June 30, 2016

Partly sunny

Boys basketball: Many people have helped Medina’s Wilkins succeed

There was a time when Branden Wilkins, hardheaded, immature and a bit unruly, had to be told things again and again and again.

Sometimes he eventually listened, other times he didn’t.

Undeterred, people like maternal grandmother Bonnie Jones, who has raised Wilkins since he was 8, uncles Lovell and Laval Jones, Claggett Middle School and AAU basketball coach Kenn Kaminski, Medina varsity coach Anthony Stacey and numerous teachers and friends kept repeating their primary message.

Medina senior Branden Wilkins poses with his grandmother, Bonnie Jones. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY RON SCHWANE)

Medina senior Branden Wilkins poses with his grandmother, Bonnie Jones. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY RON SCHWANE)

You’re a good kid.

You can make something of yourself, on and off the court.

You can use basketball to get into college.

You can be a success story.

Now 18, the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Wilkins has taken all that to heart. It didn’t happen in a week or a month or a year, but it happened.

Averaging 17.1 points for the 14-3 Bees, the senior power forward is one of the best players in Medina County and, although he still has to meet the ACT qualifying score, has attracted the attention of college programs like Division II Ashland, D-III Mount Union and NAIA member Shawnee State.

It’s been a long journey that Wilkins readily acknowledges would not have happened were it not for all the people who helped him along the way.

“Toward middle school, I could have gone either way,” he said. “I look back and picture my life and think of the people that helped me. I’m so thankful I’m in Medina. I could have been somewhere else and gotten in a lot more trouble.”

These days, instead of picking up detentions and suspensions, the constantly smiling and very popular Wilkins is the kind of kid who picks up the spirits of those around him.

“He’s made a complete 180,” Stacey said. “His grades have improved and he’s not had any discipline problems. I couldn’t be more proud of the way he’s grown up and the changes he’s made, on and off the court.”

Grandma Wilkins, who remains in contact with his mother but has no relationship with his father, speaks glowingly about his 69-year-old grandmother, whose constant preaching about schoolwork, respect and dedication have finally taken hold.

“Without her, I don’t know where I’d be at,” he said. “It wouldn’t be any good, I can tell you that. I feel terrible about some of the things I put her through, but she stood by me. She knew one day I would grow up.”

Bonnie Jones, who didn’t hesitate to take Wilkins in when it became clear that’s what needed to be done, always knew her grandson would succeed. It just took awhile for him to get the message.

“He was a little wild,” she said with a laugh. “The school and teachers and everybody helped and he turned out very great. I had a lot of help with Branden.”

Some of that help came from her sons, Lovell and Laval, who have instilled discipline in Wilkins and been there when he needed to talk to an older male.

A round ball that can be bounced and shot through a hoop eventually provided more impetus to make changes, develop as a player and person and set goals.

“Basketball is his first love, and it played a big role,” Bonnie Jones said. “He’s really dedicated. He’s into it just about 24/7.

“I’m very proud of Branden. I always sensed something down in him.”

Wilkins’ grandmother sensed that way before he did, leaving him extremely grateful she stuck by him and continued to love, encourage and push him.

“My grandmother gives me everything she can,” he said. “If she had a dollar and it was the only dollar she had, she would give it to me.”

Middle school

Naturally muscular and strong, Wilkins was a running back long before he was a power forward, but when he entered the seventh grade at Claggett, basketball started to gain a foothold.

Now, it consumes him.

“To some people, it’s a game,” Wilkins said. “To me, it’s like life. As soon as you step out on that court, it’s about how much work you put in. It doesn’t matter if a kid has this or a kid has that. It’s whether you can play.
“I like proving myself every time I step on the court. I love people barking at me, because I love leaving them speechless when the game is over.”

At first, Wilkins left Kaminski speechless for a much different reason.

Raw and out of control on the court, sometimes incorrigible on it and off it, Wilkins frequently ran wind sprints or sat out portions of practice because he simply wouldn’t listen.

“I’ve got a list that would last forever,” Kaminski said when asked if he had any Wilkins stories. “You have no idea. He lacked discipline and structure.”

What Wilkins lacked in those areas, however, he made up for with a burning desire to not only play, but succeed. That required some patience on his part, but even more from his coaches.

