SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Growing up on a farm in Illinois, Jack Sikma daily awoke to the sounds of birds and the scent of flowers. Growing up in New York City, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar daily awoke to the sounds of birds coughing and the smell of trash.
From disparate worlds, the rivals spent 12 years in each other’s grills, farm kid and Harlem kid meeting regularly in the low post in Seattle and Los Angeles. Friday night they meet again in more hospitable and salutary circumstances.
Abdul-Jabbar is still, 30 years after his retirement, the greatest scorer in NBA history, and Sikma, 28 years after his retirement and still the greatest scorer in Illinois Wesleyan chronicles — and the best big man in Sonics history — share a Symphony Hall stage and an honor: Hall of Famer.
Abdul-Jabbar will join two other Hall of Famers, Lenny Wilkens and Wayne Embry, in presenting Sikma for enshrinement as part of the 2019 class for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in the town where the game was invented.
Sikma chose Wilkens because he was the coach of the SuperSonics when he moved Sikma in his second season from power forward to center, a maneuver crucial in directing the Sonics to the 1979 NBA championship. Sikma chose Embry, a longtime NBA player and executive, because he lobbied on behalf of “Banger” with the secretive, 18-member panel that annually considers candidates for enshrinement.
And Sikma chose Abdul-Jabbar because he was the premier figure in a class of hoops warriors vanishing in the modern NBA like a mirage — powerful giants astride the industry, before the three-point line and analytics made for sissyball.
“You look at Kareem’s legacy, and he’s at the top of the list,” Sikma said Thursday afternoon as the weekend of events began. “It was such a battle with so many good centers in the league at the same time.”
Elvin Hayes. Patrick Ewing. Artis Gilmore. Bob Lanier. Moses Malone. Robert Parish. Kevin McHale. David Robinson. Hakeem Olajuwon. Wes Unseld. Bill Walton.
Sikma nodded across the room at the Hall of Fame toward fellow enshrinee Vlade Divac, the former Lakers and Kings star.
“He’s the 15th Hall of Fame big man I played against,” he said, pride obvious. Abdul-Jabbar was chief among them.
“My recurring memory is seeing number 33 in purple right in front of me, with his right hand extended,” he said. “You just battled.
“There’s a number of guys here in the hall that I went against, and now stand beside.”
The implausibility of a skinny white kid from an NAIA school who had neither hops nor quicks standing with the regal and extraordinary Abdul-Jabbar bends the sporting mind.
No one is suggesting equality with Kareem here. But for Sikma to rate a place on the top shelf among his contemporaries, it took a similar kind of data-sleuthing from writers — particularly this one from ESPN.com’s Seattle-based Kevin Pelton — that allowed former Mariners star Edgar Martinez to have his candidacy elevated to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In a sentence, the analytics showed Sikma’s career from 1977 to 1991 in Seattle and Milwaukee revealed a high level of consistency, efficiency and durability that was superior to many already in the hall.
He also won a championship, became the first big man to lead the NBA in free throw shooting and conjured some hoops innovation too.
Sikma helped begin an NBA trend, mostly during his final years in Milwaukee, of freeing space inside by moving a good-shooting big man outside to face the basket and fire. It led to the increased emphasis on three-point shooting that has, for good or ill, consumed the pro game.
“As rules changed that opened up the court, spacing was a new way to play, which meant you had to shoot from distance,” he said. “I don’t know what place I have in that whole process, but the concept was there in my last few years in Milwaukee.”
He learned his shot-making as a forward, only 5-foot-10 as a high school sophomore. He didn’t lose any of his touch as he zoomed to 6-8 as a junior. By the time he entered Illinois Wesleyan in nearby Bloomington, he and his coaches developed an inside-pivot move that swept the defender’s hands away, clearing the way to step back and launch a jumper (well, a set shot) from high behind his head that was unblockable.
“I was a skinny, decent-shooting big guy,” he said. “It was a move that fit my skill. It was experiment after my freshman season, when my college coach sat down and said, ‘Jack, you gotta be more effective in the post if you want to take the next step.’
