ACC: Isaiah Wilkins has made name for himself during difficult journey

Credit: Ryan M. Kelly

Credit: Ryan M. Kelly

There was blood oozing from a gash on Isaiah Wilkins’ right knee, but he didn’t seem to notice until somebody pointed it out to him.

“Yeah, blood’s coming from somewhere,” he said, looking around, checking his arms, his hands, his legs. “I’m always bleeding from somewhere. If I’m not bleeding, something’s wrong. If I’m not bleeding, I’m not doing something right.”

There’s a basketball player with “Wilkins” and “21” on the back of his jersey. This one bears little resemblance to the Hall of Famer who played for the Hawks.

Dominique Wilkins sailed above rims. Isaiah Wilkins dives on floors. The older Wilkins’ career was seemingly an endless reel of offensive highlights. The younger Wilkins defends, rebounds, blocks shots, sets screens, muscles in his share of points in Virginia’s spread-it-around offense.

He also just won defensive player-of-the-year honors in his conference, which I’m almost certain is a distinction his stepfather never achieved.

“Yeah, I bet,” Isaiah said, laughing. “But he got it in his own way. He’s good.”

The stepson also rises. Virginia, the nation’s No. 1 team, moved to 29-2 on Thursday with a 75-58 win over Louisville in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament. The Cavaliers remain on track to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. That could land them in the South Regional, the finals of which take place at Philips Arena.

Isaiah Wilkins, a senior forward, would prefer not looking that far into future. But he’s from Lilburn, attended Greater Atlanta Christian and has so much family in metro Atlanta that it would make the homecoming, in his words, “super cool.”

It also would make for easier travel for Dominique. His schedule as a Hawks’ television commentator has prevented him from attending even one of Isaiah’s college games. He hasn’t seen him play live since high school.

“I’m making it my business to see him play during the tournament,” Wilkins said. “I’ve already got one or two days circled on the calendar.”

There is no perfect family or perfect family story. This is no exception.

But that’s OK. Today is good. Isaiah Wilkins first opened up his book of life to the world at an ACC media day in October. He detailed his personal struggles with depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. He talked about how miserable he felt down the stretch of last season, when he became ill with strep throat, which grew into mononucleosis-like symptoms, which then morphed into walking double pneumonia. He lost more than 30 pounds.

“I was sitting right here,” he said, sitting in a folding chair as he reflected on last year’s ACC tournament loss to Notre Dame at the Barclay’s Center. “I remember wearing a shirt that was all loose on me. I put it on two weeks ago, and it was mad small. I was like, ‘Yeah.’”

A year ago at this time, he said, “I was trash.”

Physical illnesses can heal. Mental illnesses never fully go away, they’re just treatable.

Wilkins talked about his mental-health issues and stresses from family life growing up. Dominique’s travel schedule left him away from home often and put extra stress on his then-wife and Isaiah’s mother, Robin. She was left to care for a daughter, Jolie, who was born with spina bifida. Robin battled depression and developed an addiction to painkillers when Isaiah was in high school.

Isaiah said all are doing fine now. His arms and legs are covered with several tattoos. I asked him which one was his favorite and he pointed to his lower left leg.

“That’s my sister -- she’s in a wheelchair,” he said.

He has deep love and appreciation for his family, especially his mother and his grandparents, James and Julie Taylor, who helped raise him.

It has been a memorable week. Isaiah not only was named ACC defensive player of the year, he landed on one of the regional covers of Sports Illustrated, celebrating after a thunderous dunk in a recent game.

“I haven’t seen I yet,” he said. “My grandad was probably the most excited. He said he went out and bought all of the copies at the store.”

It was before the ACC media gathering in October when Isaiah Wilkins phoned family members to discuss the possibility of exposing some of the blemishes in his personal life. It was something he felt he needed to do for himself and others.

“I told them I wasn’t going to put it out there if they weren’t comfortable but I was going to share my part at least,” he said. “They were fine with it.”

Why talk about it?

“I feel like through some music and me reading other things, a lot of people have affected me and they may not even know it,” he said. “I just felt it was my turn to try to give back and help people. Maybe they could get something out of it. That was my motivation.

“I just think it’s important because a lot of people don’t like talking about mental health stuff but it’s happening more and more. Kevin Love just did it (disclosing his struggles with panic attacks) and so did DeMar DeRozan. I’m going to keep using my platform and go from there.”

He takes care of himself better now. He’s open about his struggles and goes to therapy.

“A lot of kids go through personal things, and he’s no different than any other kid,” Dominique said. “But Isaiah perseveres. He’s a strong kid. He’s a sweet kid. He works hard and he doesn’t ask for much and he’s been able to rise above adversity. That was a tough time for him in his life early on but I tried to tell him that whatever you need, I’m here and I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure he’s in the right environment and be safe.”

Dominique married Robin when Isaiah was 7 years old and adopted him. They divorced when Isaiah was in high school.

“I call him my son, not my stepson,” Wilkins said.

Isaiah is not a big scorer, although some of that stems from Virginia’s system. But he has a game that translates to the NBA. Early in Thursday’s win, he finished with a dunk, fought for an offensive rebound and then fed a teammate for a layup, then hustled back to block a shot on a Louisville fast break. He has blocked three or more shots in seven games this season, ranks third at UVA in career blocked shots with 140 and leads Virginia in rebounding (6.4 per game).

“I play hard every single possession -- I’m wired that way,” he said. “When I get tired, I ask for a sub and then go back out and do the same thing over again.”

Fifteen minutes later, blood was still oozing from the cut. But cuts heal. Other things take work.

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