Back From a Debilitating Illness, Kris Wilkes Is Ready for His Chance

The New York Times Sports department is revisiting the subjects of some compelling articles from the last year or so. Here is our October 2021 report on Kris Wilkes’s mysterious illness.

Paul Paolella recognized Kris Wilkes immediately. Wilkes’s hair was a little longer, and his frame a little lighter, but Paolella was sure it was him. He thought back to the last time he’d seen Wilkes in a U.C.L.A. men’s basketball uniform. He knew it had been a few years, and he wondered why he’d never seen Wilkes in the N.B.A. But he didn’t ask. Instead, on that day in mid-January, he asked what all personal trainers ask potential clients: “What are your fitness goals?”

“I want to get my strength back,” Wilkes replied, “and I want to play basketball again.”

As they began working together, Paolella told Wilkes about a time when he had to get his strength back. Paolella said he survived Stage 4 cancer three times, stretching back to 2013. But even in the nauseating delirium of chemotherapy, he never stopped working out. He just placed a trash can by the treadmill.

When Wilkes, 24, heard Paolella’s story, he shared his own. The day of the 2019 N.B.A. draft, Wilkes, who was expected to be selected as high as the first round, woke up unable to feel his legs. He was first diagnosed with acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, or ADEM, an autoimmune disorder. That diagnosis was expanded to an extremely rare combination of ADEM and Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disorder in which the immune system attacks nerves.

After going undrafted, Wilkes signed a contract with the Knicks, but instead of playing at Madison Square Garden, he spent the next few months learning to walk again. A multimillion-dollar insurance policy secured Wilkes’s financial future, but he never gave up on trying to play professional basketball.

“Kris was clear about his goal from the beginning,” Paolella said.

He added that Wilkes “knew he could just be the guy who used to be a star, who used to play basketball, and who now sits around in his apartment all day — or he could be the hero who came back.”

Initially, Wilkes weighed about 190 pounds, down from 220 during his collegiate career. He could not deadlift his body weight, and the range of motion in his hips, critical for playing in the ballistic ballet of the N.B.A., was severely constricted from limited activity.

He said he still deals with lingering bladder issues but his doctors have given him clearance for any level of physical activity. He is 95 percent back to how healthy he felt at U.C.L.A., he said.

“This whole journey has been an eye-opener for me,” Wilkes said, adding: “In a strange way, the whole experience has made me more grateful. It’s made me appreciate the things that I can do. I’m more grateful than ever to be able to play basketball.”

As he worked with Paolella to recover his strength — every weekday in the gym plus Saturdays in the pool — Wilkes also worked with his longtime basketball trainer, Olin Simplis, to recover his basketball skills.

In high school, Wilkes was known for his explosive athleticism. He would barrel into the lane, daring defenders to stop him, and find ways to sink shots from seemingly impossible angles. His style of play had made him a star at U.C.L.A. But he knows that his athleticism alone will no longer be enough to get him to the pinnacle of professional basketball.

“When teams draft you, they give you a little time to develop,” Simplis said. “But when you come in through the back door, like Kris will have to do, you have to find your niche.”

“If I ever play again professionally, I know I’d be more of a role player,” Wilkes said. “Playing defense, getting rebounds, setting screens. And when I do get the ball, making smart passes and making my shots consistently.”

Wilkes knows getting to the N.B.A. will be a formidable challenge. Doing so would most likely begin with a Summer League invitation and require time in the G League, the N.B.A.’s developmental level, or overseas, where players are expected to dominate before they’re given a chance in the N.B.A.

Through his former agency, Wasserman, and Simplis, Wilkes was invited this summer to play in some runs at Academy USA, a Los Angeles-area gym that serves as an off-season home for several N.B.A. stars. Wilkes spent the day before his first run imagining what it would be like to play high-level competitive basketball again.

“At first, just like anything else, you get the nerves,” he said. “But once you start playing, for me, it’s all natural. It’s instincts.”

“I played hard and competed, and eventually people just started looking at me like a regular player on the court, which was awesome,” he added.

On various days, he played with Atlanta’s De’Andre Hunter, Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dallas’s Spencer Dinwiddie. But what stood out most for Wilkes was the day the Nets star Kevin Durant came into the gym. Even some of the other N.B.A. players there that day asked for photos, but Wilkes didn’t want to be distracted by Durant’s celebrity.

“I reminded myself: He’s got what I want,” Wilkes said. “And for me to get it, I had to prove that I belonged on the same court as him. That’s what I did.”

As the summer ended, Wilkes felt more confident than ever that a comeback was possible. As he builds toward that, he is also working on Origyn Sport, a business he started with his insurance money that created a training basketball. Videos of him using it have millions of views on TikTok.

But professional basketball is never far from his mind.

“My doctors told me I might not be able to walk again, and here I am in the gym every day,” he said. “Everything was taken away from me, so every time I get something back, it’s a blessing. When someone is ready to give me another chance to play basketball, believe me: I’ll be ready.”

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