January 23, 2008

Player Wilkins Helps Open Writer Bennett’s Eyes

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I’ve covered so many sports teams since joining the Sun that I have trouble remembering all of them. I’ve written so many recaps and previews that I don’t even really know how to begin putting a ballpark figure on it. I’ve written enough feature stories and columns that I could put them together and publish them as a book of short essays no one would read.
Until last night, though, I had never really done interviews before that really made me think. I had never really researched a story that made me look at my life and myself differently.
Monday night I spent about half an hour on the phone with men’s basketball sophomore Andre Wilkins. When I hung up the phone, I gazed at the floor for a few minutes and simply said, “Huh.”
I hadn’t had a life epiphany, I didn’t feel inclined to join a commune, or burn down an animal testing facility. I was, however, driven to some self-reflection and a little in awe of everything I had heard and seen that day — talking to Wilkins, talking to his various basketball coaches, watching him on YouTube, reading about him in the Globe and Mail (a Canadian newspaper).
Wilkins hails from Jane and Finch, one of the worst neighborhoods in Toronto, in Canada even. It is the kind of neighborhood where everyone cares about what they wear, because wearing certain colors can associate you with certain gangs. It’s a place riddled with drugs and crime.
“Growing up there I saw bad things happen, but I haven’t experienced it myself,” Wilkins said. “I’ve seen other bad things happen around me, but I didn’t really have too many problems but I’ve seen other people have really serious problems … Parts of me wanted to really hang out with that crowd but at the same time I knew that that lifestyle just wasn’t for me. I found myself going in and out with a lot of friends because they would start slipping and going into different type of lifestyle that didn’t really fit me. So I would have to move on to another batch of friends, just separate myself from them.”
I can’t even imagine. Where I went to middle school, girls would stop being friends with each other because they liked the same guy. Wilkins would stop being friends with someone if they became drug addicts or small time criminals.
Wilkins has a little brother who lives with his mom back in Jane and Finch. His dad left a few years ago and Wilkins doesn’t talk to him anymore. Wilkins little brother has the advantage of his experience.
“I tell him time and time again that he just has to watch his friends,” Wilkins said in his halting, composed manner. “Usually, it’s your friends that will bring you down. You can be the nicest guy, but hang out with a bunch of crack smokers, and you don’t smoke crack, one day you’re going to tempted to try it because all your friends are doing it.”
I almost chuckled when Wilkins said this. To me, crack smoking is the punch line of a joke. When I hear the word crack, I think of Whitney Houston going off on Diane Sawyer for her ignorance — “Crack is cheap. I’ve made too much money to ever smoke crack. Crack is wack.” Too me, that’s funny. Crack is something that is so far off my life radar that I feel I can laugh about it. This isn’t true if you’re growing up in Jane and Finch, though.
“You might just try a little bit, but eventually it becomes a part of you,” he said. “You might be guilty by association because all your friends look the same way, and act the same way. People see your face and think you’re just like one of them.”
Wilkins said he couldn’t get a job. Not even at McDonald’s. Cops have questioned him simply for the way he looks or the clothes he was wearing. Once, he was wearing red and black, the colors of one of the local gangs. A member of that gang had shot someone the day before and the cops were looking for him.
“I was just standing outside waiting for a ride to come pick me up and a police cruiser pulled up on me and came out to ask me questions,” Wilkins said. “Once he pulled into the parking lot where I was at, I knew it was going to be a problem.”
The cop began questioning him. Wilkins had no ID, so he called back up.
“Another cruiser comes, so then there’s three officers,” Wilkins said, his voice still as steady and calm as it always is. “Then another one comes and there’s three officers in that one cruiser. So I’m standing here with cars driving by, and people walking by and they’re telling me to sit down, and patting me down. Then they escorted me to my house and told me to get ID and they walked into my house.”
How do you deal with that as part of your every day life?
“It’s happened time and time again,” Wilkins explained. “So I’m desensitized to a certain extent. … I’m used to it.”
I would be irate. I would cry. My mom would be apoplectic. She might even sue the city. Wilkins talks without much inflection in his voice, even on these subjects. He talks slowly, choosing to wait for the right phrase to come to him rather than talking his way to the phrase. He’s not shy or quiet, though. If you let him go, he will keep talking for a while, until he feels satisfied with an answer.
I found myself having trouble searching for the appropriate reaction to comments like this. To a more excitable person, I would be indignant, compassionate, shocked at such an affront. Wilkins talks about these things, not with indifference, but just matter-of-factly.
“I think it’s just something that’s in me personality wise. I’m just a very happy guy.” Fittingly Wilkins stops to laugh — a low chuckle that builds slowly. “It’s sounds funny, but I’m just a very happy guy. I just learned to laugh and smile at adversity. In hard times you can always feel happy because there’s always someone out there who may have it worse than you. So I think of that every now and then when I’m upset about something and just try to laugh it off.”
Wilkins attributes much of this attitude to religion. I Googled Wilkins just for fun while I was making a list of some things to talk to him about. A YouTube video came up. It’s a low production video set to religious hip hop music where Andre fields questions from an unseen camera man. I felt like it wasn’t Wilkins decision to make the video, but I’m sure he was more than happy to go along with it because he would, and he got to talk about two the things most dear to him — Jane-Finch and God.
Religion has always been a confusing area for me. I was not raised religiously, but much of my family lives in the Bible Belt and are more Christian than anyone I know. I went through phases growing up where I felt guilty for not being religious. Sometimes I prayed at night under the covers, then turned on my flashlight and gave sermons to a congregation of stuffed animals. I didn’t understand the unbreakable conviction religious people had, though. For once, Wilkins couldn’t find a wording that suited him.
“It’s like, it’s like I have this, I don’t know, like I have a sidekick kind of thing. I can’t really explain it,” he said.
Without intending to, his lack of explanation was teaching me more than any eloquent phrase could have. It showed me that people can, without any reason to do so or understanding why, be selfless, patient, tireless and more importantly, happy.
I am by no means the happiest person on this planet. My friend once impersonated me by saying “Hi, I’m Cory. I hate my life. Insert self-deprecating pun here.” I get down on myself and see no reason that I should pull myself out of it. What’s the point. Wilkins once heard a sermon that stuck with him.
“He drew a line and said, there’s a line here,” Wilkins recalled. “On the other side of this line is your life. You have to make the choice of visiting heaven or hell. Most people are in between this line and they’re not going to go anywhere. They’re just going to stay on that line. You have to make the decision whether you want heaven or hell type of thing.”
Maybe heaven isn’t the same thing to everyone. But this message applies even in a non-religious setting. If you let things get to you, you’re just going to stay on that line you’re whole life. If you want to make something in your life, you have to go out and get it — just like Andre Wilkins has.