Now that his ruptured Achilles tendon is healed, DeMarcus Cousins will make his Golden State Warriors debut on Friday evening against the Los Angeles Clippers. This is a situation that Dominique Wilkins will be monitoring closely – not just because he still loves the game of basketball, but because he’s become a mentor of sorts to Cousins as he’s recovered.
Wilkins felt compelled to help since he’d been in this exact same situation 26 years ago, when he tore his Achilles on Jan. 29, 1992. He heard a pop and dreaded what his future held. Fortunately, his story differs greatly from the long list of players who sustained the injury and then faded into irrelevance. Instead, he responded with one of the best seasons of his NBA career.
Three and a half months into Cousins’ rehabilitation, he was searching for some inspiration. He found exactly what he was looking for when he researched Wilkins’ incredible comeback.
On May 19, 2018, Cousins posted a picture to Twitter and Instagram that showed Wilkins moments after he ruptured his Achilles. It gave Cousins hope and he praised the legend’s comeback.
Shortly after, the two NBA stars connected.
“I reached out to him,” Wilkins told HoopsHype. “I told him, ‘Don’t listen to all of the critics. Nobody knows your heart the way that you do. Use that to your advantage. Don’t let all of the critics dictate who you are.’”
After that first conversation, the duo began communicating regularly. The 59-year-old Hall of Famer shared his experiences and offered a ton of advice to the 28-year-old big man.
It’s clear that Cousins took Wilkins’ advice to heart. In fact, he has practically repeated it verbatim in interviews, so it clearly affected the nine-year veteran.
“Well, with Dominique, that’s who I’ve probably spoken to the most,” Cousins told ESPN. “And he just basically tells me to attack it. Once you realize you are healed, like, don’t think about it. Just go forward… [You can’t focus on players who haven’t returned to form because of this]. Not at all. Not at all. One thing that Dominique also spoke on is, ‘They don’t know your heart, and they don’t know your drive.'”
A ruptured Achilles is generally considered the worst injury an NBA big man can sustain given their size and how their body gradually breaks down. That’s why any hope and optimism Wilkins could provide Cousins was greatly appreciated.
Some fans questioned why Wilkins has been willing to help a rival player, considering he is Atlanta’s Vice President of Basketball and Cousins obviously plays for the Warriors. However, for Wilkins, this is much bigger than competing with Golden State.
“People look at it and ask why I’m lighting a fire in a guy who isn’t on my team, but, to me, that doesn’t matter,” Wilkins explained. “It’s not about that! It’s about helping someone continue to fulfill their dreams. That’s what was the most important thing to me because, look, I’ve been through it! I’ve been through this. I know what he’s dealing with.”
Wilkins is one of the few people who has been able to put himself in Cousins’ shoes throughout this whole process. Wilkins also vividly remembers how he felt on the eve of his comeback game. He was very anxious in the 24 hours leading up to his much-anticipated return, but equally excited to get back on an NBA court after his absence.
“The 24 hours before your first game back are scary,” Wilkins admitted. “The thing you keep thinking about is, ‘What if I tear this thing again? What if I hear that pop?’ You think of those sort of things, but you must get those things out of your head. You can’t even think about that stuff.
“The moment I realized I was back to being myself came during our training camp. I hit the ground really hard, and I immediately grabbed my ankle. But I didn’t feel any pain. That’s when I said, ‘You know what? If this thing is going to pop or tear, it’s happening on my terms. I’m going all out.’ I just had to think like that to get that [fear] out of my head.”
When Wilkins finally made his comeback, he scored an efficient 30 points against the New York Knicks. The very next night – the second game of a back-to-back – Wilkins battled Jordan and Chicago Bulls. He finished with 33 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 block, 1 steal and the win.
“We played two really great teams in a back-to-back when I first returned. I had two great games, which did wonders for my confidence,” Wilkins said. “I knew, at that point, ‘Hey, I’m back in rare form.’ That’s when I realized, ‘Only you know how tough you are. Nobody else knows.’ That confidence and toughness helped me get over my fear of hurting myself again.”
In Wilkins’ first season following the torn Achilles, he won the NBA’s Comeback Player of the Year award by averaging an impressive 29.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.0 steals per game. He recorded the second-highest scoring average among all NBA players in the 1992-93 season, trailing only Michael Jordan’s 32.6 points per game.
Not only did Wilkins play in 71 games the year after his Achilles tear, he thrived with Atlanta throughout that campaign. Put simply, he didn’t just get back on the court – he got back to performing at an elite level and led the Hawks to 43 wins and a playoff berth.
