Rakeem Wilson was shot and a freak accident threatened his playing career. But he’s thriving now on the court.
by Tyler Heffernan
It’s not that uncommon for sports players to have devastating injuries. It’s not unusual for athletes to have dealt with family tragedies, either. And, unfortunately, there are plenty of examples of sports figures who have survived being shot.
It’s a lot less common for all three of those circumstances to happen to one person.
Those experiences themselves aren’t what make Rakeem Wilson special, though.
“It’s like somebody just put you into a hole with a whole bunch of ants and they’re just biting,” Wilson says, trying to reason with a 22-year-life that has been riddled with unforeseen incidents and interruptions. “It’s tough, and I don’t know how I did it.”
After leading New Hanover High School, in Wilmington, N.C., to a 4A basketball state championship in his junior year, Wilson appeared destined for the highest level of college athletics. Basketball seemed to be his way out of the ant-infested hole that his life had perpetually become a part of.
Things don’t always work out the way they’re supposed to, though. The head coach at New Hanover resigned following the state title. An alumnus took over the program that had an 83-10 record under the previous coach. Wilson says the replacement, who resigned after that initial season, didn’t have his new players’ best interests at heart.
He and then-teammate Ty Walker, now a senior center for Wake Forest, received invitations to the 2008 McDonald’s All-American game, but neither were permitted to participate. “I don’t think he did one piece of paperwork,” Wilson says of the replacement coach. “He never signed papers for me and Ty. We were one of the top 150, and he never signed over the papers. They told us we could have played in it, but he basically left us on our own.”
Wilson admits to being mostly naïve of the recruiting process, and says that the new coach didn’t sit down with him to discuss his options, or to give him much guidance at all.
“If I would’ve known what I had to do to get there, I could have,” Wilson says emphatically. “But I didn’t know anything; I didn’t have anybody to sit down and talk to me that this is what you have to do.”
Wilson says he maintained about a C average in school, because he thought that was good enough for most colleges. It wasn’t, and since there was hardly any communication from his school to collegiate scouts, a McDonald’s All-American invitee slipped through the cracks. Wilson eventually accepted a walk-on role at Louisburg College, a North Carolina junior college.
In Wilmington, Cape Fear Community College (CFCC) coach Ryan Mantlo was well aware of the speedy guard throughout his high school career. “When we initially started our recruiting of Rakeem, we thought he was going to make the grades, so we backed off and really didn’t recruit him at all his senior year,” he says. “Next thing I knew, he was at Louisburg and I’m like, ‘What in the world happened?’
“There was no communication, to us at least, that he needed [junior college].”
At Louisburg, Wilson found himself in a bad case of déjà vu. The coach that he had been in contact with had left. He would have to try out for the team and earn a spot on the roster. “It was a wreck,” he says.
Wilson, however, worked through tryouts and vaulted his way up to the starting point guard. But a few days before Louisburg’s first official scrimmage game, a freak accident threatened his playing career.
As Wilson was pushing a door open to leave his dormitory one morning, someone called his name. He remembers turning around and the heavy door rushing towards him. It struck Wilson on the left side of his face.
“I couldn’t do nothing. My eyes got watery,” he admits.
The doctors at the hospital told him that he had fractured his left orbital bone. An orbit is the socket in which an eyeball rests in. When the orbit experiences trauma, pressure builds suddenly, resulting in a kind of blowout fracture.
Wilson needed surgery to have a metal plate inserted just beneath his eye. “I think it’s because the muscles and vessels, they weren’t coming together like they supposed to,” he says. “I couldn’t lift nothing over 10 pounds.”
The plate was later removed, and doctors told him to wait six weeks before he could play again. Until then, no physical strain. Six weeks passed, but they determined that he needed another six months off. “I thought I’d be back playing again at the end of the year,” he says.
When that timetable passed, he was still unable to get medical clearance. He called his grandparents to tell them he would come home and continue his education at CFCC. “I could just go home and be with my family,” he explains. “The only reason I’m up there is because of basketball.”
Then he gets quiet again. “I never thought it would be like this,” he says, barely audible, staring down at the floor.
Wilson started to play basketball again in Wilmington, but he restricted himself to only playing lackadaisically and alone. He went to the local YMCA after about a year and a half removed from competitive play. Friends and local athletes in the gym recognized the former high school star and asked him to participate in pickup games. He declined, for a bigger reason than just the wariness caused by the eye injury.
“I would go in the gym and just dribble and it just felt like the ball had dust on it, like sliding out of my hand,” he says. Wilson didn’t want the people that knew him for his lethal cross-over dribble and fearless driving and finishing abilities to see him unable to do any of those.
He kept coming back, though, hoping to shake off the rust. “I just kept going to the Y early in the morning by myself,” he says. Wilson still wanted to play, but he didn’t think he was good enough anymore.
Mantlo holds some workouts for his players at the YMCA, and one day when he was there checking on his team, he noticed Wilson was back. “I invited him to play with our guys down here at the (CFCC) gym instead of having to go down to the Y and he always said, ‘OK, I’ll be there,’ and he would never show up. I always took it as he’s just not serious about it,” he says. “I didn’t really understand the whole thing about he was just a little bit scared. As he grew warmer to me and trusted me a little bit, he was able to communicate that with me.”
Where Wilson comes from, being scared is not an option. At least, it’s not something you admit to.
Wilson says he showed up initially, but then shied away from coming back after that. “The first year I came back, (Mantlo) talked to me and told me to come out and play with a few of the guys. And the first time I came down, we all sat down in the locker room and we all shared our personalities,” he says, glancing away. It seemed like a good thing, but Wilson wasn’t acting like it.
“I don’t think I even came back to the basketball court after that.”