By Ray Bala #55
Most basketball players will likely share the same aspiration: to make it to the NBA. But what about after you made it, played a few seasons worn jerseys of a few different teams and even earned a contract or two, but found yourself out again?
Even with a proven track record, some vets have to start back at the beginning of their basketball journey and prove themselves all over again. One of the paths to that goal runs through the D-League. This hoops minor league is a place where players of all kinds look to make their dreams of making it onto an NBA roster come true, but not all dreams are the same. While there are many that are looking to make their way up, there are some looking to make their way back. These players, with their NBA experience ranging from multiple 10-day contracts to multiple contract extensions, have opted to take the road of arriving the morning of game days, commuter plane seats, small arenas and a less than lavish paycheck to be a call away from filling a roster spot on short notice, which hopefully leads to a permanent gig. We got a chance to catch up with two of these vets vying for the same thing that every other player in the D-League is: just one shot, in their case, just one more shot. Two of these veteran players this past year were Ben Gordon and Damien Wilkins. Both are looking to show the decision-makers that they can still play at the highest level.
Gordon and Wilkins are coming from different places in their former NBA careers and they seem about as opposite as there routes to the D-League. Gordon was a near All-Star a few times who topped 20-PPG twice during an 11-year NBA run where he averaged 14.9 PPG. Wilkins, the son of former NBA player Gerald Wilkins, was a solid player that was always an asset off the bench. Wilkins has 563 NBA games under his belt in his nine seasons that saw stops in Seattle (which moved to Oklahoma City), Minnesota, Atlanta, Detroit and Philly. Gordon has 744 games to his credit with stops in Chicago, Detroit, Charlotte and Orlando. In fact, they likely have faced off against each other in games before with one going at the other on either side of the ball. Both have had moments in the League and they have had multiple contracts negotiated. This season they found themselves in similar situations.
Long Road Back
Gordon and Wilkins are like prodigal sons in a way. They have been away from the League for some time and are looking for their ways back. Both had options to play overseas this year for decent sums, but they had refused. Both players opted to stay close to a potential NBA call-up by playing in the D-League. Wilkins started the season with the Greensboro (North Carolina) Swarm citing being closer to his family as a deciding factor for staying Stateside. Gordon signed with the Texas Legends in early January. Both were very productive for their teams—Wilkins averaged 14.9 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1 steal in 31.5 minutes in 38 games while Gordon averaged 15.2 points, 2.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1 steal in 29.5 minutes in 25 games. Both their teams failed to make the D-League playoffs, but they both showed that they were still able to be effective. But at 34 (Gordon) and 37 (Wilkins) with another year removed from the NBA, their windows are just about shut.
For Wilkins, he knows his career is not at the beginning. He’s a realist. But he also knows he’s got lots still in the tank to help an NBA team.
“I knew coming in it was going to be a daunting task,” he says. “I also knew I had what it takes. I know my body was good enough and I know, most importantly, I can play and contribute to an NBA team.”
Wilkins was a valuable asset on every team he’s been on. While his career numbers are modest, the swingman has always played a role on the five teams he’s played on. He’s never been a superstar, but he was always the guy that could anchor a second unit, make some starts and play some defense. That’s what kept him on rosters and he’s banking that this is the player that top brass will still see in him now.
Gordon on the other hand is in a different situation. The former 2005-06 NBA Sixth Man of the Year was a borderline star at his peak. His career numbers of 11,084 points, 1,851 rebounds, 1,868 assists, 508 steals has showed himself to be one of the best scoring guards in the League, twice averaging 20-plus points in a season. At his peak, Gordon was known for his instant offense, a killer mentality along with a winning pedigree and he’s looking to show that he’s still able to carry a team like he has in the past.
So now both looked to show that against players, some of who may be over 10 years younger then they are, that they could keep up and excel.
When it comes to the game itself both for both guys, Gordon says it best: ‘The talent pool may be different but at the end of the day it’s still basketball.” There is nothing really different for them. The players may be younger, some may be quicker and stronger, some may even be as hungry as they both are to get back to the League, but it’s still the same game. In fact, the vets say that it’s actually a little easier playing in the D-League because of their NBA experience.
“The game is slower now,” explains Wilkins. “When I was younger, the game was moving 100 mph and I see that now with these guys here. I see things before they happen. I can play at my own pace and still be effective. I don’t have to be super quick or super fast because I’ve seen [these instances] before, over and over again.”
