We’ve provided you an extensive writeup of Jamaal Wilkes’ storied career before the Lakers retired his No. 52 jersey at halftime of the Lakers-Blazers game. We provided you a more extensive Q&A of my interview with him. But at a time where he deserves a dominant spotlight after gracefully ceding it during his whole career, below is Wilkes’ Q&A with the media. Interesting stuff.
On knowing no one else will ever wear No. 52 again
That’s a lot to think about. I’m really humbled by that. Also, the fact that my family is all part of it and they’re saying no one will ever wear No. 52 again. Not only that, but it will be in some lofty company. I’m just having fun and I’m just enjoying it. Months later, it will hit me with the true significance of it all.
How emotional are you?
I’m pretty emotional. At halftime during the ceremony, I don’t know what to expect. But I’m very emotional right now.
Didn’t you expect this to happen though?
Yeah, I did. I’m glad it happened while I’m still alive.
You were always a great player, but you were sort of in the background. Now that you’re full fledged center staged with the Hall of Fame and other jersey retirements, what’s it like for you to be in front? Is it uncomfortable or just different?
It’s different. I prided myself on winning. I learned at a really young age, you can debate who the best player was but you can’t debate who won or lost. That’s where my priorities went and I played with some pretty good players along the way. I like to think that they made me better and I made them better. I was able to adapt to different situations. I was a good influence in the locker room. But it is different being front and center going forward for the rest of my life.
Once you had the highest honor in your sport in the Hall of Fame, yet you still seem worked up for this honor, how do you go from the highest honor to still feeling emotional about this night?
This is pretty high. Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain…I mean these guys all are in the Hall of Fame. It says a lot about the Lakers tradition that they have awesome basketball players. Now I’m one of them. Being front and center and I look in the mirror, I go wow. It’s cool and yet it’s emotional for me.
The fact this is all taking place for a whole year being in the Hall of Fame, this ceremony and UCLA, what’s it like processing this in such a short amount of time?
That’s a good point. It’s been a yearlong process and it’s still not over yet. At Pauley Pavilion, they have my face all over the place. That wouldn’t have been the case had I not been in the Hall of Fame. Then you look at the time that has elapsed. I had kind of gotten used to being a private citizen and now I’m front and center. The fact that it is a year long merry-go-round makes it more special for me.
Was the 1982 Lakers the best team you ever played on?
It’s hard to say what the best team was. Playing for the Lakers was just great. From top to bottom, they had the leadership, the organization from Dr. Buss, Bill Sharman, Jerry West and Pat Riley, and then the players. We had a real sense of pride in our team success. Of course we had issues going on all the time, undercurrents and all that.
But we never let it get in the way of our objective, which was to be the best in the NBA and represent the city of L.A. as best as we could. That ’82 team was a great team. We had guys who practiced and our objective was to get the ball up in three seconds. It was just so very special.
And you played one of the unlikeliest world champions in 1975 with the Golden State Warriors. What was that like
That was really a trip, coming from UCLA where you’re expected to win with a dominating center to Golden State where we were only expected to finish like fifth or sixth in our division. I didn’t start the first eight or 10 games. I was playing a lot and playing well. I played power forward. There was a lot of controversy on whether I could survive the rigors of the NBA. I played opposite Rick Barry. I learned so much from Rick Barry and Clifford Ray. But it was very different being the underdog.
Even with the Lakers, we had great players. We were expected to win, and that was a great challenge. We were very fortunate to win a lot. But with that Golden State team, we were the underdog. Even after we won it all, people still didn’t believe it. We got a lot of joy out of that. Being the underdog, we bonded as it was us against the rest of the world. That was our mentality and thought process. That was a very different team for me. Who would ever thought you’d win the championship your first year and sweep the Bullets at that? They had owned us during the regular season.
To tell you how bad it was, the Oakland Arena, they had rented it out for an ice skating show. We had to play in the old Cow Palace in San Francisco. That was kind of the level of respect that we had. No one thought we would ever get there.
You mentioned the great players you played with and the issues you had that you put aside for the good of the team. With that in mind, what you be your message to this current group of players with the season they’re going through?
