By Krys King

Based on King’s interview with Eddie Lee Wilkins on November 15, 2018.

Eddie Lee Wilkins, a six feet ten inch soft spoken man, brings to mind, “gentle giant” both physically and in character.  His focus in life is to inspire youth to be their best.  He credits his family and mentors for the formation of his character, but perhaps it is innate, himself being one of humanity’s unique individuals with an extraordinary God given talent and a dedicated ambition for helping youth.  To all who know his story, he is a living legend.

          On May 7, 1962 Viola and Eddie James Wilkins gave birth to their eighth and last child, Eddie Lee Wilkins. With a full house, the Wilkins home was filled with love.  There was also a deep-rooted foundation of faith in God, which a young Eddie depended on when he lost his father at the age of eight years old.

In spite of his father’s passing and losing that father figure in the home, Eddie had several male role models who helped him through his life’s journey beginning with his older and only brother, to whom he continuously looked for guidance.

Eddie Lee began his academic and sports career at White Elementary in 1966, the second year after the integration of schools, which at the time housed grades kindergarten through eighth grades.  He indicated that racial discrimination was not a defining part of his school years.  It was there that he found his love for basketball, and he attributes this esteem for the sport to his elementary school coach, Sammy Hood.  Hood became a mentor and constant source of wisdom for Eddie, teaching him discipline, dedication, and team work.  Apparently, the good natured young Eddie was a receptive student whose Christian character was strengthened by his coach’s training.   

Going into Cass High as a freshman, Wilkins admits that he wasn’t “all that good” at the game of basketball, but playing was something he wanted and believed he could do and he thought he could be one of the best performers by giving it his all. With that motivation he worked day in and day out on his craft, perfecting the sport.  By his senior year and thanks to a six-inch growth spurt over the previous summer, Wilkins was not only playing for the varsity team, he had become a teenage superstar.

Wilkin’s height of 6” 10” and skills on the court caught the eye of Gardner-Webb University that offered him a full scholarship.  Wilkins was thrilled to continue his basketball career on a college level and was also enthusiastic to be playing for Gardner-Webb which is a Christian-based campus.  This meant a lot to him, as the institution not only supported his sport but his morals.  Wilkins does not drink alcohol or smoke and takes care of his physical health.  Perhaps this is a way of honoring his creation.  At the time of the interview, he was replacing some meals with nutritional juices in preparation for the upcoming Thanksgiving family food festivities at his home.

Eddie was able to showcase his talents on a larger platform while attending Gardner, with the help of his college coach, Coach Jim Wildes, and mentor Richard Buccalou.  Wilkins went on to become a three time “First Team All American”.  However, college wasn’t all about sports; course studies meant just as much to him.  Wilkins prides himself for putting the same focus and dedication into his school work as he did into basketball, believing that an academic education was as important as excellence on the court.  He believed a solid foundation in education would take him more places than sports alone.

            Eddie Lee Wilkins caught the eye of several NBA scouts, and by 1984, the New York Nicks in particular eagerly sought his recruitment.  He signed with them later that year.  Although, Wilkins went on to play with the Philadelphia 76ers, it was during his years playing for New York that Wilkins found his passion for giving back when he began working with terminally ill children.  He embraced this endeavor with dedication as it satisfied a longing desire and brought him back to where he came from; a small town in Georgia- Cartersville.  In 1989 he began what is now called The Eddie Lee Wilkins Youth Association.  It is a non-profit in which young children can be a part, and not only learn the fundamentals of the great sport of basketball but receive tutoring in academics like math and science as well.  His youth organizations provide camps, meals, mentoring, and so much more for the children of the community in which he grew up.  Wilkins is quoted as saying, “It was important to me to come back and give back to the younger generations the chance and opportunities to be successful. If I can do anything to change one person’s life, it’s all worth it.”

That he has done.  With tens of thousands of children coming through his association over the past thirty years, Wilkins has helped many young men succeed in basketball; currently including Ashton Haggins, who plays for the University of Kentucky and Trey Dumes, who is at West Virginia.  To many more, he has contributed not only to their love of and success in basketball, but also to being the best version of themselves that they can possibly be.  He states that one of his greatest joys is to give new uniforms to youth groups.  He observes that when team members look professional, they are inspired to do their best.

With his NBA career behind him, Eddie, along with his wife Dawn and their four children, work for the association continuing to motivate and inspire the next generation.  Reported in the Cartersville Tribune News:  On June 21st, 2017, at the invitation of Wilkins, the famous former NBA All-Star, Dale Ellis, visited and spoke to the youth at the Eddie Lee Wilkins Youth Camp in Cartersville, Georgia, located at the J.H. Morgan Gym on Summer Hill.  The youth listened with rapt attention.  Wilkins is quoted in this edition of the Tribune as saying, “I’ve had numerous NBA players come here.  The thing we have in common is we’re a brotherhood.  It’s a very special, very unique group and it’s a fraternity that play in the NBA.  I was very fortunate to bring this type of people to Cartersville to meet these kids and inspire them to be great at whatever they do.” 

Visit You Tube at Eddie Lee Wilkins Youth Association to see players in action and see Wilkins express his aspirations for the youth.  Although Wilkins’ youth association has grown to reach communities across Georgia, he credits that growth and success to the backing of his hometown of Cartersville. With humility, determination and know how; for the past thirty years, Wilkins has consistently been on task to reach, inspire, teach and direct youth to be all they can be.

This living legend hopes to be remembered as someone who was honest, humble, and always there.