After a successful decade-long playing career overseas, former Husker and Nebraska native Wes Wilkinson hung up his sneakers in 2017. He wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do next, but he didn’t think it would include basketball.
“I actually tried to shelf basketball out of my life and start another part of it and I just became depressed,” Wilkinson told Hail Varsity. “I’ve got to have the game in my life one way or another.”
Wilkinson—born in Neligh and raised in Grand Island—moved back to Nebraska with his family and settled down. To scratch that basketball itch, he started Wilkinson Hoops.
“I started training kids, just friends and family, working out with kids and stuff,” Wilkinson said. “Every kid I work out with, I see myself in those shoes. At one point in my childhood or my high school career, I was in those shoes. I was going through what they were going through … That’s something that I wasn’t expecting; I didn’t even think about that.”
Wilkinson––a 6-foot-10 forward who developed into the Huskers’ leading scorer as a senior in 2005-06––has been leading skill development sessions for fourth through 12th-grade students on Mondays at Picotte Elementary in Omaha and also held a series of shooting clinics in Lincoln during the spring. Eventually, Wilkinson hopes to host some camps and would also like to hold some events west of Omaha and Lincoln, where basketball opportunities aren’t as plentiful.
“Once I realized how much the relationship and helping through the hard times and enjoying the good times and success, that’s the part I love,” Wilkinson said.
Youth basketball has come a long way in Nebraska since Wilkinson was in high school, and he wants to do his part to help continue fostering the growth of the game in the state he loves.
“Wherever I went, I had a lot of pride in Nebraska and I think keeping that relationship is what I want to do,” Wilkinson said. “That’s where my happiness would be in doing something like that … It’s starting to happen more and more and more. There’s a huge movement going on right now in Nebraska and I want to take pride in that and I want to be part of that.”
Now Wilkinson is expanding his operation to include a three-on-three tournament. The Wilkinson Hoops 3on3 Showdown will take place on June 1 in the Capitol District in downtown Omaha. Teams of three-to-four players will compete with a $1,000 prize on the line.
“I want it to be a basketball party … The area’s awesome,” Wilkinson said. “Everybody loves basketball. It’s going to be June 1. We’ll have the NBA Playoffs on the big screen TVs. I want to have a DJ there with some music. You have all those great restaurants right there. That’s what the Capitol District needs and that’s what it wants, a family environment during the day and then at night that’s where they want everybody to go.”
In addition to the cash prize, Wilkinson has partnered with 3BALL USA, one of the nation’s leading organizers of FIBA 3×3 teams and events. Last year, 3BALL USA staged the only FIBA 3×3 satellite tournament in the United States at the Great Mall in Silicon Valley, California. They have had 10 different men’s teams qualify for the USA Basketball 3×3 National Championships over the past four years including the only men’s USA team to earn a World Cup medal.
The winner of the tournament will advance to the 3BALL USA Nebraska Invitational, part of the 3BALL USA Hoops Fest which will also be held at the Capitol District in September.
Registration for Wilkinson’s 3on3 Showdown is open to the public and will run until May 31.
Wilkinson will also hold 3-point and free-throw shooting competitions as part of the event with the proceeds going to two nonprofit organizations, Mustaches 4 Kids and Angels Among US.
“They just kind of reached out to me,” Wilkinson said about the charity partnerships. “That’s another thing I love about basketball. It’s all about relationship. I tell people that all the time that I wouldn’t have had a chance to meet a tenth of the people I’ve met because of basketball. It’s all about relationships. Once people found out that I want to be involved in the community and I am doing this stuff, they’ve reached out to me and it just kind of grows from there.”
The idea for a three-on-three tournament was inspired by the old Hoop it Up events of the past. The owner of the Epoca Cantina, a restaurant in the Capitol District, reached out to Wilkinson, an old friend, with the idea in hopes of drumming up some awareness of and business for the Capitol District. Wilkinson loved the idea and ran with it.
“What I love about the three-on-three thing is A, you can play it at any age; you can be 5 years old and playing or else you could be 65 and playing. B, as a player when you’re growing up and coming through the game, playing three-on-three is the best way to learn, in my opinion, because you learn everything in the three-on-three motion, for the most part, the basics — getting open, setting screens, ball-handling, things like that, posting up.”
Three-on-three basketball is growing as a sport as FIBA 3×3 will be a part of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, and now Omaha will get a chance to get in on the action.
As for what’s happening down the road in Lincoln, Wilkinson said he’s a big fan of what Fred Hoiberg has done and will continue to do with the basketball program at his alma mater.
“I couldn’t be more excited,” Wilkinson said. “I think we’re going to have a lot of bright days for us on the horizon. I think it’s our turn. We have all the pieces together. This is the most important thing I want to say, too: not only do I want it bad because I played there, it’s my heart, it’s my state, but all those fans that stuck with us… We weren’t going to the tournament but we busted our asses every day in practice and on the court and those fans still showed up and cheered their asses off. For me, that’s not something that would really happen in too many places and for that reason alone, I’m super excited because I think the fans are finally going to get what they’ve wanted for 20-plus years.”
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.