While many expected the injury to be career-ending (or close to it), Wilkins played another 320 NBA games after the Achilles scare. On top of that, he also played two additional professional seasons abroad in Greece and Italy.
Wilkins had a dominant 15 years in the NBA and he averaged 24.8 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.3 blocks over the course of his career. As if this isn’t impressive enough, he was selected to seven All-NBA Teams. To this day, he’s the 13th-leading scorer in NBA history with 26,668 points, and his 24.8 career points per game is the 13th-highest scoring mark of all-time.
While Cousins was able to look up Wilkins’ success story when he needed encouragement, what did Wilkins do in 1991 to keep his head up? At that point, there’s a reason the general consensus was that ‘Nique would never be the same player following the injury. A ruptured Achilles was essentially considered a death sentence for a professional athlete.
But rather than feel sorry for himself and accept his decline, “The Human Highlight Film” became determined to silence his doubters.
“Well, I looked at all of the criticism,” Wilkins said, explaining how he remained motivated. “I looked at all of the guys who were saying I wouldn’t come back. I looked at all of the guys who were saying that if I did come back, I couldn’t be that good because I was already 32 years old. I looked at everyone saying my best days were behind me because, at that time, it was a very difficult injury to come back from.
“I just used it as fuel to prove everyone wrong. I worked twice-a-day, every day, for nine months. I was working hard. My inspiration came from all of those negative articles that talked about how old I was and how difficult it would be to return. I kept all of those articles and I put them on my bathroom mirror, so that I’d have to see them every day. That was my inspiration.”
While Cousins sought advice from individuals like Wilkins, Kobe Bryant, Rudy Gay and Wes Matthews among others, he also used the abundant hate he was receiving to help him stay locked in.
After getting to know Cousins throughout this process, Wilkins has become a big believer in the former Kentucky product.
“I would be very surprised if he didn’t come back and get back to the level he once was at,” Wilkins said. “He’s a guy who absolutely loves to play. He plays with emotion. He plays with a fire. And the good thing for him is he was a lot younger at 27 years old [than I was when I had the injury]. He’s a guy who’s really committed. We’ve had some great conversations.
“I love his game. I really do love his game,” Wilkins continued. “He plays with a lot of emotion and passion, and I have no problem with that. He’s a guy who’s always going to play hard and he’s going to go after guys. He plays with a chip on his shoulder, and that’s what makes you great. He’s one of those throwback guys [who remind me] of the players you’d see back when I played. He’s that kind of guy.”
When Wilkins returned to the 1992-93 Hawks, he had the second-highest usage percentage in the NBA (trailing only Jordan, again), according to Basketball-Reference. He was leading a mediocre team that needed him to play exceptional basketball on a nightly basis.
Meanwhile, because Cousins is on the loaded Warriors, he’ll be surrounded by four 2018 All-Stars – Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green – all of whom have multiple championship rings from recent years.
“The fortunate thing for him is that he has three great players on the team who can take a lot of the weight off his shoulders,” Wilkins said of Golden State’s star-studded core. “That should make his transition a little easier. I think he’s going to be just fine!”
It must be noted that for every ‘Nique, who can brush off a serious ailment like this as a minor inconvenience, there are hundreds of athletes who look like a shell of themselves when they make their return. They recover, but not fully. The fear is that Cousins will look less like Wilkins and more like Elton Brand, Mehmet Okur, Christian Laettner, Jonas Jerebko, Darrell Arthur and Anderson Varejao – all of whom were never quite the same.
What makes an Achilles injury so devastating? Chauncey Billups, who was 35 years old when his tear occurred, pointed out that it was all of the subsequent injuries that doomed his comeback. Even after his Achilles healed, there was always something wrong with his body. The injuries stemmed from his Achilles issue, but it wasn’t the tear in particular that haunted him. Imagine an Achilles injury as an initial crack in a windshield. Every little thing can make it worse, causing new issues left and right.
Cousins has worked extremely hard to get to this point and his emotions will understandably be all over the place as he regains his footing on the Staples Center hardwood tonight. Wilkins will tell him to exude confidence, expect greatness and play without any thought of injury.
However, those things are easier said than done. Just because Wilkins is in Cousins’ corner as his newfound mentor, there’s no guarantee that their stories will have a similar ending.
As for Wilkins’ plans on Friday night, he’ll be sitting in front of his television like the majority of basketball fans around the country.
Whether you love Cousins or hate him – whether you root for Golden State or believe the franchise is “ruining the NBA” – there’s no question that this will be an intriguing, must-see game.
“I know they’ll be managing his minutes and that sort of thing, but it’ll be very interesting to see how he comes out and plays,” Wilkins said. “I’m looking forward to watching!”