It says something about Jamaal Wilkes’s stature that four very big men introduced him last Friday at his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts:
Bill Walton, Rick Barry, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
All four had long since entered the Hall of Fame. It seemingly took forever for voters to figure out that Wilkes belonged with them. After all, each of them had his greatest successes on the court when the Santa Barbara High graduate, whose unruffled game earned him the nickname “Silk,” was a teammate.
Walton and Wilkes played together on UCLA teams that won 88 consecutive games.
Barry won a championship with the Golden State Warriors when Wilkes was the team’s NBA rookie of the year.
Abdul-Jabbar built up his scoring record during the eight years he and Wilkes played together on the L.A. Lakers.
Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar, and Wilkes started the Lakers’ “Showtime” era, winning three NBA titles before Wilkes retired.
Wilkes played probably his greatest game the night he scored 37 points when the Lakers clinched the 1980 championship in Philadelphia. He was overshadowed by Johnson, who had 42 points while playing center in place of the injured Abdul-Jabbar.
Wilkes’s mother remembers that game. “The phone was ringing all night; our friends were so happy for him,” Thelma Wilkes said. “Jamaal wasn’t trying to be a showman. He was all about winning the game. That’s where he got his joy, when they won.”
Jamaal Wilkes’s acceptance speech at the Hall of Fame was a brisk five-minute recitation of gratitude. The first person he thanked was his mother, who beamed proudly in the audience. He wished two others had lived to witness the ceremony: The Rev. L. Leander Wilkes, his father, who died in 2005, and legendary UCLA coach John Wooden, who died in 2010.
Perhaps no player has ever received higher praise than the response Wooden once gave when asked to describe the ideal basketball 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. Why not just take Jamaal Wilkes and let it go at that?”
How did Wilkes grow up to achieve such admiration? Some clues were revealed during a conversation with Thelma Wilkes in the living room of her Santa Barbara home, surrounded by pictures of her five children.
Jackson Keith Wilkes, who later adopted the name Jamaal, arrived in Berkeley on May 2, 1953. His birth was an occasion of great joy. Leonard Bruce Wilkes, the family’s first son — there already were two girls — had died at 13 months old. “He was a picture of health,” Thelma Wilkes said. “He passed in his sleep; they called it crib death. I was four months pregnant with Jamaal. I prayed for another boy.”
The family tragedy prompted Leander Wilkes, who worked at the Oakland Naval base, to enter the ministry. In 1959, he became pastor of a church in Ventura. Jamaal excelled in sports and school, trying to keep up with his older sister Lucy Naomi Wilkes, who jumped two grades and entered Stanford University at 16. Jamaal also skipped a grade.
“They were quite active, but the bottom line was they had to do their homework,” Thelma said. “We didn’t have all the attractions they have today … the attractions and the detractions. I’m so glad I’m not a parent rearing children today. It’s really hard.
“We always had dinner together at 6 o’clock. Everybody expressed themselves at the table. We listened and tried not to be judgmental. We wanted the best for them but did not want them to think that everything was mine, mine, mine.
“In order to be respected, you have to respect other people. When children just think of themselves, they become selfish. When you go to school, you should prepare yourself to give back to your community.”
Jamaal was the incoming student body president and an All-CIF basketball star at Ventura High in 1969 when the Rev. Wilkes became pastor of the Second Baptist Church in Santa Barbara. Arrangements were made for Jamaal to stay in Ventura for his senior year, but he said, “I missed mom’s cooking,” and he joined the family in their new home.
In one sensational basketball season, Wilkes and Santa Barbara High forged a bond that endures. He is part of a fundraising effort to renovate the school’s gym, where his jersey hangs in the rafters. The Lakers donated $20,000 to the cause, and they will honor their newest Hall of Famer on December 28 by retiring his No. 52 jersey — another gesture of respect bouncing back to the preacher’s quiet son.
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