“Some coaches poo-poo it because you’re catching the ball in one spot and stepping back three feet. That’s not a concept, right? But I was comfortable with the pivot, and worked on a higher release point. Today there would be a big advantage because (of rules changes) that, when you face up the defender, he can’t put his hands on you.”
The shot distinguished Sikma’s career, in the manner of Kareem’s Skyhook, or Olajuwon’s Dream Shake or McHale’s Up and Under. Unfortunately, it just took longer for the basketball world to understand what it had in Sikma, despite seven All-Star appearances.
“One if the great things about being a late bloomer is you focus on just the next thing,” he said. “Don’t get ahead of yourself.”
Sikma’s game may have been ahead of his time. But at 63, he has every right to say basketball was way behind time in recognizing his value. That mistake ends Friday night here.
Former Sonics coach/player Paul Westphal in the Class of 2019
Also gaining enshrinement Friday is Paul Westphal, who played 36 games for the Sonics in 1980-81 and was Sonics coach from 1998-2001.
Westphal was part of one of the most controversial trades in Seattle history, a straight-up swap of All-Star guards, Westphal for a then-impetuous Dennis Johnson, MVP of the 1979 NBA Finals. Fans were outraged with coach Lenny Wilkens, who termed Johnson “a cancer.” Then Westphal broke a bone in his foot and never again played for the Sonics.
He also was fired in 2001 as Sonics coach when he struggled to manage stars Gary Payton and Vin Baker.
Asked to summarize his saga in Seattle, Westphal offered a wan smile and said, “Disappointing.”
He was candid about the problems with 6-11 forward Baker, a major trade acquisition who busted, and later was treated for alcoholism.
“Things didn’t go the way we thought at the time,” he said. “You don’t want anything to sound like excuses, but I broke my foot. Then as coach, Vin Baker turned into an alcoholic — after a lockout.”
Westphal said he had an argument with then-Commissioner David Stern, who insisted that all coaches begin wearing a microphone to let fans become more engaged with the game.
“I said, ‘Can we talk about this?’ He said, ‘No!'” Westphal said. “It came at a time when we were, to put it mildly, extremely concerned about Vin’s drinking. This is no great secret, but there were bottles stashed in the rest room at halftime.
“Sometimes (coaches) have to talk about things that we don’t want on a microphone. This was inappropriate. There was media coverage negative to him, and Stern backed off. I won the skirmish but I don’t think I necessarily won the war. I’m not his friend.”
If he wants to be around more non-friends of Stern, he’s welcome back in Seattle.
“I love Seattle,” he said. “The basketball community up there is second to none. It’s insane that they don’t have a team. It seems impossible when you think about how much they love the Sonics.
“One of the biggest disappointments of my career is that things never worked out there.”
Sikma’s baseline shot was unblockable. He was integral to the championship crew who were so enjoyable to watch, because they all played as a team, moved the ball and no-one had a cancerous ego. They were a delight to watch and Sikma’s style was great to watch. As the article says, that was the time of the big man and the days of banging away in the paint. Sissyball is exactly descriptive of today’s game and why I don’t watch the NBA anymore. The pre-three point game was the NBA I liked, where teams actually ran plays, the forwards and centers banged away and the guards drove the lane at their peril. It was greatly entertaining and as a season ticket holder in row 6, it was played by men whose physicality was amazing to watch – elbows, push-offs, forearms – you name it, the game was for tough guys who were modern day gladiators. Today’s players whine whenever they are touched – no thankyou!
It’s remarkable how the game has decayed. I’m not saying all three-pointers are bad. But like ice cream, do we need a gallon at a time.
R.I.P., NBA mid-range jumper.
I agree with you it was a better game to watch when the ball moved more and we saw more 5 man involvement. Backdoors, pass and screen away, the triangle offense appear to be things of the past in the NBA.
