Jamaal Wilkes was a gift to the game of basketball. He arrived as a finished product; no assembly required. If we know one thing about his Hall of Fame induction Sept. 7, it's that a quiet dignity will prevail, a shining reflection of his career.
The numbers eloquently state his case: three-time NBA All-Star, member of four championship teams, career 50 percent shooter, 17.7 points per game scoring average, Rookie of the Year as a member of the Warriors' 1975 championship team, not to mention two NCAA titles at UCLA.
Stacked up against the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson or Michael Jordan, perhaps the statistical resume isn't so spectacular, but I doubt if you'd find a single opponent - high school, college or pro - who would question Wilkes' credentials. Because it wasn't about the numbers at all. It was about style and knowledge, a certain way about the man, always directly connected to winning.
It was John Wooden, a man known to choose words carefully, who best characterized the 6-foot-7 forward. Asked to describe his ideal player in a 1985 interview with the New York Post, the fabled UCLA coach replied, "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?"
It almost hurts to think he spent just three seasons with the Warriors, but that unforgettable month - series wins over Seattle and Chicago, then a sweep of Elvin Hayes' Washington Bullets for the '75 title - remains fertile in the memory. Rick Barry has always called it "the biggest upset ever among the three major sports in the finals, and the most overlooked."
Superstars don't come any more explosive or relentless than Barry in '75, but to examine Wilkes' role as a rookie is to appreciate Barry's point. In the ensuing years, no NBA champion has matched the group-effort mentality of coach Al Attles' team. It was literally 10-deep in influential players, any of whom could be delivering knockout blows in the fourth quarter. It's so appropriate that Wilkes played on that team, for his selfless style was made for the occasion.
"Nobody expected us to do anything," Wilkes said Tuesday. "Nate Thurmond, an institution, had just been traded. Clyde Lee had left. Phil Smith (out of USF) and I coming in as rookies. All sorts of transition. But we developed into a unique, eclectic, colorful group of guys.
"Al had played 15 years in the NBA not for his scoring, but for his court management, his defense, his toughness. ... And with that big, booming voice, he could be very tough. But on the other hand, he had a gentle quality about him, coaxed guys to give a little extra. And Rick, of course, was a true superstar. We worked hard, we trusted each other, and we shocked the world."
He wasn't Jamaal back then, but rather Keith Wilkes, a thoughtful kid who had grown up in the Ventura-Santa Barbara area, the son of a Baptist minister. He was born Jackson Keith Wilkes, and Jackson is a pretty cool name, "but people started calling me Jackie, and I didn't really care for that."
Although he had been raised Baptist, he embraced the Islamic faith during his collegiate years, and in 1975 he legally changed his name to Jamaal Abdul-Lateef Wilkes, accepting an abbreviated version for the sake of convenience.
If the evolution of Wilkes' name was somewhat complex, it matched his style of shooting. As a middle-schooler, too fast and clever to learn anything against kids his age, he tested himself against grown men in playground games with regulation, 10-foot hoops. Tired of "having those guys just block my shot and rough me up all the time," he developed sort of a corkscrew, behind-the-ear delivery - something never quite duplicated by any mainstream collegiate or NBA player - "just so I could get the thing off," he recalled. "I mean, it was pure survival."
"Our coach tried to correct it," recalled Bob Thompson, a high-school teammate, in an interview with the Santa Barbara Independent. "He had Jamaal square his shoulders up and hold the ball in front, and it was the weirdest thing in practice. He was shooting air-balls that way. He was no good at all. After practice, there was a 2-on-2 game with the coaches, and Jamaal went back to what was natural. Just lit everybody up. And the coach said, 'What the hell, Keith, just shoot the ball whatever way you want.' "
The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, as it is officially called, honors performances both amateur and professional. Everyone knows Wilkes was a two-time All-American who played alongside Bill Walton on a UCLA team that fashioned an 86-4 record during his career, including two 30-0 seasons. But as the star at Santa Barbara High in 1969-70, he led the team to 26 straight wins and a berth in the CIF semifinals.
"I'd put him up against any high-school player ever," said Don Ford, a teammate at the time and later with the Lakers. "He could play guard, center or forward. He was our whole team. I averaged 17 points as a junior, and 16 of them came from Jamaal feeding me on the fast break."
