Jamaal Wilkes’ smooth, subtle style of play — although often overlooked by fans — was admired by his peers. For the most part, his achievements during his 12-year career were seldom rewarded with fanfare. But he won wherever he played. Wilkes entered the NBA after earning All-American honors at UCLA as well as being a key player on two undefeated NCAA championship teams, then making an immediate impact with the Golden State Warriors as a rookie for the 1975 NBA Champions. He was also an essential member of the “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers that captured three titles in the early 1980s.
Born Jackson Keith Wilkes in 1953, but shortly after turning professional the forward changed his name to Jamaal Abdul-Lateef because of his Islamic religious beliefs, but he went by Jamaal Wilkes. He was named the 1975 NBA Rookie of the Year, overshadowing former college teammate Bill Walton. He defied those observers who thought the slender Californian wouldn’t last in the bruising world of the NBA, enduring for more than a decade.
Also in 1975, the movie “Cornbread, Earl and Me” was released and Wilkes played the titular character of Cornbread that also starred the pre-pubescent actor Laurence Fishburne. The film, although not a classic in cinema history, has almost a cult following in some corners. In the heartrending drama, like Wilkes in reality, Cornbread was a soft spoken basketball whose other passion was swilling orange soda pop but was gunned down by police after being mistaken for a violent crook.
Golden State selected Wilkes with the 11th overall pick in the 1974 draft. Joining a Warriors team led by Rick Barry, who averaged 30.6 points in 1974-75, Wilkes did what was required to fit in. He contributed 14.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, epitomizing Coach Al Attles’s philosophy of team play. The Warriors started to gel in midseason, but the league wasn’t paying attention; Golden State had to scrap for their 48 victories, only to be overshadowed by the Boston Celtics and the Washington Bullets, who posted 60 wins apiece.
Golden State had a tough fight in the playoffs, muscling past the Seattle SuperSonics and the Chicago Bulls to reach the 1975 NBA Finals against Washington. Then the Warriors surprised the Bullets and much of the basketball world by sweeping the series in four straight games. After only one NBA season, Wilkes owned an NBA championship ring.
Wilkes was admired for doing all of the little things right. He caught any pass thrown in his direction. He established defensive position. He made the pass that led to the pass that resulted in a basket. These are the kinds of things that make a player blend in, not stand out.
Wilkes’ soft shot was one of the oddest imaginable. He lofted the ball with a release that was so “wrong’ that it could never have been taught, much less analyzed. He cocked with a motion that looked as if he were reaching over his shoulder to scratch a shoulder blade, then launched a high trajectory shot from somewhere behind his right ear. The ball seemed to have an odd sideways spin toward the hoop, but it went through nearly 50 percent of the time during his NBA career. Wilkes was also a solid free-throw shooter. And he shot quietly, too. Lakers coach Paul Westhead described Wilkes’ shooting in the Los Angeles Times as being like “snow falling off a bamboo leaf.’
Although the Warriors couldn’t maintain their success, Wilkes improved his personal performance in his second and third seasons. His true value was never measurable by statistics alone, but he did continue to put up some very respectable numbers. He averaged 17.8 ppg and a career-high 8.8 rpg in 1975-76, earning his first trip to the NBA All-Star Game. In 1976-77, he averaged 17.7 ppg and improved his field-goal percentage to .478. In each of those two seasons Wilkes was named to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team.
After three seasons with the Warriors, Wilkes signed with the Los Angeles Lakers as a free agent. His sleek style served him well as a complement to marquee talents Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Wilkes helped the Lakers win titles in 1980 and 1982, and he watched from the bench with an injury as the team won another championship in 1985.
In 1977-78, his first season with the Lakers, a broken finger caused Wilkes to miss 31 games. His minutes and stats suffered commensurately, and he ended up averaging only 12.9 ppg. In 1978-79, Wilkes averaged 18.6 ppg and posted a career-high 134 steals. The next year he ranked second on the team in scoring behind Abdul-Jabbar, with an average of 20.0 ppg. That year Wilkes also posted a career-best 250 assists. Paul Westhead took over the coaching reins from Jack McKinney 14 games into the season and steered the Lakers to an NBA Championship.
The 1980 NBA Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers included a classic performance by Wilkes in the sixth and final contest, the game that became a cornerstone of the Magic Johnson legend. Normally the point guard, rookie Johnson filled in at center for the injured Abdul-Jabbar and scored 42 points to spark a dramatic Lakers victory over the 76ers. Wilkes’s career-high 37 points were overlooked in the glare of Johnson’s spectacular performance.
Wilkes reached his offensive peak in 1980-81 when he scored 22.6 ppg. When a knee injury sidelined Johnson for 45 games, Wilkes stepped up his scoring pace. Once again he ranked second on the team in scoring as part of a potent offensive attack that also included Johnson (21.6 ppg in 37 games), Abdul-Jabbar (26.2) and Norm Nixon (17.1). Wilkes played in his second NBA All-Star Game that season and pumped in 15 points.
At 6-6 and 190 pounds, Wilkes’s thin frame and economical style of play led many observers to believe that he could not hold his own against the much bigger players who dominated the pro game. Although Wilkes was not muscular, he was strong and durable. In a five-year stretch starting with the 1978-79 season he missed only 3 of 410 games and once led the Lakers in minutes played.
His slender build enabled him to slip past bigger opponents. Wilkes’s smooth style earned him the nickname “Silk,’ and he personified the Lakers’ up-tempo style. He filled the lane on the Lakers’ vaunted fast break, frequently finishing off a pass from Johnson or Nixon.
In 1981-82 Wilkes ranked second on the Lakers’ scoring list to Abdul-Jabbar. He contributed 21.1 ppg and shot .525 from the field, but that was just average on a team that scored 114.6 points per game and saw five of its top six scorers (Abdul-Jabbar, Wilkes, Johnson, Mitch Kupchak, and Michael Cooper) shoot better than 50 percent. The Lakers had an easy time of it in the Western Conference playoffs, then defeated Philadelphia in six games for the championship.
In 1982-83 Wilkes was once again the main scoring support for Abdul-Jabbar, averaging 19.6 ppg. The Lakers won 58 games that year and plowed through the playoffs before being swept by Philadelphia in the Finals.
During the 1983-84 season Wilkes began to have trouble maintaining his standard. He still averaged 17.3 ppg and was typically effective when healthy, but at midseason a parasitic infection left him weakened. His stamina and timing were off, and his minutes were usurped by second-year forward James Worthy. Wilkes could only make limited contributions in the second half of the season, and the Lakers suffered a seven-game defeat at the hands of the Boston Celtics in the 1984 NBA Finals.
The 1984-85 campaign was another championship season for the Lakers, but with Worthy rather than Wilkes at the starting small forward position. Wilkes tore ligaments in his left knee after running into the Knicks’ Ernie Grunfeld in February and was lost for the year. In 42 games he averaged only 8.3 ppg. At season’s end, the 32-year-old forward was put on waivers. After eight campaigns, 575 games, and 10,601 points, Wilkes was through as a Laker.
He signed on with the LA Clippers in 1985 but was a bit player on a struggling team. For Wilkes, who had never played on a losing team, it was an excruciating experience. On Christmas Eve 1985 he called it quits. He retired with 14,644 points and a career scoring average of 17.7 ppg.
In 2012 — 17 years after he played his last NBA game — Wilkes was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the Lakers raised his No. 52 jersey to the rafters.
His UCLA coach, John Wooden, paid Wilkes his highest compliment when asked once to describe his ideal player. “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?”