His teachers? Wilkins laughs when he thinks about it, but also regrets what he put some of them through.

“I had a lot of people tell me what to do, but I didn’t listen to anybody but my coaches,” he said. “All I wanted to do was play basketball. I didn’t think about after high school. I was living in the present.”

Like so many others, Kaminski didn’t give up on Wilkins and eventually added him to his Ohio Stampede AAU team, which gave a growing teenage boy the opportunity to play against top-level competition in places like Indianapolis, Chicago, Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Hampton, Va.

How far has Wilkins come?

“Light years,” Kaminski said. “We brought him on to help him and he turned into one of the best players our (AAU) program has had. He improved immensely.

“Now, he’s a great, polite young man.”

High school

Once Wilkins started having success on the hardwood, he also started developing more confidence. Problem was, that confidence soon turned into cockiness.

When he was a sophomore, Wilkins began the season starting for the varsity in Stacey’s first season as coach at Medina. Before long, he was playing on the junior varsity.

“I started running my mouth,” he said. “That’s what it was. I started not listening. I didn’t like what Coach had to tell me. I thought I could do other things and it got me down to JV.”

A decent but not great shooter, Wilkins’ biggest strength has always been, well, his strength. Get him the ball on the block and he usually finishes or gets fouled.

But as a 16-year-old, he wanted to do it all, he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it right now.

Stacey, now 6-4 and 300-plus pounds and a former Mid-American Conference Player of the Year at Bowling Green State University, wasn’t going to have any of that.

A battle of wills ensued. Eventually, Stacey won. But in a much more important way, so did Wilkins in the long run.

“It was ridiculous,” Wilkins said. “It ranged from being screamed at to getting kicked out of practices. He knew how good I could be. It was all worth it in the end, but at times I was wondering, ‘Is this what I want to do?’

“He definitely pushed me to the limit and he still does. Now I’m real thankful, but when I was a sophomore, I couldn’t understand why I was doing this and why I was the one being screamed at all the time. I was the oddball out. I couldn’t understand, but now I do.”

Stacey has become a father figure to Wilkins, but he doesn’t hesitate to get on his power forward on the rare occasions when Wilkins is not playing — or acting — the right way.

“He’s improved his jumper a ton, but he understands his bread and butter is taking it to the basket,” Stacey said. “Once he catches it on the block and makes up his mind, he’s virtually unstoppable.”

A quality starter as a junior, Wilkins has developed into a star as a senior. Combining quickness with brute strength, he attempted 18 free throws in a game against Mentor, 13 against Garfield Heights and 12 vs. Brunswick.

“Sometimes I’m unstoppable,” Wilkins said. “Either you’re going to let me get a layup or you’re going to foul me and I’m going to knock down the free throws. Do whichever you choose. One way or another, I’m going to score.”

That may sound like some of Wilkins’ old cockiness coming back, but it’s not that at all. Stacey wants his players to play with confidence and be aggressive, and that’s what Wilkins, who is also asked to defend the opponent’s top front-line scorer, has done in virtually every game this season.

The biggest strides of all, however, have come off the court.

“He and I have grown very close,” Stacey said. “I have been as hard on him as just about anybody I’ve ever coached. (He’s got) passion, heart, desire. I love that kid.”

Wilkins, who plans on majoring in sports management in college, feels the same way about his coach — and all the others who stood by him when life wasn’t as good as it is now.

“I wasn’t the kind of kid you could tell something to one time and I would do it,” he said. “You had to tell me multiple times. I look back and think of the things I did, I can’t believe some people stuck around. I know I wouldn’t have. Coach Stacey always said, ‘I’m never giving up on you,’ and he never did.”

More important than that, however, is that Wilkins never gave up on himself. There were times when he didn’t totally believe, but he never quit.

Now, having made positive changes and tasted success, he wants more.

“I’m real proud of myself,” Wilkins said. “But to tell you the truth, I don’t think this is finished at all.”

Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @RickNoland.

Rick Noland About Rick Noland

Rick Noland is the Cavs beat writer for The Gazette and the author of "Over Time," a compilation of stories he's written in more than 30 years as a journalist. He can be reached at 330-721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.