On Saturday night, with Bojan Bogdonavic battling an ankle injury, Indiana Pacers head coach Nate McMillan decided to start 37-year-old Damien Wilkins in his place. Wilkins scored 11 points in 22 minutes in a blowout win over the Chicago Bulls, all in front of a big Fieldhouse crowd.
On Sunday, the Pacers waived Wilkins.
There were several players on Sunday morning and afternoon that waited to find out whether their contracts would be picked up for the rest of the season, including guys like Jarrett Jack, David Nwaba and T.J. McConnell. Most of them got the good news they were hoping for, but according to Mark Montieth, Wilkins knew what was coming hours before Saturday’s game. In other words, he understood exactly why he was being given the start and did what he could to make the most of it.
While players get waived in the NBA all the time, Wilkins’ situation feels more tragic than most. After having spent four years away from the NBA, he clawed his way back onto an NBA roster. To see that end, to have the fifth-oldest player in the league no longer in the league, is a bit of a bummer.
That isn’t to say Wilkins hasn’t loved every minute of the comeback. While trouncing through China, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and a couple of G-League teams to keep his game fresh, Wilkins wasn’t always sure he’d find his way back to the league.
“The fact that you might not play in the NBA again, it hits you. It does,” Wilkins told Basketball Insiders. “You fall away from the game, and you have so many people telling you that you’re stupid for chasing it. People kept telling me to go to Europe and make money over there, but sometimes you’ve just got things you want to do with your life. You know that you can accomplish it, and I never gave up. I still haven’t given up, and I was rewarded for it. I’ve had a great opportunity in Indiana, and I really feel like I’ve made the most of it.”
Very likely, this marks the end of Wilkins’ NBA career, but anybody could have written that sentence and meant it at any time over the course of the last eight years. In his previous three years in the NBA, which ended in April of 2013, Wilkins signed one-year, veterans’ minimum deals with Atlanta, then Detroit and then Philadelphia. His future in the league was up in the air back then as well, which is what made his return this year so fascinating.
In 2015, Wilkins got a camp invite from the Charlotte Hornets when the team lost Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for the season due to injury. Wilkins had a few solid preseason games but ultimately was cut before the regular season. That would have spelled the end for most guys, but not him.
“It was disappointing to fall short, but I didn’t feel like that was my last opportunity to get back into the league. Honestly, I saw that as I was close,” he said. “Getting right there and getting cut, that meant I was close to making it back because someone believed in me and gave me a shot.”
Not making that team meant a spell in the G-League, which was something Wilkins admits also helped him a great deal.
“It is motivating to be around the younger kids in the G-League because they just want it so bad. They want to be good more than anything, at this level especially, and they fight every day to do that. It gave me a lot of motivation to be around those types of attitudes,” Wilkins said. “Honestly it gave me a great opportunity to tutor and mentor and do what I could do to help those guys get there. That was a big part of it for me because the game had given so much to me. I wanted to give something back to those kids.”
This past offseason, McMillan helped get Wilkins this surprising opportunity. McMillan was Wilkins’ head coach his rookie season in Seattle, and this young Pacers team needed some extra veteran leadership in the locker room. It wasn’t the likeliest of fits, but it’s one for which Wilkins will eternally be grateful.
“I can’t put it into words,” Wilkins said. “This has been… I can’t put it into words, honestly. The last four years, hearing the words, ‘You’ve made this roster” are the words that I had been looking for. Tomorrow if it all goes away, I’m proud of myself because I did the impossible. There are plenty of people who still can’t believe it. And it’s one thing to just be here, but it’s something else entirely to get the opportunity to be out there and still produce. Make open shots, to get the nod to start. That shows me that my belief in myself, all that work I did, it was all worth it.”
And, however unlikely it may be that he finds another roster spot, he doesn’t sound like he’s done putting in that work.
“Maybe this is my last opportunity here in Indiana. Maybe there will be another one. I don’t know, but until it’s over and I decide to transition into the next part of my life, I’m just going to keep fighting.”
For now, though, it’s enough that he made it this far. Wilkins’ 38th birthday is on Thursday. He’ll have more than enough to celebrate this year.
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