This article was first published in the 2002 October edition of The
Loyalist, Loyola High School's student newspaper. Kevin Wittner is currently a junior at Loyola High School. Serving as the
school's Sports Information Director, he manages the school's athletic's
website, www.loyolahs.edu/athletics, and covers sports for the student
newspaper. He also works as the statistician for the Varsity Football,
Basketball, and Baseball teams at Loyola. In his free time, Kevin umpires
baseball and officiates basketball in the Los Angeles area.
Omar Wilkes Story
Reprinted with permission
As a four-year Varsity letterman, three years with All-Mission League honors, a 2002 Mission League MVP, and 2002 CIF Player of the Year Omar Wilkes had performed under pressure before. But never had the high school senior faced this much attention.
Pressures on young athletes
In today’s society many high school seniors stress over the process of college testing, applications, and acceptance letters. But what is that pressure like when people that the student doesn’t even know try to influence his college decision? With the testing and applications virtually out of the way, Omar had his choice of where he wanted to attend.
“Right now I am down to three choices: Cal, UCLA, and Kansas,” Wilkes stated before announcing his eventual decision to play for the University of Kansas.
“Stanford, Florida, and USC were among other schools that offered, but now it’s crunch time for me. Getting to talk to Paul Pierce, Baron Davis, and Jason Kidd has been the biggest thrill. I got to hang out with Paul Pierce and Baron [Davis]. I got to talk to Jason Kidd.”
Pierce is a former Kansas Jayhawk; Davis is a former UCLA Bruin; and Kidd is former Cal Golden Bear. Undoubtedly these high profile basketball players all tried to persuade Wilkes to attend their respective schools. This shows that even in the perks of the recruiting process, such as meeting sports figures, can potentially create even more stress on a young athlete.
Omar was lucky to have the support of his father Jamaal Wilkes, a former UCLA basketball star and member of championship winning Los Angeles Laker teams of the 80’s. Mr. Wilkes helped him through the process. Mr. Wilkes cited the differences from when he was a high school senior, to the college recruiting of today.
“[The recruiting process] is a lot more intense now. Back when I played it was common to decide in May of your senior year, rather than earlier. You also didn’t have the Internet, there’s so much stuff on the Internet now. It’s a lot more pressure, a lot more hype.”
Even Omar’s younger brother Jordan Wilkes, a current Loyola sophomore, commented on the procedure.
“I learned that recruiting is very, very hectic,” said Jordan. “You can’t shy away from it.”
Somehow Omar not only kept his cool through the pressure and influences, but he also clearly distinguished whose opinions he should listen to, and those he could leave alone.
“Coach Williamson has been huge. My mother and father have both influenced me as well,” said Wilkes.
“There have been a lot of other influences; everyone has an opinion of where I should go. I got used to it, but the ones who really matter are those three. They didn’t give their opinions, they just supported me and made sure I didn’t make a stupid decision.”
Along with the stress of decision-making, high school seniors are treated to luxurious recruiting trips. According to Wilkes, he “took three official trips [to Kansas, UCLA, and Cal], in which the school pays for the trip, and one unofficial trip to Stanford, which [Omar’s] family paid for.”
Wilkes describes a typical trip.
“On a recruiting trip, you fly out to the school, stay at a very nice hotel, and eat lavishly the whole weekend. Any food you want, in as much quantity as you want. You tour the campus, hang out with the players, hang out with the coaches, see the facilities, talk to the teachers and administrators.”
In addition, the current college players try to show the young recruit what life at the university is like. When asked to describe the activities for the evening, Wilkes laughed.
“At night you just do whatever the players have planned for you. We stayed in the dorms and played video games the whole week or did homework,” said Wilkes, flashing a smile.
These trips, however, are meant for more than just fun and games. Athletes form an impression of the school and the team. When asked about his decision the press conference, Wilkes commented, “[It was] just the feeling I got when I visited [Kansas], the relationship I built with the players, and Coach Williams.”
At first Omar’s mother, Mrs. Valerie Wilkes, was hesitant to go to Kansas on the recruiting trip. It was only after Omar encouraged her to visit Lawrence with him that she decided to accompany him. Prior to the trip, Mrs. Wilkes knew nothing about Kansas or even its coach. By making the trip, she was able to understand the campus, the program, and the culture of Kansas that much more.
“It was a great trip. On the way there I kept saying ‘Oh, this is so far.’ I had to change planes twice, rent a car, and drive,” said Mrs. Wilkes.
“But once you’re on campus, the beauty of the campus, the warmth and feeling of everybody involved just made everything so much easier. By the time I left, it was fine with me.”
In addition to these trips, college coaches visit the homes of prospective players. He sits down with the family and talks to them about why young athlete should attend his university. Loyola’s Varsity Basketball Head Coach Jim Williamson sat in on a few home visits.
“During a home visit, the coach sells the school. It’s almost like going to buy a car and finding out all the information about it,” said Williamson. “He presents his school in the best light, with what it can offer academically, socially, and athletically.”
Omar had grown up meeting his father’s former teammates and current NBA stars. He was still amazed to see high-profile college coaches walk into his home.
“It was a little weird seeing Coach [Mike] Montgomery [of Stanford], Coach [Roy] Williams [of Kansas], Coach [Steve] Lavin [of UCLA], and Coach [Ben] Braun [of Cal] in my home,” said Wilkes.
“I see them on television twice a week during the season, and they are such icons at the universities at which they coach. But after a while you have to recognize each of them as a person because when you go to school you’re not going to be in awe of them any more. You’re going to want to respect them and to please them. I was able to draw the line.”
Mrs. Wilkes agreed, “I was very impressed and overwhelmed at times that [the coaches] were interested in my son.”
Just as the recruiting trips are meant to show the school to the athlete and his parents, the home visits are an opportunity for a coach to create and develop a trusting relationship with the player and his family. Omar acknowledged the importance of the construction of this relationship between player and coach.
“There is a trust factor because you never know if they’re saying this because they’re sincere or not. There has to be a certain gut feeling or a trust that you have with that coach because you have to believe in his system and his philosophy,” explained Wilkes.
“You have to trust him as a person and a coach. The other schools were great schools, but I just fell in love with Kansas. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut and my gut is with Coach Williams and Kansas.”
“Coach Williams came across with a caring, warm personality,” commented Mrs. Wilkes.
Mr. Jamaal Wilkes agreed.
“We trust Coach Williams with our son,” said Mr. Wilkes. “Off the court we trust that he will look after Omar, make sure he doesn’t get in to too much trouble, and help him grow up to be a fine young man.”
Check back for part two of this article, as Wilkes Week continues at Phog.net