An alarm sounded at an ungodly hour for a typical Saturday morning.
Nobody should be up this early, especially not a high school student back home in Abaco on summer vacation. Weekends are for sleeping late, not functioning while most of the world recovers from the monotony of the work week.
These are generally the working hours for David Vilmar Sr so he’s no stranger to this, however, this particular morning, like most of them recently, has been about working toward a higher purpose – The Get Back.
His son, D’Andre Vilmar, had already solidified himself as an elite level basketball recruit over the past few years and attracted offers from several major Division I programmes. For him, this work is necessary. When you think of someone ascending to that status – you think of them training at some high-end facility with a team of coaches and personal trainers at their disposal, not on the shores of Abaco or on basketball courts that have barely stood the test of time…but here they are.
The Vilmars would hit the beach at 5:30 am for D’Andre to go on his two-mile run, followed by speed and agility drills in the sand, and swimming laps. Then it was to the courts to get a few hundred shots up. The weekend workouts supplemented what the duo would go through during the week. Usually, the Vilmars would get started as early as 4:30 am. D’Andre would go through ball handling drills, skill development and ended the workouts with another few hundred made jumpers.
This was what it took for the younger Vilmar to return to the form that had those programmes knocking on his door just over a year ago. This is how he fell in love with the process. This is all a part of the Get Back.
Heading into his senior season of high school basketball, Vilmar was expected to have an immediate impact on the Paul VI programme when he transferred from Roman Catholic High in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This was the year when pundits thought the 6’4″ guard would transform the South Jersey institution into a statewide powerhouse and rise up the recruitment rankings before he eventually decided on a collegiate programme for the next four years.
Those expectations faded quickly. Just a few games into the preseason, Paul VI’s star recruit would be lost due to a season ending knee injury on a seemingly routine play against Timber Creek.
“I think about that play all the time,” Vilmar said, “It was the first quarter, I scored the first five points of the game and everything was going pretty well. I had a turnover on one play and I hustled up the floor and to get in position to grab the rebound. When I brought it up the floor I had a path to the basket and I was going full speed but at the last second, I saw a teammate open in the corner so I tried to stop on the dime to make a pass. My knee hyperextended and buckled…I just fell.”
When you play with the speed and aggression necessary to become the type of player that Vilmar is, you expect to fall every now and then. It comes with the territory. You also expect to get back up.
“I thought I was good, I just wanted to get back on defence. I fall down all the time and I thought it was just another play. I wasn’t in pain or anything, maybe it was just the adrenaline but I just wanted to get back into the play,” he said.
It wasn’t ok.
Vilmar limped back to the bench, eventually retreated to the locker room, and later that night to the doctor’s office where he was evaluated and received the news everyone dreaded the minute he clutched his knee on the court hours earlier.
“That was a heartbreaking moment, they sat me down and they told what it was and I couldn’t believe it. It was the most emotional I had been in a while and I honestly didn’t know what the next move was.”
Basketball recruitment has become big business and teenagers have become chess pieces in a much larger game controlled by shoe companies, the media, and the NCAA. As early as middle school, the decisions made by these teenagers affect them and their families for years to come. Every choice is parsed and ridiculed as stakeholders struggle to stockpile assets in the recruiting arms race. This is the backdrop that players like Vilmar face on a constant basis. What’s the right AAU team? Who’s the right coach? What’s the right school?
So when he left Roman Catholic for Paul VI as a highly touted transfer, Vilmar recognised the weight on his shoulders.
“I was coming to a new environment, I had so much hype around me and I had to get the programme back to where it needed to be. I thought I would have a successful year and I expected kids in jersey to come at me in every game because they would want to see what if I was really as good as people were saying. They had been doing that all summer and in the preseason like I expected, so accepted the challenge every time I stepped on the court. Everyone wanted to see what Paul VI was looking like,” he said,” Not being able to fulfill that was a huge disappointment.”
By the end of his junior season, Vilmar was making his way toward the ESPN 60 rankings. Roman had won their second state title and he was listed as a four-star recruit, ranked fourth in the state and 27th nationally at his position.
At the international level, he was a part of the Bahamas’ team that finished fifth at the 2015 FIBA Centrobasket Under-17 Championship when led the tournament in scoring at 19.6 points per game and rebounding at 12.4 boards per game. He was also second in assists as he dished out 4.6 per game.
He also received offers from the Oklahoma Sooners, Colorado State Rams, Long Beach State 49ers and Buffalo Bulls. After the knee injury, the calls stopped coming and Vilmar felt like he was starting from scratch.
“Schools just weren’t in touch with me,” he said as he thought back on that pivotal fight or flight time period. It was then that he drew inspiration from the story of current Dallas Mavericks guard Dennis Smith Jr who suffered an ACL tear at the prior to the start of his senior high school season. Smith missed the entire year but remained a top 10 recruit before he signed to play with the North Carolina State Wolfpack. He went on to win ACC Rookie of the Year and months later, was drafted No.9 overall by the Mavericks in the 2017 NBA Draft.
