Posted Sep 5, 2012 8:22 AM
The greatness of Jamaal Wilkes, the real measure of his talent, is that he is going into the Hall of Fame without achieving his true greatness.
All-America in 1974 at UCLA, Rookie of the Year in 1974-75 with Golden State, key member of one championship team with the Warriors and three with the Lakers, integral part of one of the greatest teams in college history, 17.7 points a game, three-time All-Star, smooth, smart, a cherished teammate... and never once on display. Never the No. 1 option yet able to average at least 18 points a game for five consecutive seasons. Known for elegance more than in-your-face, yet twice voted second-team All-Defense.
Never in the superstar realm yet now a Hall of Famer.
How good Wilkes could have been as a focal point will remain a basketball mystery. His ride to Springfield, Mass., is dotted with similarities to 2003 inductee James Worthy, who played with Michael Jordan at North Carolina, even if he was not yet Michael Jordan!, and then as a supposed complementary piece of the Lakers. Worthy was scorching from the post while Wilkes tortured defenses from the outside with such apparent ease that broadcaster Chick Hearn coined the jumpers as 20-foot layups. Both Worthy and Wilkes were huge in playoff moments, both were small forwards, both portrayed a calm dignity on the court, both were overshadowed playing at the top of Mt. Olympus with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Now, both are Hall of Famers.
Wilkes won six championships, two in college and four in the NBA, in three places without ever coming close to owning the spotlight, the way most Hall of Famers do. In three seasons at UCLA in the early-1970s, the Bruins weren't known as the Walton Gang for nothing. Bill Walton was playing at a level rarely seen before or after in the amateur game. In Wilkes' three seasons with the Warriors, including the 1974-75 title run, Rick Barry averaged 30.6, 21 and 21.8 points, and Wilkes even finished behind Phil Smith in scoring two of the years. As a Laker, Wilkes first played with Abdul-Jabbar and Adrian Dantley, another future Hall of Famer, and then with Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson.
After one final, forgettable season with the Clippers, Wilkes retired in 1986. Decades as a Hall candidate passed without good news, no matter how hard close friend Walton lobbied. Then came 2012. Wilkes makes it along with Reggie Miller, Don Nelson and Ralph Sampson, among others.
On the night the spotlight will be on him more than at any other time in his basketball life -- probably his entire life -- Wilkes will be presented Friday by Johnson, by Walton, by Barry and by Abdul-Jabbar. At his request. Most inductees pick one or two Hall of Famers for the ceremonial duty. Wilkes chooses teammates connecting him to his three primary stops.
He will be the fifth-most famous man on stage in Symphony Hall at that moment, and he won't care. Classic Wilkes.
If his acceptance speech goes according to personality, the words will be eloquent and punctuated with humor, the same absence of swagger as on the court. It's why he was different as a teammate and why John Wooden, when asked in 1985 to describe his ideal player, told the New York Post: "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."
Wilkes is still not worried about the fame. He is, as once and now forever, the consummate teammate and classy player. He is now a Hall of Famer, whether he gets the starring role or not. Why not let it go at that.
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