My message would be five or 10 years from now, whatever you feel now, five to 10 years from now you will look back and think differently. They have a great opportunity and I would encourage them to do whatever it takes. If you have to learn how to play differently or whatever, do whatever it takes to be successful as they can be. Ultimately, that will be their legacy.
Do you have a speech or are you just going to wing it?
That’s a good question. I wrote down some thoughts. I have an idea of what I want to say. But I also left it open to go with the moment.
What skills do you pride yourself on that helped you get into the Hall of Fame?
Winning. Being adaptable. Going from UCLA to Golden State to the Lakers, we had Bill Walton to Clifford Ray, George Johnson. They’re good centers, but they’re not Walton or Abdul-Jabbar. So I handle the ball more. Then I come to L.A. and learn to play without the ball. That’s because of course we played with great guards in Magic [Johnson], Norm [Nixon] and [Michael Cooper]. Being adaptable, I made it easier for the guys I played with. I had decent hands and pretty good feet. I knew how to move my feet and I had good balance.
Where did that style of shot come from, which was one of the most unorthodox things we’ve ever seen.
It came straight from the playgrounds. When I was 11 or 12, I was a pretty good basketball player in a little town of Ventura. That’s real basketball crazy. I began playing with older guys. I was going from the nine foot to the 10 foot hoops. They, of course, wanted to play on the 10 foot hoops. They would block my shot every single time. Most kids start with that sidewinder. I learned how to hold it back until the last minute. I never realized I was doing anything different until I got to UCLA. Even then, I wasn’t even sure I was doing something different.
Coach Wooden called me over one day after practice early my sophomore year and said, ‘Come here Keith. Let me see how you shoot that ball. I want to see you shoot some shots around the key. I was really confused by that and also terrified. You didn’t want the man calling you out about anything, especially in front of other guys. I did what he said. He said he would rebound for me. That really confused me. I thought he was going to call one of the players to rebound for me. What I remember about that is every pass was perfect. I thought, ‘I could get used to playing with this guy.’ I was drilling it. My manhood and my credibility was on the line at that moment. Then he called me back and asked me, ‘How did you shoot that again?’ I’m thinking, ‘Really? You just saw me shooting 40 or 50 shots.’ I said, ‘I go like this and I go like that.’ Then he said well did it leave your fingertips. I thought about it and I said, ‘Yeah, coach.’ Then he said, ‘Okay you’re dismissed.’ Years later, we laughed about it. He said he thought about changing. My setup and my finish, he thought was textbook. Whatever happened in between, he decided to leave it alone. I’m so glad he did.
Speaking of John, I’m sure you wish he could be here today. If he were here, what would you like to say to him?
I would’ve said it to him already. I would’ve talked earlier in the week and earlier in the day. I would thank him for what he meant in my life personally and what he meant to all of us. From a basketball point of view, in my opinion, he was just a genius in how he taught the game. I played power forward my first three years in the league. The only way I can do that is by understanding certain nuances about the game against bigger guys. It was about learning what he emphasized I did well versus what I didn’t do well. I would thank him for that. I would also thank him for the philosophy that I think about all the time for different reasons and different things. I would just thank him for being committed teaching to young people That’s what he saw his first mission was. He into being a teacher. For a young guy in L.A., he was kind of corny. But he really believed it and I thank God for him.
You and Magic used to have that play, it seemed like once a game where you’d get open right in front of the hoop and he’d fire a bullet pass right down the middle. How did that come about and how did you get so open all the time right in front of the basket?
When you got Kareem and Magic, a lot of things work. Magic, as we all know, was unbelievable. I would come off that curl and fade to the baseline and we knew throughout the game when they got burned there, they’d start getting itchy to get out and play that jump shot or curl instinctively. It wasn’t anything we talked about. It was just something we tuned into. Spiritually, we just knew it would be there. I learned early on with Magic to watch him all the time because he could see over the defense. With most point guards, he could make passes other point guards couldn’t. We had our little understanding early on in training camp when Coach Westhead yelled at him for an errant pass and the next time he hit me in the head with the ball. I figured out, I’m going to watch this guy all the time. I knew it was going to be there and he knew I was going to be there. We had a lot of success with that play.
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