Why We Watch: Chris Wilcox, The Long and Winding Road

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I remember the first time I saw Chris Wilcox on TV. He was in college, at Maryland, and had just intercepted a pass near half-court from an unsuspecting opponent. I remember him dribbling down the court with his impossibly long strides as his arms and legs moved with savage ferocity. I remember him taking off from what seemed an absurd distance and dunking the ball with an ease that belied his colossal build.

As a young phenom at Maryland—he was among the cavalcade of uber-athletic big men who began coming out of American high schools in the mid-to-late 1990s—Wilcox was long-limbed, limber and impossibly agile for his 6' 10" frame. The type of player that could bend basketball games through his sheer athletic will, leaving smaller, less gifted opponents cowering as he came thundering down the lane.

But like many coaches of the era with abnormally talented newcomers, Maryland’s Gary Williams bottled up Wilcox’s prodigious potential, in an attempt to reprogram his fledgling ability into something less volatile during his 9-minute-a-game freshman season. Yet in the 2001-02 season, his sophomore campaign, Wilcox’s precocious talent gleamed through. He was named third-team all-ACC, played 24.1 minutes per game and scored 18 points, grabbed nine rebounds, and recorded four blocks in Maryland’s Final Four win against Kansas before leading the Terrapins to the national title.

In that year’s NBA Draft, the Los Angeles Clippers selected the 19-year-old Wilcox with the eighth overall pick and ahead of two of his fellow Maryland teammates, Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter. During his first few seasons in the league, Wilcox confronted the cold reality that greets scores of NBA newcomers: Playing time would not come easily and, if you weren’t careful and diligent, it wouldn’t come at all.

The game of basketball played at the next level was unlike anything Wilcox had witnessed before. The fight for minutes—for even a few minutes a night—was like some bare-knuckled contest, some raw, desperate struggle between starving wolves. Those glamorous lights of NBA stardom that had always sat ahead of Wilcox, guiding his path, now seemed to shine not for him, but somehow, in spite of him. Such a dim routine only had one painful and lengthy antidote: patience.

***

After three-and-a-half uneventful seasons in LA, where he averaged just 17 minutes per game, that patience paid off when the Clippers traded Wilcox to the Seattle SuperSonics for Vladimir Radmanovic. The trade was a boon for both Wilcox and the Sonics, as the now 23-year-old saw an immediate uptick in minutes and performance, not surprising considering his per 36 minutes averages of 14.7 points and 8.1 rebounds hinted that success would come with the opportunity Seattle was now affording him. He played 30 minutes a night for the remainder of the season, averaging 14.1 points-per-game on 59% shooting and 8.2 rebounds per game.

It appeared, the opportunity, the talent, and the performances were finally all coming together for Wilcox, as he recorded seven double-doubles in 29 games for Seattle and was named Western Conference Player of the Week for the stretch from April 3-9. For his hard work, the Sonics rewarded Wilcox with a three-year, $19.5 million contract. In a very real sense, that boundlessly talented teenager who had soared at Maryland, who had endured months upon months of bench time with a lowly Clippers team going nowhere, had grown up.

Things seemed to be on an upward trajectory for the young Wilcox during his next two years in Seattle, as all his undeniable athleticism converged with a man now hungry and worldly enough to embrace such an opportunity. He played 31.5 minutes a contest and started all but one of Seattle’s games in the 2006-07 season, at times putting up eye-popping stat lines like he did on April 6 against the Lakers when he scored 32 points and grabbed 18 rebounds.

Such success seemed to only validate his perpetual talent, all at once affirming the path Wilcox had taken to get there. In a flash, that prodigy from Maryland, with all his physically transcendent gifts, returned. Wilcox’s triumphs no longer appeared so murky and uncertain as they had in Los Angeles, but rather as something that had been guaranteed and preordained by the basketball gods who had granted him his superior ability.

But, just as can happen with anyone’s career, sometimes that moment of well-fitting bliss and excellence, that point where you believe things can’t seem to get any better, comes to fruition and everything that was supposed to come afterwards seems to vanish before one knows its gone.

That moment—where Chris Wilcox’s peak years seemed to disappear all too suddenly—happened in the 2007 draft when the Sonics selected Jeff Green (now Wilcox’s teammate with the Boston Celtics) with the 5th overall pick. A year later, the 22-year-old young gun was playing the team’s starting minutes at power forward while Wilcox was relegated to the bench once again and at the age of 26—in a league where youth is hoarded like gold—Wilcox was no longer young; his rare combination of size and athleticism no longer pointing to some certain and future promise.

A mid-season trade to the New York Knicks and his subsequent signing with the aging Detroit Pistons in the summer of 2009 would send Wilcox back into irrelevance, into the doldrums of NBA bench life. In his first season with the Pistons, Wilcox received the dreaded “Did Not Play – Coach’s Decision” designation 29 times for a 27-55 Pistons team also staring directly at the twilight of its existence.

At this point, one could have forgiven Wilcox for looking around and wondering just how he had gotten there. He was 27, supposed to be in the prime of his career, yet he had somehow gone backwards. The road had taken a wrong turn, ending up in a place reminiscent of some highway truck stop in the middle of nowhere rather than any dazzling or career-affirming destination. This existence held no promise, only obscurity and knowledge of the hard reality that even those who can jump to impossible heights must, some day, come down.

***

Another unremarkable season in Detroit passed before Wilcox signed with the Boston Celtics in 2011. Now in his second season with the team, Wilcox has turned into a plucky and reliable performer, someone who can come off the bench and affect a game with his length and energy. With his stocky frame, buzz cut, and full beard, Wilcox is almost unrecognizable when compared to the skinny, dreadlocked teenager who showed high-flying promise at Maryland. Through 20 games this season, he is playing just 13 minutes a game, but also shooting a remarkable 71% from the field, while putting up an offensive rating of 126 points per 100 possessions. Moreover, Wilcox has gained the trust and respect of head coach Doc Rivers, with the 11-year veteran spelling Kevin Garnett on a nightly basis.

In a Boston Globe preseason feature on Wilcox, the 30-year-old stated that his duties on the team were to “run the floor, box out, rebound, bring energy.” They are a veteran’s words, a humble man’s words. They may sound perfunctory and clichéd, but with someone like Wilcox, there is a tangible wisdom to them, a long line of experience embedded within their meaning. They come from nights where any and every shot went in and from others, those longer, lonelier nights, spent on the end of an NBA bench.

Just about a month ago, I attended a game between the Celtics and Utah Jazz. It was an ugly contest, unremarkable for the most part besides a mammoth Jeff Green dunk and Wilcox’s entry into the game in the first quarter.

Over the course of two straight possessions, Wilcox recorded back-to-back alley-oops from perfectly placed Rajon Rondo lobs. The second I remember distinctly. For a moment, the ball hung way up in the air, seeming impossibly out of reach, but Wilcox jumped up and grabbed it with surprising assurance, almost throwing the ball through the hoop with gleeful force. In that instant, I thought back to the first time I saw Wilcox dunk with Maryland, way back when in some college gym, and how basketball and players like Wilcox can give us moments that span tremendous lengths of time in just a matter of seconds.

NBA careers can be at once fickle and unpredictable, triumphant or disappointing, life-affirming or direct paths downwards to noteless obscurity. At one time or another, Chris Wilcox has experienced all of these things. This is why we watch.


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