Jack Sikma came to Seattle as an unknown player from a tiny college. He left as one of the greatest players in franchise history.
Sikma quickly went from unknown college star to NBA All-Star.
Sikma attended Illinois Wesleyan, then part of the NAIA and now NCAA Division III, choosing the school over bigger schools, like Illinois and Purdue, that would have been happy to have him. "It came down to how I wanted to live the next four years of my life," Sikma later told the Sporting News
Much like Larry Bird at Indiana State, Sikma was more comfortable at a smaller school, and was able to dominate on the court. Illinois Wesleyan went 71-20 during Sikma's final three seasons, 44-4 in conference, and won the CCIW (College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin) championship all three years. Sikma became the school's all-time leader in scoring and rebounding.
Still, it was an uphill battle for Sikma to gain recognition. He was left off the 1976 Olympic team by legendary North Carolina Coach Dean Smith, who chose his own center, Tom LaGarde, instead. A year later, holding the eighth pick in the 1977 Draft and looking for a big man, the Sonics faced the same choice. Largely on the strength of Sikma's performance in a college all-star game with Sonics Coach Bob Hopkins in attendance, the Sonics went for Sikma. Or Simka, according to a Seattle radio station, or Sikman, according to the wire service report of the draft - Sikma still was not a household name.
"If he had gone to a UCLA or a Michigan or one of those other high-profile schools, I think he would have been the number one pick overall," said Sikma's college coach, Dennis Bridges.
"Of course I'm prejudiced. I love the guy."
"He can shoot. He's smart," said Hopkins. "Every time a guy made a defensive play on him, he drew the foul. Seattle has never had this kind of player in the pivot. Seattle's centers have typically fallen flat on their backs to avoid being fouled.
"He's a real competitor and he loves contact."
As high as Hopkins might have been on Sikma, he saw him as a backup at forward and center. Sikma quickly scuttled those plans with his fine play, making his first career start on Nov. 29. After coming off the bench in Lenny Wilkens first game replacing Hopkins as coach, Sikma settled into the starting lineup for good. He quickly vindicated Bridges' and Hopkins' praise, averaging 10.7 points and 8.3 rebounds as a rookie, numbers good enough to earn him an All-Rookie selection.
During the playoffs, as the Sonics surprised by advancing to the NBA Finals before losing to the Washington Bullets, Sikma stepped up his game, averaging 13.7 points and 8.1 rebounds.
The following season brought about change for Sikma. After starring alongside Marvin Webster, his future appeared to be at power forward, a notion confirmed when the Sonics replaced the departed Webster in the starting lineup with, ironically, LaGarde, acquired from the Denver Nuggets for a first-round pick. When LaGarde went out for the season with a knee injury a quarter of the way through the year, Sikma was forced to move to center, where he continued to thrive. Sikma was third on the Sonics in scoring at 15.6 points per game and ranked fifth in the NBA with 12.4 boards per game.
As a reward, Sikma made the first of seven straight All-Star appearances with the Sonics, scoring eight points but playing a much larger role in the game. "I thought Sikma did a helluva job with his rebounding and hitting the open shots," said East Coach Dick Motta. "He had a lot to do with checking our rally."
Sikma remains one of the most popular players in Sonics history.
Kent Carmichael/Sonics Photos
It was in the playoffs, again, that Sikma really shined. He had 21 points and 10 rebounds as the Sonics staved off elimination in Game 6 at Phoenix, followed by a team-high 33 points on 10-of-18 in Game 7 as the Sonics advanced to their second straight Finals. There, playing against former MVP Wes Unseld, Sikma was spectacular. In the five-game series, which the Sonics took 4-1, Sikma averaged 16.2 points and 14.8 rebounds while holding Unseld to 11.0 and 11.4. Sikma pulled down 17 rebounds in each of the last three games, ensuring that he would be anonymous no more.
That the team was never able to re-attain that glory was certainly not Sikma's fault. He continued to develop into one of the league's top centers, becoming a go-to player on offense when guard Gus Williams sat out the 1980-81 season because of a contract dispute - Sikma improved his scoring average from 4.3 points per game to 18.7 - and continuing to play that role. Always a skilled shooter who is one of the best shooting centers in NBA history, Sikma continually refined his footwork and moves to improve his game. His inside pivot to go from posting up to facing the basket for a jumper was both so effective and so difficult to stop it has become known as the "Sikma move".
As a result of the work, Sikma continued to improve his offense. After not shooting better than 48% during any of his first six NBA seasons, he improved to 49.9% during the 1983-84 campaign while scoring a career-best 19.1 points per game. Sikma also worked to get better at defending centers, which paid off in a second-team All-Defense selection following the 1981-82 season.
Unfortunately, the championship core was disappearing around Sikma. After a 42-40 record during the 83-84 season, the Sonics traded Williams and Fred Brown retired, leaving Sikma as the only remaining player from the championship team. Newcomers Al Wood and Tom Chambers weren't good enough to halt the slide, and the Sonics failed to make the playoffs the following season. After the Sonics missed the playoffs again in 1985-86, Sikma requested a trade to a team that could help him attempt to win another championship.
"It's nothing against Seattle, but it's going to take them a long time to get to where they want to go," Sikma said. "I don't have that much time."
Sonics president Bob Whitsitt was able to swing a trade that sent Sikma to Milwaukee for center Alton Lister, swapping up from the second round to the first round in both the 1987 and 1989 drafts.
"We did everything we could to accommodate him," Whitsitt said at the press conference to announce the deal. "He made it clear that, if we couldn't arrange a trade, he would play for the Sonics, but he wouldn't like it.
"That would not have been the healthiest thing on the court for our team."
Whitsitt later added, "Jack was a seven-time All-Star with the Sonics, and he was a pivotal ingredient in the championship team. The entire franchise and the city, I'm sure, appreciate what he has meant to them."
Sikma showed he still has game during this 2002 charity event.
Playing for a Bucks team with plenty of perimeter scoring punch, Sikma accepted a smaller role in the offense. His 12.7 points per game were his lowest since his rookie season, but Sikma averaged double-figures rebound for the eighth and last time in his career. Sikma continued to play well in the middle, but Milwaukee could not get over the playoff hump. The Bucks had advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals the year before adding Sikma, but never got back with him, and only made it out of the first round of the playoffs twice in his five years.
Sikma went out on top after the 1990-91 season. While his scoring average had dropped to 10.4 points per game, the lowest of his career, and Sikma shot just 42.7% from the field, he remained a productive player until his retirement. He finished with career averages of 15.6 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, including 16.8 points and 10.8 boards during his nine seasons with the Sonics.
To this day, Sikma remains the Sonics all-time leader with 7,729 rebounds. No one is within a thousand rebounds of him. He is also the franchise's leader in free throws (3,044). Sikma ranks second in Sonics history in minutes and blocks, third in scoring and field goals made, fourth in games, sixth in assists and free-throw percentage, seventh in steals and tenth in scoring average. He also holds the franchise record for most rebounds in a single season.
After his playing career, Sikma returned to Seattle, where he operated Sikma Enterprises, Inc., which developed golf courses and restaurants. On Nov. 21, 1992, he became the third Sonics player to have his jersey (#43) retired.
Prior to this season, Sikma rejoined the Sonics as Special Assignments Coach. He has acted as an assistant coach throughout the season, working especially with the team's big men in the hopes of developing the next Jack Sikma - a player the Sonics have yet to find.