Below is a hefty portion of my interview with former Laker Jamaal Wilkes, whose No. 52 jersey will be retired tonight during halftime of the Lakers-Trail Blazers game at Staples Center. You can also read my writeup here that appeared in today’s print editions.
What are your sentiments surrounding the jersey retirement ceremony?
I’m very humbled and excited. I don’t think it’s going to hit me until after the ceremony with the magnitude of it. But I’m very much looking forward to it.
What makes it very difficult to fully process this?
It’s kind of like winning a championship. You’re so looking forward to it and everything that goes into it. After it happens, it’s like this is it. The reality hits you. To be the eighth player included with the likes of the players I grew up idolizing, rooted for, players that I played with, the illuminiaries, I just don’t think the full magnitude will hit me after the ceremony.
What are you looking forward to in regards to the ceremony?
It’s going to be brief because there is a game. It’s at halftime of the game. My understanding is it’s going to be five or six minutes. What I’m looking forward to is making my remarks.
What will be the gist of your remarks?
Acknowledging the significance of it and really thanking Dr. Buss and the Buss family, the Lakers organization and really the fans. That’s what drove me. Their appreciation in helping me get in the Hall of Fame is what helped make it happen.
With that happening just a few months ago, this honor and this upcoming honor how have you reflected in the past year on your overall career?
I’m still in the process of doing that. After this ceremony, UCLA is next month and then my high school will be after that. It’s been a real whirlwind. I think it’s a testament to my contributions to different championship organizations and my longevity. I always played with great players. That was part of the criticism, if you will., that some people felt held against me in the Hall of Fame. Plus, I always played in California. I don’t think I was really appreciated by the East Coast establishment. But the fact is I’m in the Hall of Fame now. I think it’s a testament to my high level of contributions. I played with great players who made me better. But I think also made them better. My longevity also contributed to getting in the Hall of Fame.
How do you think you made your teammates better and vice versa?
I think I was able to adapt to different styles and fit. That contributed to championships instead of being stuck in one style or one mindset. I think that was a big factor in winning championships. I made the game easier. As they made it easier for me, I made it easier for them all the way back from UCLA to Golden State and the Lakers. My presence in the locker room was a unifying presence.
Regarding the criticism in playing with great players and not being recognized by the media in the East Coast, did that make you feel slighted?
Slighted may be a bit strong, but it was something I was sensitive to. Then again, I enjoyed the lifestyle. That was the tradeoff.
With the people you played with, though, did you sense you got the proper appreciation for your contributions?
How did you sense that?
I felt it from the organization and the personal relationships. I definitely felt included in the leadership process.
John Wooden once said of you, ““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,” Wooden told the New York Post in 1985. “Why not just take Jamaal Wilkes and let it go at that.” What did that mean to you?
It meant so much. I’m still processing that. I really am totally flattered by it and honored by it. Honestly, I can’t get my arms around it. I was one of many fine players who went through there. I just did the best I could. I didn’t really feel that I stood out in any sense of being a good player. I still am processing that. I’m totally honored by it and flattered by it. It means a lot to me that he said it. But I don’t understand why he said it. Particularly him. He wasn’t one to point out guys. People always asks him who his best player was, and this, that and the other. He was very reluctatnt to do that. That really came out of left field. Way out of left field. I’m totally flattered by it. But I don’t really get it. I’m still processing it.
What makes it difficult to fully process it after all these years since then?
First of all, it’s Coach John Wooden saying it. It’s an iconic figure in basketball, certainly college basketball. It’s him. That’s the first thing. Secondly, he had a lot of great players. I don’t know. I’m as proud of that as anything that I accomplished in basketball.
In your Hall of Fame speech, you referenced Coach Wooden a lot and invoked one of his sayings about “make each day a masterpiece.” How did you go about trying to do that?
He said a lot of things that went over my head at the time. But that was one thing that I dwelled on. No matter what was going on on or off the court, I just tried to be in the moment with a sense of urgency and pay attention to detail and really do my best even if I didn’t feel like it in practice. That automatically just rolled over into the game. Because he was unable to be at my Hall of Fame, it was a way to recognize him and appreciate it.