Regarding big man Sikma’s NBA leading free throw percentage shooting:
I was playing golf at Snoqualmie Falls and on hole number 11 I hooked my drive left over a barbed wire fence, Upon retrieving my out of bounds ball I encountered the owner of the property. Rather than reprimand me for trespass we struck up a conversation and she began telling me the story of how Jack became such a great free throw shooter.
Her husband, a doctor taught Jack to improve his free throw accuracy with a “seeing is believing” concept by closing his eyes and taking a deep breath before shooting the shot and “visualizing” the ball leaving his hand, seams of the ball spinning in reverse and then falling thru the net.
Sure enough when I watched the next game Sikma was going thru the process exactly as she had explained. The results showed marked improvement and eventually he won a NBA free throw shooting title! True story.
And Art, thanks again for such wonderful story writing.
Paul Westphal was coach at Grand Canyon State. They played a game at the University of Puget Sound. My son was just a little boy and walked up to Paul before the game and asked for an autograph. Paul could not have been nicer. I will always remember that. I will also remember Westphal’s 24-2 USC team (both losses to Wooden’s Bruins) that was not allowed in the NCAA tournament.
Westphal has always been a gentleman, grateful for his place. He was probably too nice a guy to be a long-term pro coach.
I remember from WAY BACK when Westphal said about Don Nelson who was a player with him in Boston. He said Nelson was the most Unathletic athlete he has ever seen. I still giggle at that.
Probably still true.
I was gratified to see Nellie at the event. Warm greetings from him.
He was always one of my favourite opposing players as a kid. I was actually in the minority of those who were genuinely excited when he got traded here. Also think he got hosed as a head coach in Phoenix, too.
Since I haven’t followed basketball in a while, what shooting techniques do modern-day centers use (besides the dunk)? I heard Kareem saying he didn’t understand why youth and college coaches don’t teach his sky hook today; since it’s a virtually unblockable shot, why not teach it? The same could be said for Sikma’s fall-away pivot, I would imagine.
Also, is Sikma that much better than Kemp in Sonics big-man lore?
I’m interested to learn how the Basketball Hall of Fame stages its ceremony. I’ve seen the football and baseball Halls’ ceremonies held in a stadium or large staging area filled with thousands of fans, while hockey’s is in a small room in their Hall with just a couple of hundred invited guests in black tie/gown, and no fans present. Basketball’s should be between those extremes, right?
If you have NBA TV, please tune in.
I draw a position distinction between Sikma and Kemp. Jack made his bones as a back-to-the-basket center, Kemp was always a power forward facing the basket. No question Kemp was a better athlete, but Sikma’s overall game and longevity make him the Sonics’ best post man.
Regarding teaching unorthodox shots, kids have to be dedicated to rigorous practice for mastery. The hook shot is actually mechanically difficult in terms of body balance and alignment. Sikma’s shot, particularly the launch point, also takes a lot of time.
Most kids want instant gratification.
I had read in the Seattle Times that Wes Unseld would be a presenter for Jack and not Wayne Embry. Not sure where the miscommunication came from but Jack’s battles with Wes were about as legendary as the ones he had against Kareem. I still like that Jack has Kareem presenting for him though. It’s a selection comparable to Gary Payton’s choice of John Stockton.
I’m also glad to see Paul finally getting in as well. Like Jack he should have been inducted long ago. I wish we could have seen Paul play together with Gus Williams. But even though I absolutely love Gus I’ve always thought that Paul and DJ would have been an amazing backcourt. It’s interesting that both played for the Sonics, Suns and Celtics. Just not together.
I’m wondering if any NBA executives will see the irony of two former Sonics, as players and coaches, being inducted into the HOF but having no franchise in Seattle? I hope the ceremony will be flooded with former Sonics.
Didn’t see the Unseld reference, but Jack has a recent professional history with Embry in Toronto.
Good point about Stockton/Payton. Ultimate rivals.
I don’t think NBA executives will be swayed by Seattle passions.
Only basketball fans in Salt Lake City and Seattle understand/understood the Payton-Stockton connection. I know of fans in neutral markets who were genuinely perplexed by it. If Shawn ever gets in, hopefully Malone will be standing next to him.