Cartersville native and Cass High graduate Eddie Lee Wilkins played six seasons in the NBA, but he has had a significantly larger term as a role model to Bartow County youth and as a prominent sports figure.
The Eddie Lee Wilkins Youth Association summer program is now in its 25th year, providing Bartow youth with an opportunity to meet former NBA players and stay on track in their goals, both on and off the court.
“The whole city has helped us continue this program. It’s been a combined effort, so I’m just very happy that I’ve been able to continue for 25 years,” Wilkins said. “I think my responsibility to them is to always try to show that you can do things the right way. You don’t have to be in trouble all the time. You can be successful by doing the right things.”
Wilkins played five seasons with the New York Knicks and one more with the Philadelphia 76ers. He has used his connections in the NBA to help enhance the experience to the participants of the youth program as notable Knicks figures have made appearances at the camp. On Tuesday, 13-year NBA veteran A.J. Johnson came to the J.H. Morgan Gym to talk to the campers. Next Tuesday, entertainment attorney Tony Mulrain, who represents NBA players Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh among other notable entertainers, will be speaking to the camp.
To have such figures come to the gym that Wilkins himself honed his game at as a young player playing pickup games provides inspiration to the campers.
“We’ve had Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley and John Starks down here, they’ve all been in this gym,” Wilkins said. “We’ve had so many people right here in this gym. To have these guys come through the gym that I grew up in is pretty special.”
The direction and motivation Wilkins’ Youth Association summer programs have already provided Bartow student-athletes is recognizable in some of the program’s alumni who have gone on to college.
Hakeem Winters is a counselor at the camp this summer and was a starter this past season on the Cartersville High basketball team that reached the Class AAA state quarterfinals.
He will attend Chattahoochee Tech next year and play on the basketball team.
“I started off at this camp when I was 6 or 7. I’ve known the [Wilkinses] for a long time since I was little. They took care of me and helped out,” Winters said. “Past counselors have inspired me and made me want to pursue this. They kept me out of trouble, got me into basketball a lot more than what I used to be. It made my game a little better. I believe it inspired me to become a better basketball player. Seeing Eddie in the pros, seeing him come out of the city of Cartersville, made me think I can do the same.”
Several Bartow County basketball players have made the tradition from attending Wilkins’ summer youth programs to attending college.
“Rudy [Winters, who is now playing at Gordon State and was the 2013 Daily Tribune News Co-Player of the Year] went to the camp here. Ronnie Brown was a camper. Everybody that’s come up playing in the summer league, even if they didn’t play basketball, they played in the summer. It is just very rewarding,” Wilkins said. “I remember Rudy when he was a little kid. Ryan Davis [2013 and 2014 Daily Tribune News Co-Player of the Year] played here as well. We’ve had a lot of kids to come through here.”
Both Rudy and Hakeem Winters as well as Ryan Davis will be playing college basketball next year, something Wilkins attributes as much to the academic programs as to the basketball.
“We don’t just teach basketball. We use basketball as a tool to get them in and we teach them about conflict resolution. We have a math camp, reading and writing program,” Wilkins said. “I see numerous players go on to college from our camp. We’ve had parents of kids now who were in the camp. It’s a good feeling to be able to come back to the community and to be a positive influence and make a difference.
“I’m just thankful that I’ve been able to sustain this program for this long.”