His NBA dream was here. Then he couldn’t move his legs.
On June 20, 2019, Kris Wilkes woke up in an Airbnb near downtown Indianapolis. He was happy. Next to him was the woman he fell in love with. Scattered throughout the rest of the rooms in the rented house were friends and family who had supported him throughout his budding basketball career. It was the morning of the NBA Draft, and Wilkes was about to make a childhood dream come true.
A few miles from North Central High School, Wilkes had become a coveted basketball rookie. He got his first scholarship offer, from Indiana, when he was in eighth grade. He eventually enlisted at UCLA, where he became known for his high-flying, rim-clatter dunks. He made the Pac-12 freshman men’s squad, and after his second season he was scheduled to be selected in the NBA Draft, towards the end of the first round.
Now, over two years later, he hasn’t been on an NBA roster. He’s never even appeared in a G League or Summer League game.
Moments after waking up on draft day in 2019, Wilkes discovered something surprising: he couldn’t move his legs. He ripped the covers off the bed and stared at her lower body. He tried to pull all the muscles from his hips to his toes, but nothing happened. He had no feeling below his waist.
He called his father, who was at the house nearby, and asked him to drive straight away.
“Daddy,” he said. “I am scared.”
“I felt like I was 80 years old. “
Wilkes initially said he would make the draft after his freshman year at UCLA, but returned for his second season to try and prove he should be a first-round pick. In March 2019, he again voted for the draft. He signed with management and marketing firm Wasserman, and his agents held private training sessions with teams there. For players who should be picked out of the top 14, these workouts can be the difference between starting a professional career in the NBA or in the developmental G League. Wilkes wasn’t worried.
“I had no doubts in my mind that I was going to be a first-round pick,” said Wilkes. “I was in the best shape of my life. Unfortunately, this was short lived. “
By the time he reached his seventh training session, with the San Antonio Spurs, he was feeling lethargic. Towards the end of training, Wilkes nearly collapsed and a trainer pulled him aside to take his temperature. It was 103 degrees. Team staff accompanied him to a nearby hospital, where he was diagnosed with strep throat. Wilkes called his agent, who canceled his upcoming practice, with the Atlanta Hawks, and he returned to his childhood home in Indianapolis to rest and recuperate for draft night.
Within days, his fever was gone and his throat was getting better, but he started noticing other startling symptoms. Its limbs would feel like they were covered in glass. Sometimes he couldn’t feel a hand touching his arm. Other times he felt an almost unbearable tingling. At night he couldn’t sleep with a blanket over his legs because it was too irritating. Then his back started to hurt. As an athlete Wilkes was used to a certain amount of joint pain and muscle stiffness, but it was different.
One night the pain got so bad that his father, Greg Wilkes, rushed him away. There the doctor asked Kris if he could remember the last time he had urinated. It had been over a day. The doctor told her to rush to the emergency room because her bladder was at risk of tearing.
In the emergency room, Wilkes was given morphine and a catheter, and he was released with the catheter still connected. “I was there, a few days before I was drafted, and I was hanging out in my house with severe back pain and a catheter,” he said on a series of phone calls from his home in Los Angeles last month. “I didn’t feel like I was 20. I felt like I was 80.”
Two days later it was the draft. Kris woke up, couldn’t move her legs and called her dad. Greg Wilkes has spent the past 25 years with the Indianapolis Police Department and is trained in emergency medical response. “I was not a police officer or a first responder at the time,” he said. “I was a father, and my heart and nerves were affected. I thought, ‘What’s going on?’ My 20 year old son is one of the most athletic people I have ever met in my life, and he cannot move. How could this be possible? “
Greg called an ambulance for Kris and followed her to St. Vincent Hospital. That night, the family crowded into Kris’ hospital room and tuned the television to the NBA Draft. Rumor had spread among teams that Wilkes was not doing well, and he watched the 60 NBA Draft picks come and go, without calling his name. Moments later, the beeps of an EKG were the only sounds in the room.
“I was in the best shape of my life, I was at the highest level of my life, I looked good, I was preparing to be drafted,” said Wilkes. “And then I was in the hospital, struggling to breathe, barely able to move my legs and wondering if my career was over.”
Then Wilkes’ agent called and told him the Knicks wanted to sign him on a two-way contract, which would make him primarily a G League player but allow him to play in some NBA games. The family broke up in celebration.
