On a hopeless spring night, Kenya Wilkins drifted along Seventh Avenue in downtown Eugene feeling like a dead man walking.
One clattering truck interrupted the silence. Then another drove by.
When the next approaching big rig rumbled in the distance, the former Oregon basketball star had a chilling thought:
“Man, I should jump out in front of that truck.”
For a desperate moment, Wilkins looked forward to the relief death would provide from the excruciating pain he was feeling and causing for his family.
Financial ruin? Check. Jail? Check. The logical next step in the downward spiral was an early grave. Check out.
But having the story fade to black would have been the easy solution.
The hardest part for the 44-year-old husband and father of three was accepting the other thought that made its way into his clouded head that fateful evening.
A little voice whispered to Wilkins to cry out for help.
“That was my bottom right there,” Wilkins said during an interview with The Register-Guard. “I wanted to jump in front of this truck. The main thing was the devastation to my family. I wasn’t really thinking or caring about how far I fell from the community aspect. I was thinking about the hurt that I could see every day and how crazy it made my wife and not parenting my kids.
“I would never have imagined that.”
So before surrendering, Wilkins found a computer and reached out to the business leaders, coaches, parents and teammates he had encountered over two decades as a player and mentor.
The subject line of the alarming email to his contacts, which was sent at 12:38 a.m. Sunday, March 31, 2019, read:
KENYA NEEDS HELP!!
The raw 904-word communique described the challenges of growing up in South Central Los Angeles with an absentee father addicted to crack cocaine. Wilkins noted that he had avoided alcohol and drugs most of his life because he felt a genetic predisposition to addiction. He explained how a legal prescription to treat discomfort following oral surgery led to his symphony of destruction.
“I want to get through this night,” Wilkins wrote.
After hitting send, Wilkins decided to give himself another 24 hours on earth to see if help would arrive. He had no idea a cavalry of caring was headed for his doorstep.
‘Man, this is not L.A.’
Wilkins’ parents divorced when he was a kid due to his dad’s addiction. In those formative years, Raymond Sr. spent most of his money on drugs and plenty of time behind bars. Wilkins remembers going to visit “Pops” in jail, speaking on the phone with a glass barrier between them, just like in the movies.
“I knew that it was in me,” Wilkins said. “So I stayed away from everything. I didn’t drink. I don’t drink. None through college, none of that stuff, because I didn’t want to go down that road.”
Raymond Jr., Wilkins’ older brother, was also on a dangerous journey growing up, a gang member who was shot seven times over the years.
In a disturbing way, the family’s street credibility gave Wilkins a pass from the lifestyle.
“My brother was so notorious there, and the reputation he had, it allowed me to not have to do that stuff,” Wilkins said. “In L.A., they kind of protect the athletes when you’re going on a straight path.”
Wilkins was small in stature but slowly developing into a big-time point prospect. He spent so many hours shooting baskets in the parking lot behind the duplex where his mother, Shirley, was raising him that the neighbors never bothered to pull their cars into the spots underneath the backboard.
“They knew at some point I was going to be out there,” he said. “It allowed me to always get out there.”
In the eighth grade, Wilkins started to believe he might have a special talent. Once he started playing varsity at Dorsey High, local colleges were paying attention. Long Beach State was the first school to offer a scholarship.
“I told everybody I did not want to leave California,” Wilkins said of not initially viewing the recruiting process as his ticket out. “I remember going to a party and the party got shot up. I went home and my mother said, ‘It might be a good idea for you to leave.’
“I still wasn’t feeling that. I still wasn’t trying to leave California.”
Then Wilkins received a call from Bobby Braswell. The former high school coach in Los Angeles and Long Beach State assistant coach left the area in 1992 to be the recruiting coordinator at Oregon for Jerry Green and was putting together the 1993 class.
The Ducks were a subpar Pac-10 program that had not been to the NCAA Tournament since 1961.