The years of seeing the same plays develop with the best basketball players in the world over the course of their careers gives both of them that edge, almost to the point of being psychic. It’s like they’re seeing the future unfold before in their mind and they can react and adjust before they physically have to.
Gordon feels the same way reiterating Wilkins’ point. This experience gives them the advantage over the wide-eyed young guns that are playing off more unrefined ability or talent at this level. For the vets, it’s about getting back into rhythm and reacquiring that feel for the game against active bodies.
With their experience as pros both Wilkins and Gordon are acutely aware of what they needed to do to prepare for their respective tours of duty. Both have been professionals long enough that they are already in good physical condition but it has always begun before the season starts.
Wilkins admits to maintaining a strict diet that limits the foods he takes in (no red meats, fried foods or anything overly sugary) while also maintain a regular amount of fresher options (lots of fruits, vegetables and fish) and continually being hydrated (upwards of two gallons of water). Some of the foods many enjoy regularly, which Wilkins may like also, are largely off of his palate now after years of refining his eating habits, which he says was a necessary sacrifice to help maintain his playing longevity.
The other key that both have stated is altering how they work. With age factoring more into how they treat their bodies Wilkins says is best that now preparation has become more about working effectively and smarter as they have gotten older. Much like being efficient when performing in-game movements, that principle of efficiency is what governs how they work out now. They may not be in the gym working out everyday for hours on end, but go fewer days with specific objectives and work targets in mind. This, Wilkins states, allows the body to rest and repair while the preparation is still maintained at the most effective level for them. At this point in their careers muscle memory is ingrained for certain movements like their jump shots or dribble moves and it’s about maintaining that active physical ability. Staying in optimum playing shape now imperative for them more so.
When it comes to playing on a team full of guys that harbor dreams of getting to where you once were, it’s been a surreal contrast for Gordon and Wilkins. Their teammates, who may remember watching them on a screen not long ago, are a mix of competitor, colleague and eager student. They are all looking to get that call-up and maybe an NBA contract just the same as the vets are. But this dichotomy doesn’t mean that they don’t share some of the knowledge they have acquired to those who inquire.
“Me being the older guy, I try to answer questions to the best of my knowledge. I try to give them tips when we’re on the court and make suggestions when I see things,” says Gordon. “I think that’s a part of the game I appreciate, the ability to share my knowledge and experiences.”
They are the elder statesmen in a game of increasingly younger men. They’re in a position to pass on trade secrets to another generation of players, similar how some vet may have pulled them aside and passed it along to them when they started out on their journeys. This is what they expect of themselves as guys that have been to the big show. It’s edifying in a way—the younger guys look up to you for help in their journey to the top of the mountain because you’ve been there. It may give them some comfort considering both vets are essentially auditioning during every game they play like everyone else. There are no guarantees here and the only control players have on their own stories starts and ends on the floor.
“The only thing you can control is how hard you play every night. That’s it,” says Wilkins. “You can’t control what happens next. You’re happy for the guy that gets the call. You accept it and you come to work encouraged. Every day is a new opportunity.”
As of now, the seasons for these respective warriors have come to an end. Both the Legends and the first-year Swarm finished out of the D-League playoffs. Neither Gordon nor Wilkins received a call-up. They both ended their years where they started. But there is always hope and a pending opportunity from work put in.
“Everything is a stepping stone,” says Gordon. “I want to continue playing. I still have plenty of basketball to play. I’m on a mission to improve and enjoy the game. This is what I do for a living.”
There’s no bitterness in their positions in the D-League and how they ended. There can’t be. Everyone is chasing a dream down here. In spite of some minor tweaks in how they got their respective teams the dream is largely the same. The dream is still alive and the passion still burns inside both seasoned vets, maybe more so than the rookies, to play in the NBA because they’ve experienced what’s over the fence. They know the grass is greener there. It’s what fuels them. It’s what brought them to the D-League this year. Looking at the start of the season and where it ended Wilkins summed it up as best as anyone can:
“It was a dream of mine to get to the NBA and I accomplished that. Now it’s a dream of mine to make the NBA again and I’m looking to accomplish that. Even if it doesn’t happen again this is how I wanted it. I went out on my terms. This is a dream I wanted to chase.”
Amen baller. Here’s to the chase.