Jamaal Wilkes led Santa Barbara High to 26 consecutive basketball victories in 1969-70. Then, like the San Marcos Royals a decade later (see last week’s Independent), the Dons endured a frustrating conclusion to their winningest season. The Millikan Rams defeated them 66-53 in the CIF semifinals. Wilkes sprained an ankle before the game and was held to 17 points, 10 below his playoff average, but he made no excuses last week during a hoops summit hosted by the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table.
“Sorry, coach, I let you down,” Wilkes said. Jack Trigueiro, who guided that Dons team, would beg to differ. Wilkes never let anybody down. He was a model of consistent excellence on three of John Wooden’s greatest UCLA teams—while being honored as a three-time Academic All-American—and he played key roles on four NBA championship teams, one in his rookie year with the Golden State Warriors and three with the Lakers.
“You remember Jamaal as a Bruin and a Laker, and he was just like that in high school,” said Don Ford, a teammate of Wilkes with the Dons and, later, with the Lakers. “I’d put him up against any high school player ever. He could play guard, center, or forward. He was our whole team. I averaged 17 points as a junior, and 16 of them came from Jamaal feeding me on the fast break. I’d never seen anybody with that ability when he showed up at our school.”
Keith Wilkes (his original name) was an All-CIF center and student body president-elect at Ventura High when his father, the late Rev. Leander Wilkes, became pastor at Santa Barbara’s Second Baptist Church. “I planned to stay in Ventura for my senior year, but as the fall approached, I missed my mother’s cooking,” Jamaal said. Now we know why Santa Barbara’s basketball fortunes soared in 1969: Thelma Wilkes’s peach pies.
Wilkes thrived in Trigueiro’s disciplined program. “Sometimes you see guys with that talent go lazy in practice,” said Bob Thompson, then a Dons guard. “Jamaal worked harder than any of us. He outran us in lines. He became the leader of the team.”
There was a peculiar aspect to his game—an unorthodox jump shot. “You don’t see anybody with that kind of delivery,” Thompson said. “The ball came from behind his ear.” Wilkes explained last week that when he was 12 years old, he played hoops against grown-ups. “I learned to hold the ball at my side to get my shot off,” he said. It became his natural form.
“Trigueiro tried to correct it,” Thompson recalled. “He had Jamaal square his shoulders up and hold the ball in front. During practice, it was the weirdest experience. He was shooting air balls. He was no good at all. After practice, there was a two-on-two game with the coaches, and Jamaal went back to what was natural. Trigueiro said, ‘I’ll guard him.’ Jamaal just lit him up. Trigueiro said, ‘What the hell, Keith, from now on you shoot the ball whatever way you want.’”
Wooden came to that same conclusion. The UCLA coach had Wilkes shoot around the horn while he rebounded. “I was drilling it, every shot nothing but net,” Wilkes said. “Coach finally said, ‘Okay, you’re dismissed.’” Wooden wisely decided to leave well enough alone.
Wilkes told how he received the nickname “Smooth as Silk.” It was blurted out by a UCLA band member who was smitten with the basketball team. Bruins radio announcer Dick Enberg picked it up, and Chick Hearn, the legendary voice of the Lakers, immortalized it.
MARCH MASSACRE: Florida put the squeeze on UCSB and UCLA in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The Gators’ 79-51 rout of the Gauchos was not the most one-sided game of the weekend, but it was close. It also was evidence that the Gauchos had regressed since 2010, when most of the same players lost by 17 points to Ohio State. Their feckless play during the regular season set the tone. Orlando Johnson and most of his teammates will return next season. Will the third time be a charm? Only if they put in the work and play up to their potential starting in November. … In numerous other games, March Madness has lived up to its billing. Most amazingly, Butler did it again. The fouls in the last seconds of Butler’s bizarre 71-70 victory over Pittsburgh could be labeled “Dumb and Dumber.” … UCSB’s women had an 11-point lead at USC in the first round of the WNIT, but the Trojans wore them down and won, 67-64. Gaucho senior Mekia Valentine averaged a double-double (11.1 points and 11.2 rebounds) for the season. … The third Santa Barbara college team to see its national hoop hopes go bust on the same day was Westmont’s women, who battled hard in the NAIA championships but fell to Lewis-Clark State, 63-57.