins back to the NBA with Indiana, where his latest coach, Nate McMillan, happens also to have been his first coach so long ago in Seattle. With a young team, a roster spot in flux due to Glenn Robinson III’s left ankle surgery and a locker room in need of some wisdom, McMillan and Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard looked to Wilkins.

Better to have a veteran who can share some advice while knowing how to stay in shape on the side, they figured, than yet another young player who might not develop or stay sharp without reliable minutes in games. Wilkins has appeared in nine games, averaging just 6.6 minutes, while scoring 10 points on 12 shots.

Now when he enters an arena or shows up courtside, rival players or other employees occasionally shoot him a “where have you been?” look, consider the time that passed while Wilkins worked the basketball back waters.

“I have a deep appreciation just for ice bags being made. … I try to tell all these young guys, ‘Don’t take this for granted. Things could be a lot worse.’ ”

Indiana Pacers veteran Damien Wilkins

“Guys are mostly just happy in following my story and following my career and the path I’ve had to take,” Wilkins said. “So many guys might have just given up if they had been in my shoes. But I saw value – I thought I could help a team – so I stayed at it. I’m fortunate to be here now and I’m taking full advantage of it.”

Wilkins will turn 38 on Jan. 11, which makes him the fifth oldest player in the NBA behind Vince Carter, Manu Ginobili, Jason Terry (all already 40) and Dirk Nowitzki, who will turn 40 in June. While it doesn’t necessarily qualify as a trend, there has been a graying of the league around the temples, with 16 active players who are or by Feb. 1 will turn 36.

Five years ago, there were 17 such players. Ten years ago, 15 of them. But 25 years ago, only seven players were or were on the verge of age 36 and there were no active 40-year-olds. When we saw them at all, they were generally proven centers like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Robert Parish or Kevin Willis who basically ran in straight lines from rim to rim to conserve energy.

Training techniques, medical care and mega-salaries all enable or incentivize players to stick around longer. And for a role player like Wilkins, there may be another factor.

“Mostly I think it’s guys being good guys,” Wilkins said. “Nowadays a lot of these teams have ‘veterans’ who are 23 years old. Our veterans were 33, 34, 35. Guys who’ve been around a while can have a positive influence on a locker room and get guys’ attention, y’know, that sometimes coaches can’t.

“It’s invaluable. I’m grateful the Pacers have given me the opportunity to be that voice.”

Wilkins is impressed by Victor Oladipo’s play so far for Indiana, excited to watch Domantas Sabonis’ continued development and eager to share what he can with young big Myles Turner and the rest.

Asked about the changes he has noticed on and off the court, Wilkins said: “On the court, I would say that the league has gotten smaller. It’s gotten faster and gone smaller, a lot of position-less basketball. Bigs are now ‘twos’ and ‘threes.’

“Off the court, it’s hard to tell. I still do the same things off the court that I did the last time I was here. Go to practice. Go home. Go back to the gym at night. Go home. On the road, I might be in my hotel room with my movies.”

Back in 2004, “social media” was email and the telephone. And now …

“Social media is crazy now. Every move is clocked,” Wilkins said. “There’s no real private life anymore. Most guys when I was first coming in, they wanted to keep their business to themselves. It’s just a sign, time’s changing.”

Wilkins, like so many, values more now the life he’s had in basketball than he did as a younger man. Growing up in the game, it’s understandable that he might have just assumed some aspects of it. That isn’t the case now, as he savors the games, practices and trips he has left.

“I don’t take it for granted at all, man,” he said. “I have a deep appreciation for it. I have a deep appreciation just for ice bags being made.

“It’s funny, you get away from it, you don’t realize how good you had it when you were here. I try to tell all these young guys, ‘Don’t take this for granted. Things could be a lot worse.’ ”

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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