Tall, skinny and straw-hair blond, Jack Sikma was fresh off his family’s gladiola farm in Kankakee, Ill., and thrust into the NBA’s summer league in Los Angeles. On the other team was Moses Malone, a human whirlwind who would become one of the most unstoppable forces in pro ball’s history.
Malone, the same age as Sikma but with two years of pro experience in the American Basketball Association, was just looking to break a sweat. He dropped about 40 on Sikma, who had nine points and at least that many fouls.
The Sonics owner, Sam Schulman, made his way to courtside post-game. Appearing stricken, he asked assistant coach Les Habegger, “Is that really our first-round draft choice?”
Indeed, it was. The moment, however, was the low point of Sikma’s career.
The high point is imminent.
At NBA All-Star Weekend Friday, Sikma’s name was on the list of 10 finalists to be considered for the 2019 class in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. His candidacy is being debated by an anonymous panel of 24 hoops-savvy voters, 18 of whom need to check Sikma’s box for induction.
If they do, he will be inducted at ceremonies in Minneapolis April 6 during the NCAA men’s Final Four basketball tournament. Ceremonies are Sept. 5-7 at the Hall’s home in Springfield, Mass.
“It would be the highlight of my career — the ultimate,” an exuberant Sikma said by phone Friday. “Think of how many guys have played, and how few are selected.”
He was in sufficiently good spirits to laugh at the re-telling of his initial encounter with the late Malone, inducted into the Hall in 2001 after a 22-year career.
“I got devoured,” he said. “I’d had three practices, I was nervous, and needed to be in better shape going against Malone. It was just overwhelming.
“But I think I redeemed myself.”
He recovered sufficiently to play 14 NBA seasons, reach seven All-Star games and win an NBA championship with the Sonics in 1979, his second year in the league.
He was one of the most versatile big men (6-11, 260) in league history. A 2013 Bleacher Report story pointed out that, per Basketball Reference, Sikma is one of only seven players in NBA history to have 17,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, 3,000 assists, 1,000 steals and 1,000 blocked shots.
The others: Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Tim Duncan, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon and inevitable inductees Dirk Nowitski and Kevin Garrett. Hard to find better company.
Sikma in 1987-88 led the NBA in free-throw shooting, the only big man ever to do so, and in his final three years ending in 1991 (he played his final five seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks), he reworked his game to include three-point shots.
After taking just 68 treys in his first 11 seasons, he was 196 for 550 (35.6 percent) in his final three.
“I think I adapted pretty well,” he said, matter-of-factly.
Hey, when it comes to the NBA Hall, one can’t be bashful. Compared to the public spectacles in football and baseball — particularly the latter, where the voting writers are, embarrassingly, more of the story than the players — there is no public lobbying of the Naismith voters. So if a player has a case, he’s free to make it public.
Advocacy stories certainly can be written for overlooked players, but secrecy prevents voters from being personally bombarded via social media and phone calls. The finalists will learn the fate privately next month, but must maintain silence until the event each year at the Final Four.
Sikma, 63, was not complaining.
“If I get in this year, it’s a great system,” he said. “If I get in next year, it’s a great system.”
Sikma, a consultant with the Toronto Raptors, is one of four first-time nominees among the finalists, which also includes a Sonics teammate, Paul Westphal, who played 36 games in 1980-81 for Seattle before being injured. Westphal was acquired from Phoenix for fellow All-Star Dennis Johnson, one of the most infamous trades in Sonics history.
Westphal also coached the Sonics from 1998-2001, compiling a record of 76-71.
Another first-timer is former Milwaukee Bucks star Marques Johnson, who teamed for several years with Sonics voice Kevin Calabro on Seattle broadcasts, and four-time NBA defensive player of the year Ben Wallace.
Previous finalists included again this year for consideration are the all-time winningest high school coach (male or female) Leta Andrews of Texas, 28-year NBA referee Hugh Evans, two-time NBA Coach of the Year Bill Fitch, eight-time NBA All-Defensive first-team member Bobby Jones, five-time NBA All-Star Sidney Moncrief, five-time Division II National Coach of the Year Barbara Stevens, four-time National College Coach of the Year Eddie Sutton, five-time WNBA All-Star Theresa Weatherspoon and five-time NBA All-Star Chris Webber.
Sikma said he had no answer for the question of why it took so long to be recognized.
“I haven’t thought much about that,” he said, “only that it gets a little more important as time passes.
“I know that I played a lot of minutes (36,943) and was pretty productive. Coaches kept putting me in there for a reason. I hope that’s how the voters look at it.”
The player teammates nicknamed “Banger” is bang-on. Jack Sikma has the numbers for the Hall and the heart of a champion. If Malone were still around, he would testify.