It was the type of scream that you’d hear during an NBA playoff game – as if his team had been down three in the waning moments and an and-one gave him the opportunity to tie it.
The second primal howl was longer, hitting a deeper pitch. The third and fourth were quick yips that pierced the air.
Damien Wilkins was following his afternoon practice with a dip in the ice bath.
“I have to spend a couple minutes getting used to it,” Wilkins says. “Pardon my scream. We’re used to it around here though.”
At 37, Wilkins, a 6’6” wing for the Greensboro Swarm, is the oldest player in the NBA D-League. The ice baths may just be the fountain of youth for the North Carolina native who, going into the final stretch of the season, is averaging 13.9 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.6 assists a game.
In his second D-League tour since 2014, Wilkins is making a run at another – and quite possibly final – shot in the NBA. From 2004-13 he bounced between the Sonics, Timberwolves, Pistons and 76ers after going undrafted from the University of Georgia. In addition to the D-League, Wilkins has played abroad in China, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.
PopGates recently caught up with Wilkins, fresh out of the ice bath:
Noah Perkins: As the oldest guy in the D-League you are an interesting story: Nearly a decade of NBA experience; out of the league since 2013. I think most guys in your position would have gone the overseas route, why is the pursuit of the NBA more appealing to you at this point in your career than going overseas?
Damien Wilkins: Mainly because I know what I want. Most guys in my position, like you said, probably would go the overseas route – go get the money, a great life and all those good things – and be afraid to take the risk that I’m taking. For me, it’s not anything that I’m not used to. I mean, I’ve gone undrafted, had to make the team, had to make teams after that. All the odds were against me then, what’s so different about this?
Noah Perkins: Piggybacking off you going undrafted, talk to me about the challenge of sticking around the league for a decade?
Damien Wilkins: It’s tough for a lot of people to stick in the NBA whether you are drafted or undrafted – it’s a tough job. It’s about the process; you got to respect and you got to embrace the process. It’s an everyday thing. You have to be an everyday guy – you have to be in the gym, you have to be working on your game; you got to be taking care of your body. You can’t do it half way and expect to have longevity in the NBA. It’s the best basketball players in the world competing against you every day. You can’t take anything for granted, that’s the biggest thing.
It’s still basketball: Wake up, come to work with some enthusiasm, encouraged that today will be a great day. That’s my attitude. It’s the easiest job in the world. We get paid to do what we love doing, travel the world – for ball.
Noah Perkins: Do you have any regrets, is there anything you wish you had done differently, looking back at your career?
Damien Wilkins: Absolutely not. My career has gone the way it was supposed to go. I’d like to think I did everything I could do to put myself in position to be successful. Even here [in the D-League], people might say if I don’t get a call up to the NBA, do I regret being here? Absolutely not, because I forged some great relationships, I’ve done some things that I want to work on in my post playing career, that I may not have had the opportunity to do if I went over to Europe. And, you know, I did it my way. I have two little boys, I tell them all the time “don’t be afraid to chase your dreams,” you know, most of the time everyone else is afraid.
That’s why they’re encouraged to take the easy route, or chase the money so to speak. I’m not afraid. Even at this point in the season, I’m still encouraged that something is going to happen. It’s just a matter of me embracing and respecting the process – coming in here every day and getting better, and doing anything I can to help these young guys. Those are the only things I can control.
Noah Perkins: How much longer do you see yourself playing?
Damien Wilkins: I haven’t thought much about that. I don’t know, will see. I can keep up with 19 and 20-year-olds right now.
Noah Perkins: How has your body changed from year one in the league to now, and have you had to do anything to adapt your game?
Damien Wilkins: I’m in better shape. I’ve learned a lot of things and I spend a lot of hours on taking care of my body. I eat right, I try to stay hydrated, I try to get proper rest, I’m in the weight room every day, the ice bath every day. I spend a great deal of time taking care of my body, making sure I am physically able to perform at a high level and that my body feels good. I don’t feel 37. Most folks say I don’t look 37.
As far as my game goes – the game is so much slower to me than it is for all these guys. I can use those (NBA) experiences to my advantage.
Noah Perkins: What have you learned about life or people from basketball?
Damien Wilkins: The biggest lesson I take from life and basketball is perseverance. Life happens, people have to persevere through a lot of things – people that don’t play basketball and aren’t professional athletes. Those same things happen with basketball. Lot of things with basketball happen that you can’t control. There are going to be peaks and valleys. The people with the thickest skin and tough as nails attitude, who know how to persevere, those are the people who make it — who keep climbing. Those are the people that no matter the circumstance or what the naysayers say, are there at the end. That’s how you should approach life. At the end of the day you can complain about it or you can roll your sleeves up and do something about it.
Noah Perkins: The Sonics were my team growing up, so, I have to ask about your time in Seattle. What was the experience like, and how was it to be on the team the final year in Seattle with leaving the city as the backdrop to that season (07-08)?
Damien Wilkins: Seattle is probably my favorite experience as far as the NBA goes. Fans there are amazing; the food there is amazing; the city is amazing. It was a great place to play basketball. I can’t say enough about my time in Seattle – obviously, it was my first team. That being said, it will always hold a special place in my heart.
The season that we were leaving Seattle was sad. We knew the end was coming. It was tough for the fans, it was tough for us to play because we were distracted by everything – daily we were asked questions about it. I can imagine it was like a dark cloud hovering over the entire city, not just us. It’s unfortunate that the team is gone, but, I’m encouraged that a team will be back – that city needs a basketball team.
Noah Perkins: What was it like playing with rookie Kevin Durant and then rookie Russell Westbrook?
Damien Wilkins: It was fun. We had a lot of growing pains obviously. Those guys were trying to figure themselves out – what type of pros they were going to be. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to play with and to get to know them. I’m certainly excited about the success they have both had since then.