January 23, 2008

Budding Star Aims to Help Red, Children

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You can tell a lot about a guy from the layup line before a basketball game. Some players mechanically repeat the same motion as they launch 3-pointers. Others creatively weave their way in for a mid-range jumper. The guys at the end of the bench hit the block or the free throw line elbow to get some work done on their footwork.
When men’s basketball sophomore Andre Wilkins gets the ball, he explodes. A burst of energy toward the lifeless basket, waiting to be the beautiful unnamed assistant to something magical. Wilkins takes the ball, a dribble, maybe two, and takes off a few steps later.
On this occasion, he palms the ball in one hand, brings it down to his waist and quickly whips it around in a circle behind his head — then over his head and into the basket. Most people would just call it a windmill dunk.
He smiles as he bounces back to the rebounding line, bobbing his head and snapping his fingers to the beat of the band’s music.
“I guess my specialty is the windmill,” Wilkins said. “Like I can do that on command. Like if you came to the gym and told me to do a windmill, I could just do it, no dribble, off the bounce.”
You can tell a lot about a guy from the kinds of videos he’s willing to put of himself on YouTube. A search for Andre Wilkins on YouTube brings up a video that’s under the categories “Nonprofits & Activism” and “People & Blogs.” It’s a subdued Wilkins, talking about his religion and his experiences growing up in Jane-Finch, one of the worst neighborhoods in Toronto.
“My name is Andre Wilkins,” he says. “I’m 20, and I live in the Jane and Finch community. My whole life, 20 years.”
And then he comes right out and says it.
“I love this place. It’s made me the person that I am.”
Keep in mind that Jane and Finch has been compared to Compton, Calif., or Chicago’s South Side. Drugs, crime and gangs are rampant. Ask him about it, though, and he doesn’t back down.
“Personally, I think the neighborhood gives that ability to continue, a strong will just to keep pushing forward,” he said. “The neighborhood is seen as a bad neighborhood so it makes things a lot harder for me to even get a job back home. Even the way people view me on the streets or people that I talk to, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, you’re from this neighborhood, how do you make it?’ stuff like that. Just living in the neighborhood was a strike against me. But it gave me a strong will, like an underdog type thing.”
You can tell a lot about a guy from actually meeting him. Wilkins is as soft-spoken as he seems in the video. He speaks in a controlled manner, rewording his comments and pausing often to get it just right. But by no means is he shy.
[img_assist|nid=26781|title=The Battle inside|desc=Junior Jason Battle fights for positioning inside, while sophomore Andre Wilkins has had to battle his way to success at Cornell.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]“Sometimes being here, I feel kind of like,” Wilkins searched for the right term, “out of my element. A lot of people, umm, like haven’t really, like, gone through…” another pause, and Wilkins decided to change direction. “If I want to speak to someone about what I’ve experienced, I don’t know if they could relate or not with what I’m talking about. It feels like I’m just,” a final pause and then some deep laughter, “a square.”
A square. A phrase most Cornell student’s parents don’t even use anymore. But that’s Andre Wilkins for you. It’s a personality that even he can’t even explain where it came from.
“I spent a lot of time in church, and I would have to say it was something spiritual that kept me out of trouble,” he said. “I had a gut feeling to follow my instincts, and a lot of times when I did that, things would happen where it was like, ‘good thing you did stay home that day or good thing you didn’t go outside.’”
And that’s the other thing about Wilkins, his religion.
“The moment I gave myself to God it was like I had 20 tons that I was carrying by myself,” Wilkins says in the video titled Jane and Finch Story. “Then I gave my life to God, and God took 10. God not even took 10, he took 15 and I’m just walking like this.”
Wilkins, who had had two hands over his head, drops one and holds the other up like a waiter and bounces a few steps.
You can tell a lot about a guy from what other people say about him. No one has anything bad to say about Andre Wilkins.
“There are so many people rooting for him and who are so proud of him,” said assistant coach Nat Graham. “Andre’s such an upbeat, likable kid. I think it’s easy for people to foster good feelings for Andre.”
Graham has played in Canada, coached in Canada and even married a Canadian. He played a large part in recruiting Wilkins to Cornell and is one of many people with good feelings for Andre.
“I went to high school in Miami with a lot of kids with similar backgrounds to Andre,” Graham said, “and I’ve never met a kid from the type of situation he’s from make those type of decisions. I think it’s more remarkable that Andre got to where he is than almost anyone else in the school to a certain extent.”
And it probably is. Head coach Steve Donahue said that the team frequently scouts players from Andre’s area — in fact, Andre’s high school coach, Bob Maydo, has sent 15 players to Division I programs — but rarely do they find one who is up to the rigors of an Ivy education.
“From that area, you don’t always expect a great student,” Donahue said. “There’s kids that don’t have any chances by the time they’re 14 or 15 to stay in school or even be successful at that level.”
But Wilkins was successful at that level, and at every level. Maydo, Wilkins’ high school coach at Emery Collegiate in Toronto, has made a 30-year career out of coaching underprivileged youths in the Toronto area. Still, he knew Wilkins was a special kid.
“Not to be touched by what’s around you, you have to be sort of a special person and he’s always had his goals in mind,” Maydo said after making the drive to Cornell for the Red’s first game of the season. “He was able to stay focused and not be tainted. He set himself apart from a lot of the kids that come out of the Jane-Finch area.”
And finally, beyond his performance at Cornell, you can tell a lot about a guy from what he wants to do with his life.
“I either want to be a teacher or get into some type of social work or community planning,” Wilkins said. “I just want to help other people that have been through my situation. More, I want to go home and give back to the community that helped me.” In typical Wilkins fashion, he pauses, searching for the right combination of words. “I want to be a visible example of what hard work can do for those in the neighborhood so they don’t follow the path of many other people. I want to break the cycle.”