By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
Anthony Wilkins is home again, which comes as a surprise to Georgia Tech’s new assistant basketball coach, for never while growing up in Atlanta, nor as he played the game he so loves in enough places to fit the song did he see himself landing here.
As a coach.
For Wilkins, who was hired at Georgia Tech last week, it was always about playing the game. The goal was to make it to the NBA, and he got a shot in 2005 when he was invited to try out for his hometown Hawks.
He had and has the mind, but maybe not the body.
So, after flying through stints in shorts and tank tops at high schools in Atlanta and Cleveland, Ohio, junior colleges in Kansas and Florida, a university in Ohio, with a semi-pro team in Charlotte and minor league professional teams in Sweden, Texas, Oklahoma, Mexico, California, Ukraine and South Korea, Wilkins has landed.
As a coach.
He didn’t see this coming.
“Growing up, I didn’t know that I wanted to coach. I knew that I wanted to play. All of those summers, all that work, playing in the NBA was my dream,” said the affable 6-foot-6 1/2, 37-year-old man who spent the past five seasons as an assistant at Tulane.
“I was never the best athlete; I had to kind of understand the nuances … transitioning my love for playing to its ends … it was hard to let go of that. That was my first love, my love for wanting to be a pro.”
Wilkins is a song. Think of the most famous version of “I’ve Been Everywhere” (there are many) where Johnny Cash rattled off dozens of cities where he played.
Wilkins fits the song.
Growing up in west Atlanta, near Adams Park just inside I-285 and a little south of I-20, he attended Therrell High School through his sophomore year, splitting time with his father, Anthony Wilkins, and his mother, Olivia.
Then he moved to Cleveland, Ohio, to live with two older brothers. His mother eventually moved to Cleveland as well.
There, as he’d grown a few inches quickly, Glenville High School had a legendary football team, a program that produced NFL players Ted Ginn, Jr., Marshon Lattimore, Donte Whitner, Justin Hardee and others, plus U.S. senator Howard Metzenbaum, composer/pianist Al Lerner and comedian/actor Steve Harvey.
“The environment was a little bit more secure (than in Atlanta),” Wilkins said. “I almost played football. They had a big-time program. I locked in on basketball knowing I would have a future in it.”
He probably had no way of knowing the exact track of the future.
Wilkins was recruited by several Division I programs, including Cleveland State, which was led by head coach Rollie Massimino. The Vikings’ staff helped him line up a scholarship at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kan.
He transferred after one year to Gulf Coast Community College in Panama City, Fla.
“They had a better scholarship at Gulf Coast,” he said. “The scholarship in Florida covered everything, including a food stipend. It was a more thorough scholarship.”
Although he missed much of the season with a broken hand, Wilkins was recruited by several Division I programs, including Kent State, just west of Cleveland. Head coach Gary Waters signed him, and he redshirted for a season.
Then, after Waters left to take over at Rutgers, Stan Heath became the head coach at Kent State, leading the Golden Flashes to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. That propelled Heath to the head coaching job at Arkansas, and brought on new head coach Jim Christian — now the head coach at Boston College.
So, Wilkins has been in a lot of places, and played for a lot of head coaches. That may help him coach.
“It’s been an interesting trek, five years playing for five different coaches, it kind of adds to my experience, and maybe my adaptability and understanding different approaches and being able to adjust, learn different philosophies,” he said.
Tech head coach Josh Pastner noticed all of this, and the fact that Wilkins grew up in Atlanta and that he’s uniquely connected to the AAU programs in the metro area. In 2011, he helped 18-year NBA veteran Jerry Stackhouse found the Stackhouse Elite AAU program in Gwinnett County. He knows all the locals.
Pastner told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Wilkins will work with wing players and guards and shepherd Tech’s offense. His last two years on the staff at Tulane were spent under former NBA head coach Mike Dunleavy.
“He’s been around some really good offensive guys, so I want to pick his brain and see what we can do and make the adjustments we can make so we can grow as a program,” Pastner told the AJC.
Wilkins has grown in basketball.
