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Friday, September 7, 2012
Jamaal Wilkes finally gets his due

By Arash Markazi

Jamaal Wilkes
Jamaal Wilkes, who grew up in Santa Barbara, never played for a team outside his home state of California.

Jamaal Wilkes always knew this day would come. He never lost faith he would one day be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He just wasn't so sure if he would actually be around to see it.

"I was hopeful that it would come while I was still alive," Wilkes said Thursday night from Springfield, Mass., where he will be inducted Friday. "I wanted to enjoy it."

Wilkes retired from the NBA in 1985 and only now is receiving accolades for a 12-year professional career and a college career so impressive that UCLA Bruins coach John Wooden once singled him out as his ideal player.

On Dec. 28, the Los Angeles Lakers will retire Wilkes' No. 52 jersey, 27 years after he officially retired from the NBA. On Jan. 17, UCLA will retire Wilkes' No. 52 jersey, nearly 40 years after he helped the Bruins win back-to-back national championships.

"I knew once I got into the Hall of Fame my jersey would be retired. Although I knew that intellectually, emotionally the fact that the Lakers are going to retire my jersey along with all those great players I watched and played with, I still haven't grasped that yet. I haven't grasped UCLA yet, either."

One of the reasons it took the Hall of Fame nearly three decades to grasp the greatness of Wilkes' career is because he was often overshadowed by some of the great players he will be joining in Springfield and in the rafters of Staples Center and Pauley Pavilion.

The greatest games of Wilkes' career came on the biggest stages, usually resulting in a championship, but also coinciding with a bigger name having a legendary game that rendered his performance a footnote in history.

Wilkes' signature performance came during Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals, when he had 37 points and 10 rebounds to help lead the Lakers to a championship over the Philadelphia 76ers.

That game was, of course, also one of the greatest games of Magic Johnson's career, as he started at center in place of the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, played all five positions, and finished with 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists.

"That was probably the best game I've ever played, certainly in my top three," Wilkes said. "I think they were already expecting a Game 7 and overlooking us in Game 6. Without Kareem, we wanted to play faster, but we all had to rebound and we all had to chip in and get the ball off the glass. We knew it was going to be an up-tempo game. It was the only game I ever played in where I attempted 30 shots."

Wilkes won three of his four championships with the Lakers and was the team's second-leading scorer behind Abdul-Jabbar from 1978 to 1983. He won his first championship as a rookie with the Golden State Warriors in 1975, when he was named rookie of the year and was second to Rick Barry in scoring. He was a three-time All-Star and twice selected to the NBA all-defensive second team.

At UCLA, Wilkes was a two-time All-American and one of the most consistent Bruins players during the team's 88-game winning streak and run to back-to-back national championships.

In Westwood, he earned the nickname "Silk" for his smooth playing style. But his unorthodox shooting motion looked anything but smooth. Wilkes would wind the ball behind his left ear, then lift it over the right edge of his head before finishing with a seemingly effortless flick toward the basket. It was something he developed as a child growing up in Santa Barbara.

"When I was younger I was playing against older men who would block my shot all the time," Wilkes said. "I just learned to hold it back there until the last second. As they went up and started to come down, I would release it. I really didn't know I was shooting any different until I got to high school and college. No one ever really tried to change it. Coach Wooden thought about it but decided against it. My son actually asked me to teach him my shot and I said, 'No way, Jose, you're going to have to figure out how to shoot it on your own.' "

Though Bill Walton was named the NCAA Final Four's Most Outstanding Player in 1972 and 1973, Wilkes' play was just as critical to the team's success. When Walton had 24 points and 20 rebounds in the 1972 final, Wilkes had 23 points and 10 rebounds. When Walton was an unconscious 21-for-22 from the field in the 1973 final, Wilkes was the only other player in double-digits, finishing with 16 points and seven rebounds.

"One thing about playing on teams with great players and great coaches and winning a lot is that there is a tendency to focus on the more outgoing personalities," Wilkes said. "It sells the game to the fans and keeps the media interested. I never felt overlooked. My orientation was about team and my definition of success was around team and I felt appreciated by my teammates, coaches and owners. Post-basketball it might have rankled me a bit more."

There were times in the past two decades when Wilkes wondered what would have been if he were the star on his own team or played outside California. From his days at Santa Barbara High School and UCLA to a pro career that saw him play for the Warriors, Lakers and Clippers, Wilkes never left his home state.

"Some people felt because I played my whole career in California, the East Coast didn’t know about me," Wilkes said. "Maybe if I played in another system and on another team I would have had better stats, but I probably would not have won as many championships. So there's a trade-off there."

It's something Wilkes wouldn't change now as he looks back at his career, and especially at his relationship with Wooden.

When Wooden once was asked to describe his ideal player, he said, "I would have the player be a good student, polite, courteous, a good team player, a good defensive player and rebounder, a good inside player and outside shooter. Why not just take Jamaal Wilkes and let it go at that."

The quote still sticks with Wilkes today, even if he doesn't quite feel worthy of the honor.

"I knew I was very fortunate and blessed to play for him at UCLA, but I didn't really think of our relationship as any different as any other relationship," Wilkes said. "My perspective was very limited. I'm very proud of that quote, but I didn't see it coming while I was there. I was honored by it, but I still don't understand why he said it, quite honestly. He really had a lot of fine people and players, but I don't get where that came from."

The absence of Wooden, who died in 2010, and Wilkes' father, who died in 2005, will be the hardest part of Wilkes' induction into the Hall of Fame and the retirement of his jerseys this season. It had always been Wilkes' plan to have Wooden present him when he finally got the call from Springfield.

"That's one of the saddest things is that Coach Wooden will not be here and my dad will not be here," Wilkes said. "If Coach Wooden were alive and able, I would have been so honored to have him present, but because he's not alive, I'm having four people present me. His shoes are so big to fill I needed to get four guys to replace him."

In place of Wooden, Wilkes will be presented by Walton, Barry, Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson, who will talk about his career with the Bruins, Warriors and Lakers. On a night when Wilkes will finally take his place among his more publicized teammates, Wilkes has no problem sharing the spotlight with them one more time, as they now give him a long overdue welcome into basketball's elite fraternity.

"It's a tremendous honor and there's also a sense of tremendous relief," Wilkes said. "It's no secret many people felt I should have been in sooner. I'm just happy to get in, period, and be alive and able to enjoy it and appreciate it."