But there was one problem: Kris had to go to New York for a medical exam. And the doctors in Indianapolis still didn’t know what was wrong with him – or if he would ever walk again.
“It’s as rare as chicken teeth.
When neurologist Adam Fisch saw Wilkes’ symptoms, he ordered a series of tests – x-rays, cerebrospinal fluid sample, magnetic resonance imaging – but was careful with his diagnosis and prognosis. Fisch, who Wilkes allowed to speak with The New York Times about his medical history, said he began to suspect Wilkes had acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, an autoimmune disease known as ADEM.
The disorder has a small but misunderstood association with inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease, which Wilkes had been diagnosed with in medical tests months before the project. ADEM is often the result of a viral infection, such as Wilkes’ strep throat. The body mistakes its own brain tissue and spinal cord for the infection and begins to attack itself. ADEM affects between 1 in 125,000 and 1 in 250,000 around the world every year. The overwhelming majority of these cases are found in children.
To make matters more difficult, Wilkes appeared to have a rare combination of ADEM and Guillain-Barré syndrome that involved the brain, spinal cord, nerves and nerve roots, Fisch said.
“It’s as rare as chicken teeth. One in a million doesn’t even do it justice. The chances are infinitesimal, ”he said.
Fisch treated Wilkes with high doses of steroids and two different blood therapies. “Some patients with ADEM will only get one of these treatments,” Fisch said. “Kris’ case was so serious that we decided it was imperative to use all three at the same time.”
Fisch made no long-term predictions, but other hospital staff told Wilkes to prepare for the possibility of having to use a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Her mother, Ahkisha Owens, dismissed this right away.
“I wouldn’t even let myself think my baby wasn’t going to walk anymore,” she said. “I looked at him and said, ‘God didn’t take you this far just to get your legs out from under you.'”
After a week in the hospital, Wilkes regained sensations in his lower limbs, but he had lost over 20 pounds and no longer had the strength to walk. When he got out a week later – staff recommended physical therapy for inpatients, but Wilkes insisted on going home – Wilkes had to be in the wheelchair for at least two months.
The next morning, Greg was at the stove making a hearty breakfast to welcome Kris home – French toast, eggs, bacon and sausage – when he heard a sound like deflated tennis balls bouncing. in the corridor. He turned and saw Kris out of the wheelchair, standing with a walker. “Daddy, what are you cooking?” He asked. “It smells good!”
By August, Wilkes had made enough progress to make his first flight. He traveled to Palm Springs, California, to see Lexie Stevenson, the woman who was with him on the morning of the draft. “As soon as he was able to walk, ‘he walked towards me,” Stevenson said. “And we’ve been walking together ever since.”
In September, Wilkes flew to New York to attempt a physical exam for the Knicks. He had to be careful about how much water he drank because his bladder control had not fully recovered. Towards the end of training he was so dizzy from the basic sprints that he hit a wall. No one had to tell him that he had failed physically. They had.
In October, after the Knicks signed Ivan Rabb to take the two-man spot on the squad they reserved for Wilkes, David Fizdale, the then head coach, said Wilkes “was suffering from ‘a serious illness. I don’t know what it was, but it was pretty serious. So, at the moment, we are not going down that road.
‘I was right there.’
Over the past two years, Wilkes has had health issues, such as when he caught a cold and felt the glassy sensation return to his skin. And there were sleepless nights when he woke Stevenson up to talk – or to ask him to hold him while he cried.
“I was able to cover the depression, but I had it,” he said. “I had worked my whole life to get to the NBA and I was there. Going from that to crippling with no money and coming home to Indiana sucked. “
He Solved His Money Problems With A “Multi-Million Dollar” Payment From A Sponsored School loss of value insurance policy he had enrolled at UCLA He quit his job as a Postmates delivery driver and started a business called Origyne Sport, which introduced its first product, a practice basketball, in September.
Although Wilkes has regained most of his muscle mass, he can feel he’s still not as explosive as he once was. He knows that getting to the NBA now is a long way. But he has already faced long chances.
“Maybe most people think I can’t come to this, but why would I bother to listen to them?” ” he said. “I didn’t listen to the doctors who told me I wouldn’t walk anymore, and I won’t let anyone dissuade me from my goals now.”