He was known as Keith Wilkes when he was CIF basketball Player of the Year at Santa Barbara High in 1970. As a starting forward during UCLA’s phenomenal 88-game winning streak, his search for meaning beyond the basketball court led him to change his name to Jamaal Wilkes, the name by which he entered the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012.
His mother called him Sonny, girls called him Almond Joy, and basketball opponents surprised by his effectiveness called him the Silent Assassin. When it came to putting a nickname in the title of the book about his basketball experiences, it became Memoirs of the Original Smooth as Silk. He explains on page 101 that the moniker came from a UCLA band member. Bruins radio announcer Dick Enberg picked it up, and Chick Hearn, the legendary voice of the Lakers, immortalized it.
Wilkes will appear with copies of his book at the third annual Santa Barbara Court of Champions dinner on Sunday night, June 5, at the Cabrillo Pavilion Arts Center. The Court was established to create a permanent honor roll of basketball players, coaches, and supporters from the community. Wilkes is already in their company, having been one of the first honorees.
His memoir leads one to appreciate what a truly great career he pursued. All 17 high school, college, and pro teams for which he was a full-time player made the play-offs. He is one of five men (the others being Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Bill Walton) to win multiple NCAA and NBA titles. It may never happen again.
“I played during the golden years,” Wilkes said. Legendary coach John Wooden, teammates Rick Barry of the 1975 Golden State Warriors, and Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson of the Lakers’ Showtime era, figured prominently in his life. He gives credit to his high school coaches Bob Swanson (Ventura) and Jack Trigueiro (Santa Barbara). Above all, it was his father, the late Rev. Leander Wilkes, who instilled in him these values: “That one should always be in control of his or her thoughts; that one should always be in control of his or her actions; to hold steadfast to your sense of purpose; to not be resentful when treated wrongly; and the importance of having the confidence in the ability of your teacher to teach you.”
I recall a time, after he retired from the NBA and was a Los Angeles businessman, that those values were put to the test. On December, 10, 1990, Wilkes was pulled out of his car and handcuffed on a street corner by two LAPD officers. “It was shocking,” Wilkes told me. “I thought they’d recognize me. Standing there handcuffed, I felt like a common thug.” He was wearing a sport coat and tie, driving a nice car, the color of his skin being the only thing that would set him apart from most other commuters in the area.
“What hurt me most was that I was on their side; I believe in law enforcement,” said Wilkes, who was eventually released in the absence of any reason to cite him. “They acted like I was dangerous. I could have overreacted. It might have gotten ugly. It made me realize how you can get trapped in the underbelly.”
Three months later, when the Rodney King beating occurred, Wilkes decided not to pursue a complaint against the LAPD over his harassment. He makes no pretense that he’s led a perfect life — “I’ve stumbled and failed” — but I’m glad that on that night when confronted by the police he stayed, as much as possible, smooth as silk.
MORE CHAMPIONS: The new members of the Court of Champions are as follows:
• Cliff Lambert, who played hoops at S.B. High and UCSB in the 1960s and gave back to the community as the city’s director of youth activities. He was an Independent Local Hero in 1996.
• Jeff Azain, the third player of the San Marcos Runnin’ Royals of 1980-81 to be honored, a longtime assistant coach at Westmont College.
• CIF championship coaches Dave Bregante (with his alma mater Santa Barbara High in 2016) and Eric Burkhardt (with the Dos Pueblos Chargers in 1990).
• Jo Ann Reck, who coached the Santa Ynez High girls for 30 years, winning three CIF titles.
• Kristi Rohr-Taylor, one of Reck’s Santa Ynez standouts who is the second leading all-time scorer at UCSB.
• Conner Henry, builder of an enormous résumé. After graduating from UCSB in 1986, he played for four teams in the NBA, four in the CBA, three in Italy, two in Spain, two in Greece, and one in France. He has been a coach for six teams, including head coach of the Fort Wayne Mad Ants when they won the 2014 NBA D-League title, and currently is an assistant with the Orlando Magic.
• Shantay Legans, an outstanding point guard at Dos Pueblos High who started at Cal and Fresno State and is now associate head coach at Eastern Washington University.
• Erin (Buescher) Perperoglou, the Big West Player of the Year all three years she played at UCSB while inspiring young girls to wear braids like hers. She played seven years in the WNBA, married Greek professional star Stratos Perperoglou, and is now residing with him and their three children in Barcelona, his current team.
• Jerry Harwin, Phil Womble, and John Zant. These old guys never played basketball, but Santa Barbara’s teams had no greater fans than Harwin, who was in the crowd at the Thunderdome during the last of his 100 years, or Womble, the namesake of UCSB’s Phil Womble Hall of Champions. I was just privileged to know and sometimes write about all the aforementioned players and coaches.
After last year’s Court of Champions dinner went into multiple overtimes because of interminable speeches, it has been assured that things will progress more swiftly this Sunday. It will start at 6 p.m. at the Cabrillo Pavilion Arts Center. Information: santabarbarabasketball.com, (805) 969-7542.
THREE-TIMERS: For the third time in the last four years, UCSB is bound for the NCAA baseball tournament. The Gauchos (37-18-1) are seeded No. 2 in the Nashville Regional. They will play No. 3 Washington (32-21) on Friday, while Xavier (30-28) will play Vanderbilt (43-17), the host team. Vandy won the College World Series championship in 2014 and was runner-up to Virginia last year.