Playing a brilliant career that was often overshadowed by the brilliance of others, former Los Angeles Lakers’ star Jamaal Wilkes was recently given the ultimate recognition: he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Wilkes, who starred on the early 1980s “Showtime” Lakers championship teams that played in Inglewood at the Forum, was inducted with Reggie Miller, Don Nelson, Ralph Sampson, Katrina McClain, Hank Nichols, and the All-American Red Heads. It was the conclusion of a long wait for the man known as “Silk,” who retired from the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 1985 and had been eligible since 1992.
“Anyone who truly knows and loves the game of basketball surely recognizes what a special and gifted player Jamaal Wilkes was,” Lakers’ owner Dr. Jerry Buss said in a statement following Wilkes’ honor. “A rare combination of selflessness and grace, Jamaal made the game look effortless. It’s easy to forget that Jamaal averaged 20-plus points during our 1980 and 1982 championship seasons…It is now time for Jamaal to shine, and we congratulate him on this long overdue and much deserved honor.”
The Basketball Hall of Fame, which recognizes the college and professional careers of players, gave recognition to Wilkes’ strong contribution to multiple championship teams in his collegiate career with the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Bruins and his NBA career with the Golden State Warriors and the Lakers. Though he was never the leading man on his championship teams (at UCLA he was overshadowed by Bill Walton; at Golden State he was overshadowed by Rick Barry; with the Lakers he was clouded by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Earvin “Magic” Johnson and a cast of thousands in L.A.), Wilkes nevertheless made a strong contribution as a secondary scorer, clutch shooter, solid defender, and key rebounder that his teams could not have succeeded without.
The son of a Baptist minister, the Rev. L. Leander Wilkes, he was born Jackson Keith Wilkes in Berkeley, California and grew up in Santa Barbara. Playing basketball as a child against his older sister, she would regularly block his shot. He developed his distinctive behind-the-head delivery to counteract her defense and developed accuracy with the unorthodox shooting motion.
“I normally would not encourage that way of shooting a basketball,” UCLA head coach John Wooden commented in 1974. “But (Jamaal) was able to hit consistently with that delivery, so I wasn’t going to change him.”
At UCLA, Wilkes was a key player in continuing the Bruins’ domination of college basketball under the direction of John Wooden. Playing as a forward and combining his skills with All-American center Bill Walton, Wilkes helped the Bruins win consecutive NCAA championships in 1972 and 1973 as well as trigger an NCAA record 88-game winning streak. Not only was Wilkes a consensus basketball All-American during his college career but he was also an Academic All-American during his time at UCLA. He graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in economics in the spring of 1974.
Drafted by the Warriors in the first round in the summer of 1974, Wilkes garnered NBA Rookie of the Year honors. Now combining his skills with Golden State star Barry, Wilkes helped the Warriors sweep the Washington Bullets to win the 1975 NBA Title. Throughout the ’75 playoffs, Wilkes defense against all-star forwards Spencer Haywood, Bob Love, and Elvin Hayes was a huge key to the Warriors’ march to the championship.
“He was such an unselfish player,'” said Warrior head coach Al Attles. “Whatever we asked of him–scoring, defense, rebounding, playing bigger forwards–he did and did well.”
That off-season Wilkes starred in the title role of the critically acclaimed film Cornbread, Earl, and Me with a young Laurence Fishburne, Rosalind Cash, Madge Sinclair, and Moses Gunn. Later, in 1981, he would guest star on an episode of Trapper John, M.D. Wilkes embraced Islam in 1975.
Wilkes joined the Lakers as a free agent in the autumn of 1977. Ultimately, as the team continued to build talent around the team’s star center Abdul-Jabbar (most notably the drafting of Magic Johnson), Wilkes career took off in the early ’80s. Combining his odd yet effective outside shot and flypaper hands with the on-court dominance of Abdul-Jabbar and the creative passing skills of Johnson, Wilkes flourished as the Lakers’ small forward. He provided strong playoff performances, solid defense, and the ability to fill the lane on the famed Showtime fastbreak, finishing off Johnson’s passes with lay-ups. Also, Wilkes had a knack for shaking free underneath the basket and receiving bullet passes for lay-ups within halfcourt sets.
In clinching championship victories against the Philadelphia 76ers, the man known as “Silk” competed effectively against the 76ers Julius “Dr. J” Erving, scoring 37 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in Game 6 in 1980 and leading all Lakers scorers with 27 points to wrap up the title against Erving and the 76ers again in Game 6 in 1982. His 37 point, 10 rebound effort to win the title in Game 6 in 1980 is probably the most underrated in NBA history. That is because Magic Johnson scored 42 points and pulled down 15 rebounds in that same game.
Near the end of the 1984 regular season, Wilkes developed a gastrointestinal illness that sidelined him. Ultimately, James Worthy took over Wilkes’ position in the Laker starting lineup and Wilkes retired two seasons later. In the ensuing years Wilkes would make substantial contributions and work extensively with the Urban League, establish Jamaal Wilkes Home Loans, and speak out against racial profiling of Southland citizens by Los Angeles law enforcement.
During his NBA career, Wilkes was Rookie of the Year, a two-time member of the All-Defensive Team (1976, 1977), played in three NBA All-Star games, and was a member of four NBA Championship teams. The man affectionately known as “Silk” will be inducted in a ceremony at the Basketball Hall of Fame on September 7 of this year.
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