After the surgery, Vilmar set his sights on his own comeback story. Bedridden for about a week, he picked up a ball soon thereafter and found his way back to the court. Even walking under his own power was still out of the question, so he propped up a chair underneath the basket and worked on his form shooting until the rehab process officially began.
“At first I had second thoughts if I could be the player I was again, but I come from a praying family. Everyone was praying and I just had to have faith in myself to recover. It took an incredible amount of patience,” he said, “Just doing the rehab process, experiencing the pain, I thought I would never get back to where I was or better than I was before. Starting therapy, your leg is so weak and mentally it’s tough to accept the fact that you just can’t do things you were campable of doing before. My muscles weren’t reacting the way I wanted to, I had no power in my legs, I had to rely on so many people to do simple everyday things, it’s tough. Prayer and determination really got me through it.”
His host family in South Jersey and adopted school family at Paul VI were vital in the physical and mental rehab process, but Vilmar still sought the comfort of home. Abaco offered somewhat of a therapeutic approach as he and his family contemplated the next move.
“I was off of social media over the summer to refocus. I had to re-train myself and just kind of be in isolation a bit, get away from America and fully dedicate myself to getting back to where I wanted to be. I feel like it got me focused because I’m so focused on the grind, I’m in love with the process to the point where I’m consumed by it,” Vilmar said, “Being back home in Abaco, it kind of reenergized my drive and gave me so much hope. Whenever I go – the store, the barber – people would tell me how much they believe in me, tell me about me making the NBA about being ‘the next one.’ With everyone supporting me and knowing they just genuinely want what’s best for me and my success It made me want to go harder and it made me realize that this is bigger than just basketball.”
Prep school was never a part of the plan, but plans change quickly in this ever evolving recruitment process. With his senior season lost, it would become an avenue D’Andre would have to explore in the timeline of The Get Back. As cliche as it may be, he would find redemption in a prep school that bears the same name.
Redemption Christian Academy is one of four remaining Historically Black Boarding schools in the United States and it boasts a diversity of students from across the United States and abroad. The international student population has featured students from the Bahamas, Switzerland, Venezuela, Korea, France, Germany, Croatia, Bulgaria, Italy, the Dominican Republic, Greece, Canada, the Czech Republic, Ghana, Macedonia, Liberia, Nigeria, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and others.
Tristan Wilchcombe currently serves on the Lions coaching staff and said he recruited Vilmar not just because he’s Bahamian, but because he can be a valuable asset to the Lions’ programme this year.
“He’s the prototypical modern day wing. Today’s game at the pro level is guard oriented and that shift has trickled down to the Prep level. His strength, size, athleticism, and toughness are coveted talents. For us, we play three guards and he’s perfect in that role because we can slide him between the 1-3 positions. With his strength, he has the potential to guard some stretch four’s. So his offering to our program will be his versatility and toughness.”
Wilchcombe, a former St. John’s College Giant, continues to use his platform to give other young talented Bahamian players an opportunity to showcase their skills and compete at an elite level in an effort to transition to university. Vilmar joins a programme that has featured Dhylan Culmer, Garrith Moss, Deon’ta Tinker, Ziv Basden, Corey Sands and other Bahamians.
“It has been a mission of mine since day one to be an outlet for other Bahamians. Today there’s a premium placed on physical, natural gifts. The Bahamians are under the radar for being physically gifted. I’ve seen quite a share of kids with High Major potential and elite athleticism to compete with the best. Given the current infrastructure of Basketball in the Bahamas, getting the talent and under the radar talent and exposing them to the US game at a high level is a recipe to create a gem. Being a player that was a 6’3 center, I know what it’s like to have to recreate your game, live in the gym and sacrifice,” Wilchcombe said, “There’s no greater joy in bringing over a countrymen (or girl) and working with them feverishly to compete at a high level and earn a scholarship. It’s not a cliche but I believe there are more Buddy Hields and having the direct connection I think will help me find him or her faster than the average coach given my homegrown traits. I strongly believe Vilmar surely fits the mold of Buddy Hield-esque.”
There is no easy path to his ultimate goal anymore. Perhaps there never was. At his core, D’Andre Vilmar is a college basketball hopeful looking to make the most of his lone season of prep school and return to the trajectory his career arch was on just a year ago. To his family and people in his Abaco community, he represents more. Knowing this plays a major role in his motivation.
The same will and fervor that molded Vilmar’s playing style and produced frequent trips to the floor are the same grit and determination that got him back on his feet.
“My story is far from done, I truly believe that,” Vilmar said, “I believe there’s a greater plan in place and I’m going to work toward that every day. You’ll see.”