In between his post-college hoops-playing experiences, he worked out in Atlanta, always with the goal of getting a shot at an NBA playing opportunity.
Many players with professional aspirations would summer scrimmage at the old Peachtree Center Athletic Club, Philips Arena or the old Run `N Shoot facility that used to be on Stewart Ave. (now Metropolitan Ave.).
Wilkins calls it “the circuit,” and in the circuit, back in 2010, he met Stackhouse.
A year later, they founded an AAU program.
After working as an assistant coach with the Toronto Raptors a few years ago, Stackhouse coached Toronto’s NBA G-League team to a championship last season, and this season he coached the squad to the championship round.
“Jerry and I kind of discovered our coaching voices at the same time, starting Stackhouse Elite AAU, which was kind of built around his son, Jaye Stackhouse,” Wilkins said. “Now, it’s one of the better programs in the Southeast.”
In the summer workouts, Wilkins found himself creating drills for other professionals.
There’s something about the man that makes him instantly relatable. He’s easy to talk to, and teaching the game comes naturally to him. He just knows it. And Stackhouse saw that before Wilkins acknowledged it.
“A lot of NBA players were coming in, getting a run. Anthony was a guy who caught my eye,” said the former North Carolina star. “We did some work there, and I got a chance to know him and understand what he was about. His mindset was still to play.
“I said, `You got a knack for teaching the game. You can articulate it.’ He was a little reluctant. Nobody wants to put the ball down.”
Stackhouse played briefly with Miami in the fall of 2010, and returned to Atlanta. The following summer, he tapped Wilkins to help start a summer basketball program.
“My son was just starting seventh or eighth grade, and they were just rolling the balls out there. I said, `Let’s do this stuff,'” said Stackhouse, who recently interviewed to be head coach of the Toronto Raptors. “We started working the kids out …
“He’s continually gotten better. He understands not only the game, but how to relate to kids. I think the grassroots experience has helped him.”
Once he started coaching, Wilkins caught a bug. He would be a coach for real. That meant he had to return to school, to finish his degree in public communications at Kent State. He spent the 2012-13 school year in classes in Ohio, helping Kent State head coach Rob Senderoff.
“I found almost a sense of a calling in that what I pursued,” he said. “I was able to articulate the feeling of being a competitor, put that in layman’s terms, and help people find that center.”
It didn’t take long for Wilkins to find a job after graduating. Almost immediately, he was hired as director of basketball operations by Tulane head coach Ed Conroy, at the urging of Stackhouse.
“I spent summers in Charleston, and I got close to Ed Conroy when he was at The Citadel (2006-10),” Stackhouse said. “I told him, `You should think about Anthony.'”
After one year in operations at Tulane, Wilkins became an assistant on the Green Wave staff. He was retained, which is kind of rare, when Conroy was relieved in 2016 and replaced by Dunleavy.
As Pastner searched to fill the void left when former assistant Tavaras Hardy was named head coach at Loyola-Maryland, he looked for someone with a knack for player development and an ability to connect with young men who play the game well.
Between his time growing up in Atlanta and playing hoops, his time spent hooping here in summers and then coaching the Stackhouse Elite, he formed relationships with countless men who have become AAU coaches in metro Atlanta.
Wilkins is all about relationships. He knows every local program well. And from the point where future Georgia Tech student-athletes arrive on campus, he’ll bring the underdog to his work and aid players to help them multiply themselves.
He’ll bump everyone up, and encourage battle, which is the Georgia Tech way.
“When you’re not sure it’s going to work, but you fight willfully without certainty of outcome. I’ve had a lot of uncertainty of outcome in my travels, and I have some great moments of triumph, whether it was the tryout with the Hawks or getting a Division I scholarship, or being able to be a pro and play overseas, or coaching in college,” he said.
“Those were moments of triumph that came from not being afraid to put myself in an uncomfortable circumstance. Nothing replaces being a competitor, pursuing the best version of yourself.”
That is the philosophy and attitude Anthony Wilkins wants to bring to the Yellow Jackets.