Within the Showtime Lakers where there’s so much talent, for you to be able to fit in, make contributions and have no feelings of being lost in the shadows, what kind of DNA and mindset was required of you to do that on a consistent basis?
That’s a great question. It required a DNA of being comfortable with myself, first of all and at the same time being flexible. When I played at Golden State, we didn’t have the big dominating center, like you saw with the Lakers. There was a lot more freedom to get in the lane and I had the ball more. When I was with the Lakers, you have a center who turns out to be the greatest scorer in the NBA. He’s in the lane all the time and he’s very crowded. I tried to learn to adjust and play without the ball because we had Norm and Magic. It required me being flexible. It also required me being smart to learn and see how to play and do it and not resist it and just get stuck what you’ve done all your life in being able to adapt. It also required a team focus in understanding all of it. You can argue who the best player is, but you can’t argue about who won the championship. Early on, I established my priority. I’d like to be recognized as the best player, but more importantly, I want to be recognized as the team that won. Those were some of the ingredients of the DNA.
How did you develop your shooting stroke?
I primarily grew up in Ventura just north of here. It was a real hotbed for high school basketball. It was a basketball crazy town. Being a youngster at 11 or 12 years old, most kids start out shooting on an eight foot hoop. They shoot a sidewinder. Then they graduate to a nine foot hoop. Then ultimately they get to a 10 foot hoop and then they figure out their shot. Somewhere between the 9 and 10 foot hoop, I was 11 years old and six feet. I was clearly one of the better young kids in the area. I started playing with older guys, men that were 18-21. They would block my shot all the time and they preferred 10 foot hoops. So I was just able to get the ball up to the 10 foot hoop and was doing the sidewinder. I developed my style without realizing I was doing anything different. It was just to prevent my shot from getting blocked all the time. I held it back at the last second before releasing it. It would go up before I’d start going down to release it. In high school, the coaches never really said anything about it because we were winning.
In UCLA, I remember my first week in varsity my sophomore year because freshman couldn’t play. Coach Wooden thought about it. He came over and said, hey come here after practice. I was literally petrified because he was such a commanding figure. You didn’t want to stand out for any reason. He said, I want you to shoot some shots around the key. I was confused by that. I’m going to rebound for you. I couldn’t get over that he was actually rebounding for me. I shot a bunch of shots, maybe 30-40 of them and probably made 90 percent. He said, how do you shoot that ball again? I was thinking, ‘Well you just saw me shoot all of those shots.’ But I do this and I do that and went through the whole motion and he was studying me. He was like how does that leave your finger tips? I was like it rolls off my finger tips like this. Then I spun the ball out. He was like, Does it have that good reverse spin? I said, Sure Coach. He was really stickler for detail. He said, ‘Okay you’re dismissed.’ Later we would talk about it and laugh about it some about changing it. He said my beginning and finish were textbook. Whatever happened in between happened and he decided to leave it alone.
Did any other coaches in the NBA try to fix it? Or did they just think, why fix it if it isn’t broke?
That was pretty much it. I could see them thinking about it maybe. But they saw it was successful.
When did you hear the nickname Silk?
I was a freshman and a guy who was a member of the band used to come to practice all the time. He was a basketball junkie. I had done something in practice that day. Some of us were going to eat after practice and I saw him in line. He blurted out Silk. My freshman teammates heard that and got a big kick out of it. They just kept calling me Silk. Dick Enberg heard them call me that in my sophomore year and they were calling me that on the air. It stuck throughout the years. Chick Hearn, I don’t remember exactly when it happened. He was just calling it the 20 foot layup on the air. There was no other story. He was calling it a 20 foot layup. He dreamt up and came up with it. That stuck too.
What are you doing these days?
We’re doing some [financial advising] with precious metals. That’s the advisory I’m doing with precious metals and coins. I’m contemplating starting a foundation as we speak. But I’m involved in health and wellness and expect to have a book out this spring, an autobiography on my career and other stuff. I stay active. It will be March or April.
With the foundation you’re contemplating, are there any specific areas you hope the foundation serves?
I’ve always been involved in various charities, but my sweet spot is youth. It would be involving young people. Over the years, I made a decision to support other charities. Now it’s something I’m seriously contemplating.
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