It was November 28, 2013, thanksgiving in America and NBA veteran Damien Wilkins was at his mother’s house in North Carolina.
“I remember we just finished eating thanksgiving dinner. I got a call from my agent asking me if I want to play in China. I asked my mom what she thought of it. She said, ‘it’s better than staying at home’.”
Wilkins signed his first NBA contract on Nov. 3rd, 2004 with the Seattle Supersonics. He would play nine seasons in the NBA with five different teams.
On thanksgiving night of 2013, Wilkins signed his first CBA (Chinese Basketball Association) with the Beijing Ducks. A 62-day contract as temporary replacement for injured superstar Stephon Marbury.
For Wilkins, it was his first trip to China. Marbury and Wilkins were in active discussions prior to Wilkins’ long flight from Atlanta to Beijing.
“Steph (Marbury) was great in explaining the lay of the land before I got here. He helped me ease my mind by answering a bunch of questions I had about China,” says Wilkins.
In the eyes of Beijing Ducks fans Wilkins was coming to China to replace the irreplaceable Stephon Marbury.
When you talk about basketball in Beijing, Marbury is the first name that comes up in conversation. Marbury won the heart of the Beijing fans during the 2011-2012 CBA season when the Beijing Ducks led by Marbury won the CBA championship.
Wilkins knew he had some big ‘Starbury shoes’ to fill.
“At first thought, I was skeptical about that because I wanted people to know I am Damien Wilkins and not Stephon Marbury. Obviously I knew Steph did a lot of great things here but I don’t know how to be anyone but me. I was hoping that would be good enough,” says Wilkins.
Wilkins knew little of China and China knew little of him.
His first stop was Hong Kong as he awaited his visa to get into China.
“I was in Hong Kong for like two days. They just dropped me off at a hotel in Hong Kong and they were like ‘wait here’. Through that time, Steph was emailing me and letting me know what was going on. But Hong Kong was a cool place,” says Wilkins.
From a relaxing time in Hong Kong to a tight schedule in Beijing, pleasure quickly turned into business.
“The first day I got to Beijing I got here at 9 p.m., I went to my new apartment, unpacked and then packed again because we were leaving for a three game road trip the next day,” says Wilkins.
Not quite over the jet lag and was still trying to figure out the ins and outs of a new culture Wilkins found comfort in finally being able to do what he knew how to do best, play basketball.
“That first road trip was strange. It was my first ‘wow, I’m in China’ moment. I’m travelling and seeing things that don’t look familiar at all. At that moment, it hit me, I realized I’m a foreigner here,” says Wilkins.
For foreign players in foreign countries, the one place where they can find a common base with the local culture is on the basketball court.
“We went through shootaround and that was pretty much routine. When we got to the arena it was packed with fans. I’ve had all types of butterflies and it’s my first game so I know people are watching and the team wants to see what I can do,” says Wilkins.
The Ducks ended up winning that game beating the Liaoning Flying Leopards 106-99. After the game, Wilkins told his foreign teammate Randolph Morris how happy he was to get that first game out of the way. He finished the game with 10-points and two rebounds.
“I was so amped to play but at the same time I didn’t want to rush my game. I was more worried about getting the win than scoring 30 points,” said Wilkins.
The Ducks would finish the three game road trip with two victories. It was time for Wilkins to come back to Beijing and make his home debut.
The first time I met Damien Wilkins was on Dec. 20th, 2013 at Shougang Arena in Beijing, China.
It was precisely 5:05 p.m., no fans were in the arena, no players were on the floor except for Wilkins. He was out hours before the 7:30 p.m. tip-off going through a shooting warm-up that he learned during his Seattle Supersonics days from one of the greatest shooter of all-time Ray Allen.
“Ray used to tell me all of the time to just stay consistent. Stay consistent with your form. Start close to get a good feel. Once you are comfortable with your form then move back,” says Wilkins.
Ray Allen remains a massive influence on Wilkins’ career.