For Wilkins, escaping the lunacy of drive-by shootings became more important than experiencing March Madness, which was why Oregon appealed to him during his recruiting visit to Eugene.
“We were hanging out at about 2, 3 in the morning after a party, just in the street talking, and my head’s on a swivel looking at every car that goes by,” Wilkins said. “I noticed that nobody else was really interested or even caring or worried. I brought that up to my host, Orlando Williams, and he said, ‘Man, this is not L.A.’
“That’s the biggest thing that stood out to me. I kind of like this, this is cool.”
Wilkins would soon be in the spotlight as a big man on Oregon’s campus. But the shadows on the streets of Eugene can be dark, too.
‘I got off light going to jail that night’
Wilkins, who was inducted into the University of Oregon’s athletics hall of fame in 2009, was still living his best life in 2013. He had a happy wife, Chandra, and a happy life helping raise their two sons and daughter in Eugene.
For 16 years through his former business, Game Time Basketball University, Wilkins built up the self-esteem and on-court skills of local kids.
But after having his wisdom teeth removed six years ago, even though his instincts told him to stick with Tylenol, Wilkins swallowed one Oxycontin and then another.
The powerful drug swallowed his self-control.
“I remember when I took the first one, I said, ‘What is this?’ And I was on my way,” Wilkins said. “It did what it did, and that’s destroy everything.”
After Wilkins was unable to refill his prescription, he stumbled on to a dealer selling Oxycontin. An expensive habit was formed; the price tag quickly rose from $500 a month to $3,000 a month.
In an attempt to overpower withdrawal symptoms, Wilkins transitioned to street drugs, including crystal methamphetamine.
“Your tolerance goes up, who you are starts to change, guilt and all that starts to happen,” Wilkins said. “So then you’re caught up in this horrible situation that I’m responsible for.”
Wilkins successfully hid his addiction from his wife for years, although Chandra sensed something was wrong and says she felt a change in their relationship. Ultimately, the financial toll was impossible to sweep under the rug. He was working extra odd jobs just to pay for drugs. Instead of looking after their own children full time, as the couple had planned, Chandra started her own cleaning business to pay the bills.
In the email, Wilkins said he was “homeless” after Chandra had a restraining order filed against him.
“I no longer have the option to be with my family, which makes me physically ill,” Wilkins wrote. “My friends are far and few, and I am out of moves. I will be walking the night away thinking about my kids as motivation to get through this night. It’s too sad for me to have pride.”
The dangerous collapse also caught the attention of law enforcement.
On Oct. 5, 2018, Kenya Damien Alton Wilkins was arrested by the Eugene Police Department on charges of driving under the influence of intoxicants, reckless driving and unlawful possession of methamphetamine.
Sitting in a cell at the Lane County Jail was a relief.
“I got off light with that one because I was out of my mind,” Wilkins said. “I remember thinking that I was going to get my cousin, and he wasn’t even there. I came to when I saw the police lights. I said, ‘Oh my God, what did I do?’ And then I was immediately thankful that it’s just the police and I didn’t kill anybody, hurt anybody or hurt myself.
“That was one of those, ’Thank-you-Gods,’ because I got off light going to jail that night. I was thankful to go to jail, considering that could have been it. That was just one of many times that I had coverage. One of many.”
Wilkins’ mugshot would be taken again on March 14, 2019, for violation of a restraining order and driving under the influence of intoxicants, and again on March 22, 2019, for driving under the influence of intoxicants and unlawful possession of methamphetamine.
Nine days later, Wilkins felt the impact of hitting rock bottom and called out for angels.
‘Small and quick and not scared of anyone’
Oregon’s coaching staff didn’t sugarcoat the state of the program while trying to lure Wilkins from sunny Los Angeles to the soggy Pacific Northwest.
“(Braswell) said, ‘We’re not very good. You’ll have an opportunity to get a lot of (playing) time, earn your minutes,” Wilkins said. “He sold me on the opportunity to build something, and I bought it. I just believed him.”