In his first Warriors camp, Wilkes encountered Barry, who had one of the most technically perfect jump shots in history and, to this day, never fails to admonish players (including LeBron James) who dismiss the fundamentals. "Jamaal's shot was the ugliest I ever saw," Barry recalled this week. "Until I started analyzing it. Yeah, he had that crazy right elbow flying out, but it came back straight to the basket before he let it go. In practice, it was ridiculous how easily he scored off me. I'd tell him, 'Just visualize that I'm guarding you, and you'll have a great game.' "
Jim Barnett, who faced Wilkes over the last three seasons of his NBA career, said the shot was so effective "because you couldn't get to it. He had such long arms, and now they're extended, almost behind his head, and you could be right in his face - didn't matter. He was like Oscar; he could shoot with a guy hanging all over him."
As Warriors teammate Clifford Ray recalled, "We went into Madison Square Garden one night and the Knicks had Bill Bradley guarding him. By the end of the night, they'd put the whole team on Jamaal. He was just unstoppable. That shot looked funny, but it sure went in." (During Wilkes' time with the Lakers, broadcaster Chick Hearn took to calling that shot "the 20-foot layup," especially when he cast off from the right baseline.)
What Ray most remembers, beyond the games, is Wilkes' demeanor. "Coming out of UCLA, he was totally different than what I expected," Ray said. "So many of those guys had really big, unique personalities: Walton, Sidney Wicks, Curtis Rowe, Marques Johnson. Jamaal was just this totally different, down-to-earth guy. I drove down to Santa Barbara one time and spent some time with his parents. I went to that Baptist church and heard his father speak. You could see where it all came from."
Did Ray ever see Wilkes lose his temper? "Not really," said Ray. "He'd just go 'Jeez' and rub his forehead (laughter). That's about as mad as he got."
No one could blame Wilkes for joining the Lakers as a free agent before the 1977-78 season. He was a Southern California guy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the league's most unstoppable force. But he couldn't have foreseen Magic Johnson's arrival in '79, the additions of James Worthy, Michael Cooper and Byron Scott, or the creation of "Showtime," probably the most entertaining team ever to grace an NBA floor.
Two of my best friends in the business had the life-changing experience of covering those teams: Scott Ostler for the L.A. Times and Lyle Spencer for the late, great L.A. Examiner. They offered some priceless recollections.
"He played such a quiet game," Ostler said. "Almost no talk, no visible emotion. He even ran softly, like he didn't want to make noise, and his shot was so soft it didn't make noise on the rim or the net. I don't know how many dunks he had, but there weren't many. He didn't believe in wasting that effort, and showmanship simply wasn't part of his makeup.
"He never tried to be anything but what he was, the preacher's kid from a nice town, well-educated. Not that he was soul-less, but he just never cultivated the hipster mode. One day he walked into the locker room and Norm Nixon called out, 'Look at Silk, he's got his back-to-school clothes on.' "
Like so many aspects of his game, Wilkes' defense was underrated. Before leaving the Warriors, he'd made the NBA's all-defensive second team twice. Spencer recalled that "in Jamaal's rookie year, the night he was going against Dominique (Wilkins) for the first time, I asked him what he'd do to contain the guy. He grinned and said, 'I've got something for him.' That was it. Wilkes completely took him out of his game: denying him, fronting, chasing him. 'Nique hardly saw the ball all night." (JOHN3:16 note -- Wilkes never went against Nique in his rookie year. Nique entered the league in 82 with Worthy). Author has it wrong.
On the offensive end, said Spencer, "He was pure gold. Best hands ever. He'd catch anything Magic threw, those 95-mph heaters, and softly lay it in, no stress. Great passer. One of the best clutch players, too. People forget that the night Magic scored 42 points playing center in the 1980 Finals (the title-clinching Game 6 in Philadelphia), Jamaal had 37 - but that doesn't bother him. He has no ego whatsoever."
Those might be the most forgotten 37 points in Finals history, but the episode spoke volumes about Wilkes, a quiet man who walked with the greats. How gratifying, now, to see a fabulous career come to life.