CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Virginia’s Isaiah Wilkins didn’t have to look in the mirror last March to know something was wrong. He’d been losing weight for more than a month, and he had trouble swallowing, but his mother’s shocked reaction confirmed how dire it had gotten.
When she saw him for the first time since the start of a seemingly never-ending, mysterious illness that robbed him of his energy down the stretch in his junior season for U.Va.’s men’s basketball team, she burst into tears. After all he’d seen her go through over the years, her sadness broke his heart.
“That’s when I knew it was bad,” said Wilkins on Wednesday at the ACC’s men’s basketball media day in Charlotte, N.C.
What started out in February as tonsillitis - a condition he mistook for strep throat - advanced over the course of four-to-six weeks into a condition with mononucleosis-like symptoms, accompanied by 30-to-35 pounds of weight loss. Doctors said he had walking pneumonia in the late stages of his ordeal.
He’d ultimately overcome his illness, which was likely exacerbated by sickle cell trait, but it would take until mid-summer for him to start regaining weight and begin the climb back to full health.
In his darkest moments, he wondered if he’d ever play again.
“I had no idea what was going on,” said Wilkins, a 6-foot-7, 227-pound forward from Lilburn, Ga. who despite his illness was named to the ACC’s All-Defensive team last season after leading U.Va. in rebounding (average of six per game), blocks (43) and steals (33).
“It just took forever. I just remember feeling so defeated, especially after the game where I played five minutes (against UNC-Wilmington in the first round of the NCAA tournament). …I felt like I had played three games in that five minutes.”
He started U.Va.’s first 27 games last season, averaging 29.8 minutes per contest. In U.Va.’s last seven games, he averaged just 14.3 minutes per game, and sat out the Cavaliers’ 65-39 loss to Florida in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
“It’s frustrating,” U.Va. guard Devon Hall said. “You see a guy like that, and he’s a warrior. The way he plays, you can get pretty much 100 percent out of him every time he plays. To be able to see him going through that, it’s rough, because he’ll do anything for his team. I know he wanted to be out there, but he just physically couldn’t.”
Wilkins, who averaged 6.8 points per game and shot 55.6 percent from the field, started feeling sick a little before U.Va.’s 70-55 road win Feb. 25 against North Carolina State that snapped the Cavaliers’ four-game losing streak.
About a week later, he was sitting in a class for his major, African-American Studies, and couldn’t speak up when he was asked a question. He walked into the class at 11 a.m., and broke down crying five minutes later.
“That’s when I saw (U.Va. men’s basketball team trainer) Ethan (Saliba),” said Wilkins, who ended up on steroids and antibiotics to combat his illness, while living on a diet of chocolate shakes and popsicles because he couldn’t swallow more substantial food. “I was like, ‘Yo, somebody please - I don’t know what to do.’”
As scary as Wilkins’ illness was initially, U.Va. coach Tony Bennett quickly learned to accept his defensive catalyst’s limitations. There was nothing Bennett or anybody else could do to speed up Wilkins’ healing process.
“It was a little troubling at first, but then when we said this is mono-like, I just basically resigned to the fact of what mono is,” Bennett said. “The doctor kind of said it may not test that way, but if it shows up that way (like mono), it’s going to be the same process of this major fatigue, because he has the sickle cell trait. .All those things add to it. He’ll go hard, and all of a sudden, you’ll look at him and he’ll just look like, ‘Whew, we’ve got to get him out,’ because of those things.
“It hurt, because he was our spiritual leader, our defensive leader from that standpoint, and did a lot of little things offensively, so that was a big blow.”
As far as the sickle cell trait is concerned, Wilkins didn’t find out he had it until his freshman season, when he was diagnosed after passing out during a U.Va. team workout. Sickle cell trait isn’t the same as the more severe sickle-cell disease, but the sickle cell trait is a genetic condition that can result in muscle pain when exercising intensely or getting overheated.
“I think it’s a factor in everything,” said Wilkins, adding he now takes vitamins and fish oil pills, and makes sure he stays hydrated, eats well and habitually washes his hands to try to stay healthy. “I’ve just got to be careful with what I’m doing, and they’re monitoring me. They do a great job.”
Wilkins, who is the stepson of NBA Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins, credits the support of his mother, Robin Wilkins, and his siblings for helping him stay motivated. Life has been challenging for his mother over the last decade, according to Isaiah Wilkins.
He’s the oldest of six children, including an 8-year-old sister, Jolie Wilkins, who was born with spina bifida, a condition that features incomplete closing of the backbone and membranes around the spinal cord, resulting in leg weakness, paralysis and orthopedic abnormalities among other symptoms. Isaiah Wilkins said she’s had seven or eight surgeries to try to better manage her condition, and she gets around with the aid of a wheelchair.
“It doesn’t slow her down,” Isaiah Wilkins said. “My brother (Jacob Wilkins) is a year older. Just because she crawls everywhere, she’s so much stronger than he is, so when they wrestle she wins every time. He can’t stand it.”
His youngest sister’s physical limitations took a mental and physical toll on their mom, according to Isaiah Wilkins. He said their mom became depressed and started to abuse painkillers over the course of three or four years, resulting in a stint in a rehabilitation center when Isaiah Wilkins was a freshman in high school.
“I carried a lot of that with me,” said Isaiah Wilkins, who added he’s also dealt with depression. “I feel like I had to grow up pretty fast, just like a lot of other kids, but there’s two little kids (Jolie and Jacob Wilkins) now that I’m watching, because Dominique travels with the Hawks and whatnot. I took a lot of that with me and I internalized a lot of it, and now I’m still dealing with some of it. That’s fine. I go to therapy and stuff like that. I appreciate it so much. It just makes you really appreciate a lot.
“(Robin Wilkins is) healthy now. She’s sober now. I love her so much. I’m so proud of her, but I want to use those experiences to show it’s ok to be vulnerable and be in a bad place and crawl your way out. It’s tough, but I feel if I’m out here saying, ‘I go through this, I’ve been depressed, I’ve been in these spots,’ then maybe somebody else can find strength from it, too.”
Isaiah Wilkins said he spends as many Fridays as possible at Burnley-Moran Elementary School in Charlottesville, hanging out with a group of about six fourth-grade boys and talking about whatever is on their minds. It’s his way of helping young people get through tough times like he had to struggle with as a kid.
Now, as he prepares for a season with question marks surrounding all the inexperienced, but promising, young players like redshirt freshman guard De’Andre Hunter and redshirt freshman forward Jay Huff that U.Va. will try to blend with veterans like Hall, center Jack Salt, guards Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome and graduate transfer guard Nigel Johnson (from Rutgers), there’s a new sense of enthusiasm radiating from Isaiah Wilkins. Given what he’s been through, he can’t help it.
“I think I appreciate basketball a lot more,” Isaiah Wilkins said. “It’s like when you get sick, and your nose gets stopped up and you can’t breathe, you really appreciate breathing. I really appreciate living a lot more now than before I got sick.”
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