Wilkins averaged 13.3 points and 5.5 assists over 112 games with the Ducks. The 5-foot-10 guard finished his career as Oregon’s all-time leader in assists (614) and steals (213). As a senior, he led the team in scoring (15.7 points per game).
“The thing I remember most about Kenya Wilkins is just how competitive he was. And not just on game day,” said Colorado coach Tad Boyle, who was a young assistant at Oregon from 1994-97. “What struck me about Kenya was how competitive he was at practice every day. In one-on-one drills, he would compete like it was an NCAA Tournament situation.
“He was a little guy and he had to fight and scratch and claw for everything he did. He never took anything off, he never paced himself. Obviously, he was a heck of a player and you wanted the ball in his hands a lot.”
During his sophomore season in 1994-95, Wilkins averaged 12.1 points and a career-high 6.1 assists. The Ducks ended their NCAA Tournament drought.
“We knew the little point guard was the key to their offense,” Texas guard Roderick Anderson said after the Longhorns bounced Oregon in the first round by focusing their game plan around stopping Wilkins.
Since the breakthrough campaign, much like the 1994 Rose Bowl run for the football program, Oregon men’s basketball has been a mainstay on the national scene with six Sweet 16s, four Elite Eights and the Final Four appearance in 2017.
Wilkins is considered the foundational player from the team that helped resurrect the program from Pac-10 bottom-feeder to postseason fixture.
“It’s nice now, kind of historic. But since the Rose Bowl year and the NCAA Tournament, Oregon was going crazy (with success),” Wilkins said. “I don’t think I deserve it, but a lot of people credit me as one of the cornerstones of it. It’s nice. I appreciate it.”
Luke Jackson experienced the magical Mac Court atmosphere and historic turnaround as a fan growing up.
“I remember Kenya was small and quick and not scared of anyone,” said Jackson, who was playing at Creswell High when Wilkins was in the spotlight at Mac Court. “It was amazing what he could accomplish out on the floor. I always wanted to play at Oregon and I really looked up to Kenya.”
Wilkins, who graduated from UO with a degree in sociology, never envisioned an NBA career. Then the phone rang from a familiar area code.
“I get a call from the Lakers the night before the draft saying they were going to take me,” Wilkins said. “I’m expecting to have my name called with the draft, but it didn’t happen.”
The Los Angeles Lakers, on the cusp of the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O’Neal dynasty, used their two second-round picks on Louisville’s DeJuan Wheat and Gonzaga’s Paul Rogers.
Wilkins’ professional career overseas was cut short by a foot injury that still causes him discomfort.
“I maxed out all of my ability,” Wilkins said. “I made sure I was the hardest working player in practice every day, the hardest working player in the games every time. I’m satisfied with that.”
Braswell, the Cal State Northridge coach at the time, hired Wilkins as an assistant with the duties of financial aid coordinator, academic coordinator, overseeing the meal plan and study hall and hiring the strength and conditioning staff.
On the court, Wilkins was the second defensive coach for two seasons.
“I wasn’t making the impact with the players I desired,” Wilkins said. “I decided I wanted to get these people before they get here. That’s when I ramped up the idea of the youth program. Northridge gave me a framework of how to teach it.”
Making those connections with young people like Jackson at Mac Court and giving back to the Eugene-Springfield community through basketball would eventually save Wilkins’ life.
‘It just can’t be something that happened to me’
The morning after Wilkins’ dark walk on Seventh Avenue, his inbox and voicemail were full. Former teammates were calling to check in or to meet for breakfast. Former pupils, now grown up, were texting him photos of their playing days for him.
Another giant in the community, Oregon legend and former women’s coach Bev Smith, who is now the executive director of KidSports, reached out to Jackson about Wilkins’ plight as the email circulated through local basketball circles.