“I was very lucky to go into a situation with such a professional, professional basketball person like Ray during my rookie year. From watching his preparation and his approach to transitioning it to here in Beijing, he’s had a huge influence on my career,” says Wilkins.
Wilkins’ work ethic didn’t start in Seattle, it started at a young age following in the footsteps of his father Gerald Wilkins who is a retired 13-year NBA veteran.
“When I was living with my dad I went to maybe eight NBA games in total. I always liked to go with my dad to practice. I always liked to go see the preparation opposed to what was happening in the actual games. I wanted to see what was going on behind the scenes. My question was always ‘what is making these guys so good?’,” says Wilkins.
As fans started entering the arena to locate their seats, the first thing they saw was Wilkins swishing jumper after jumper. That work ethic was all the Beijing basketball fans needed to see to give Wilkins the chance he deserved.
Wilkins quickly found a role on the team by providing shutdown defense on the opposing team’s top scorer on a nightly basis.
“My first NBA coach Nate McMillan told me the only way I would ever see the floor is by playing defense. It’s been cemented into me ever since,” says Wilkins.
Through his hard work and his ‘never take a possession off” attitude, Wilkins became a fan favourite in Beijing. He earned the Chinese nickname ‘Damin’ which translates to ‘Big Citizen’. Wilkins would actively communicate with his fans via the very popular Chinese social network Weibo.
On Friday, Jan. 10, 2014 the Beijing Ducks took on former NBA big man Chris Johnson and the Zhejiang Guangsha Lions in Beijing. It was a special game for Wilkins. Not only because he went 8-13 from the floor and finished with 23-points to lead his team to a win. But it was special because it was his birthday.
The birthday boy got a standing ovation after the game and received a special gift from Stephon Marbury and his teammates.
“The fans gravitate to basketball here; it’s great. I’m having so much fun out here. I could never play the game without having fun. Everyday you work hard to make the game fun. I tell my son that all the time, ‘play hard and have fun’, says Wilkins.
He just made special plays that would change the momentum of the game. He would sky over everybody for a rebound and push the ball the length of the floor for an and-1. Wilkins often said he likes rewarding Beijing fans by going out and playing extra hard for them.
The Ducks won 9 of 13 games with Wilkins in the lineup holding on to third place in the CBA standings.
On Jan. 26, 2013, Wilkins was playing in his final game for the Ducks as Marbury announced his date of return for after the Chinese spring festival.
Before the game, Wilkins was out doing his regular shooting routine but there was a different vibe to the game.
“Man this music is going to put me to sleep,” says Wilkins after hearing the song ‘Stay’ by Rihanna being played for the fourth time over the loud arena speakers.
All cameras were on the 6’7 point-forward out of the University of Georgia. It was a touching farewell for a player who touched the hearts of so many Beijing basketball fans.
“I couldn’t really sleep last night because I was so hyped. I don’t want to make the mistake of wanting to play well so bad and not play well at all. I’m just trying to get some energy out right now during warm ups,” says Wilkins.
In pure Wilkins fashion, he showed his appreciation to the team, the city of Beijing and the entire CBA by displaying a monster performance. The Ducks started off down by 20-points.
Wilkins checks into the game with one goal in mind; attack. In doing so, he sparked a Beijing run and they would never look back.
He finished the game with 32 points and six rebounds guiding the Ducks to a 122-111 win.
The post-game ceremony was as emotional as anyone could have imagined. The entire arena was on their feet honouring Wilkins with a standing ovation while chanting “Damin! Damin!”. Media surrounded him to get one last shot of the ‘Big Citizen’.
After the game Wilkins said, “The fans here have been great from day one. The welcoming party is out in full effect in Beijing. It’s hard to leave all of this but I am optimistic that there is an NBA roster that could benefit from Damien Wilkins.
Wilkins didn’t know what to pack when he was first coming to China but when he was going back to America, he had too much to bring. Not only is he brining back gifts and souvenirs from his coaches, teammates and fans but most importantly he’s bringing back memories from Beijing that will last a lifetime.