“He needed to know that people cared about him and he meant something to a lot of people,” said Jackson, 37, the former Northwest Christian University coach. “I think he was feeling pretty depressed about some things, so I tried to get in contact with him. I had a talk with him and just said, ‘Hey, are you ready to go in and go through a treatment program and get some help?’ …
“The situation really shocked me. It was really out of character for him to be in a situation like that. I just tried to love on him and encourage him. We cried on the way to Serenity Lane together. I took him to church a couple times and tried to be there for him.”
On April 5, 2019, Jonathan Mitchell organized a fundraiser for Wilkins to help him with “Medical, Illness & Healing.”
Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne, who worked in the Oregon athletic department from 1995-98, was among the donors. Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, an assistant with the Ducks from 1992-97, chipped in $1,000.
“Thinking about you,” Turgeon posted on the GoFundMe page for Wilkins’ recovery costs. “Praying for you.”
Wilkins is in a better place now but there is never a Hollywood ending for those afflicted with his disease. It’s a daily struggle to stay sober and rebuild all of those burned bridges.
“I am optimistic and I have a lot of faith in who Kenya is,” Jackson said. “Everyone has different struggles in their life that they have to overcome. Some people push the boundaries further. I’m happy that Kenya is alive and he didn’t hurt himself too bad. I think he has so much to offer the world. He really is a good soul.
“I’m just rooting for him to have a great comeback. He’s helped so many people over the years, kids that couldn’t afford to go to basketball camps that he’s taught and mentored. Kids that are adults now. I hate to see anybody destroying their life when they have so much to offer the world.”
Wilkins said Gary Hoffman, a former NFL player and local businessman, has been a “godsend” during the early stages of his recovery. Hoffman’s son Spencer attended Wilkins’ basketball skills academy growing up and helped lead Churchill High to the state championship game in 2017.
“Kenya has an unbelievable game plan of what he wants to accomplish here in the community. If he was an IPO, I’d be all in,” Hoffman said. “Here’s somebody that has been under the bridge and ready to call it quits. One thing I believe through sports, and he has learned it in life, is sometimes you have to learn how to lose before learning how to win.”
An extended family support system is in place for Wilkins, whose mother, brother and a handful of cousins and their families have all been living in the Eugene-Springfield area for over a decade.
Raymond Sr. — who never saw Wilkins play in an organized basketball game because he was “too embarrassed” by his own appearance — eventually kicked his own drug habit. Before he died of lung cancer, there was a father-son reconciliation.
“There was a point going through my struggles that I had great compassion for Pops, a new understanding of his relationship with my mom,” Wilkins said. “There was love there. I understand the heartache he felt being away from his kids as he was struggling and how horrible it was for him.”
Wilkins repeated the cycle with his children but says they have been “so forgiving” since he came out of an intense 60-day treatment program at Serenity Lane.
Chandra remains estranged while working six to seven days a week trying to rescue the family from the wake of devastation Wilkins left behind.
“My wife held it down, she’s still holding it down,” Wilkins said. “We’re distant, understandably. I was a madman.”
Jackson told Wilkins to “start dreaming again,” which is what his new endeavor, the L.A.B. (Life Skills And Basketball) is all about.
The fallen basketball hero hopes to use his story to help steer young people, especially at-risk kids, down a better road one dribble at a time.
“I’m still crawling. Hoping to walk, hoping to run. But I was laying down dead for a while. I mean, dead. Dead man walking out there,” Wilkins said. “It changed me in ways that, it’s just crazy. When you experience that level of hell that I experienced, you don’t walk away clean and the affects of it are going to be with me for a while. …
“What I went through, it can’t be just to go through. That level of pain, devastation, embarrassment, everything associated with it … it just can’t be something that happened to me. It changed me. I remember praying while I’m in it just for peace. Not to fix the problems, not to fix anything, just peace. I have that.”
Follow Ryan Thorburn on Twitter @RGDuckFootball and email podcast mailbag questions to email@example.com. For more Oregon sports coverage, visit DuckSports.com.