Through it all—the 88-game winning streak at UCLA and the four national championships, collegiate and professional—the stars that glitter in the Hollywood firmament have never shone upon Jamaal Wilkes of the Los Angeles Lakers. That's probably because Wilkes isn't 7'4" tall or called "The Big Fella." Nor is he Magic. He's Silk, and that's, well, a bit effeminate. It just doesn't fit in with the roughness under the boards.
It's not that Wilkes isn't worthy. In last season's championship game against the 76ers, he scored a career-high 37 points. He added 10 rebounds, equaling the combined total of Philly's Darryl Dawkins and Caldwell Jones. Lights? Camera? Action? Nope. The spotlight that night shone on Earvin Johnson: 42 points, 15 rebounds and that smile. When asked about the game afterward, Wilkes gave Johnson his due, then added matter-of-factly, "I don't think we would have won without me, too."
No brag, fact. Wilkes, 27, is a winner, and this season he is hanging up some impressive numbers that are finally bringing him into the limelight. At last week's All-Star break he was averaging 23.3 points a game, 11th-best in the NBA, on 54.7% shooting from the field and was one of the main reasons Los Angeles was only 3½ games behind front-running Phoenix in the Pacific Division despite losing Johnson on Nov. 18 with a knee injury. In games in which Wilkes has scored 20 or more points, the Lakers have a 27-10 record. They have won all 11 games in which he has scored 30 or more.
Predictably, the fans didn't vote Wilkes to a starting berth in last Sunday's NBA All-Star Game, but he was named to the West squad by the coaches, and in an informal SI poll of league players, he received more votes than any other Western Conference forward. For Wilkes it was only his second All-Star Game in a steady, if unspectacular, pro career. That has been the Wilkes story: a consistent player consistently under-recognized. A 17.8-point career scorer, he played the full 82-game schedule four times in his first six NBA seasons. He has played in 224 consecutive regular-season games, scoring in double figures in the last 131.
"What happens with Jamaal is, he slides the knife into you, delivers the goods, takes it out and is gone into the night to the next city," says Laker Coach Paul Westhead. "He does it again and again and never even gets a mug shot taken. The other day Michael Cooper scored on a great stuff shot off a rebound. Now if someone were scouting the game they would say, 'Try and stop Kareem and watch out for Cooper on the offensive boards.' Then, as an afterthought, they'd add, 'Oh, yeah, Wilkes has a nice shot, too.' "
Wilkes kills his opponents softly, using L.A.'s fast break and his speed and soft hands to get more layups than perhaps anyone else in the league. Last Thursday in a 118-104 victory over Kansas City, which stretched L.A.'s winning streak at the All-Star break to five games, Wilkes scored 30 points, 16 on layups.
The Lakers' fast break usually begins with an Abdul-Jabbar or Jim Chones rebound and outlet pass to Norm Nixon, with Cooper or Magic (when he's healthy) on one wing, and Wilkes on the other, filling the lanes. And the lanes are always filled. "If the man I'm guarding likes to crash the boards, I'll screen him out, then go, but sometimes I just take off," Wilkes says. "The transition game is suited to me because I can get out and move. To me the game is a series of moments passing. I get distressed when I don't use those moments as best I can."
Even when the break stalls, Wilkes remains in motion, slithering back and forth across the lane, running his man through pick after pick, eventually breaking free for an easy bucket. When not shooting layins, Wilkes scores with an awkward-looking but deadly corkscrew jump shot. Or set shot. As he shoots, Wilkes' feet barely leave the ground. He just sort of stretches up on his tiptoes. The basketball moves from the waist to a spot somewhere behind his right ear and is released with both hands pushing across his body.
As he shoots, Wilkes resembles a giant slingshot; the execution isn't pretty in the classic sense. But the ball goes in. That doesn't always wow the crowd, as West-head lyrically points out. "To me his shot is like snow falling softly off a bamboo leaf," he says. "One minute it's there, the next it's not. Unfortunately, people don't get into falling snow." Falling snow might be better appreciated if Jamaal would also rear back and throw down a dunk or two, but he has purposely omitted that shot from his repertoire, as he has be-hind-the-back, no-look passes and most other flash and dash.
"A long time ago I saw what winning meant, what you were exposed to from winning," he says. "I decided to dedicate myself to that phase of the game, to concentrate on winning, even to the point of never being flashy. People who win and like to win appreciate that."
Despite all the winning, Wilkes has been recognized mainly for his physique and good looks. With his even-toned smooth skin and hazel eyes, Wilkes seems to glow on the court, as if surrounded by an aura. He has grown used to being called "kewpie-doll" or "baby-faced Jamaal Wilkes."
"That's the nature of the business," he says. "We're well-built men, running around in these short outfits, people watching us sweat. It's probably sort of sensual."
It was "baby-faced Keith Wilkes" until his first pro season when, after converting to Islam, he changed his name to Jamaal Abdul-Lateef. He continues to use the name Wilkes only for purposes of public recognition.
Wilkes grew up in Ventura, Calif., the son of a Baptist minister. He never really became a part of the shakin' and bakin' of the Ventura playgrounds, and he developed his sling-shot to avoid blocks from bigger, older players. Jamaal started playing in organized leagues at age eight. He took to the concept of team play, and even as a kid he diligently blocked out his man and set picks, to the surprise of his peers. "What was that?" "A pick and roll." "A whaat....?"
"Jamaal was raised and supported in a home environment where we always strove to be more reasonable and rational than others," says L. Leander Wilkes, Jamaal's father, a very reasonable and rational man himself who was supportive at the time of his son's religious conversion. "There was sometimes a different set of values on the playgrounds, but Jamaal was always secure, and that shows when he plays. Players who aren't as secure will show a weakness of character in times of stress, be it anger or loss of control. That doesn't happen with Jamaal."
Jamaal's strength of character is reflected in the won-lost columns. He hasn't been on a team with a losing record since he began playing basketball in the third grade; he hasn't missed the playoffs in his pro career. After triumphant high school seasons at both Ventura and Santa Barbara, Wilkes made the move down the coast to UCLA and two national championships and a pair of first-team All-America berths.
In his first season in the NBA, with Golden State, Wilkes was named Rookie of the Year and the Warriors won the championship. In three seasons with the Warriors he averaged 16.5 points a game playing in the shadow of Rick Barry and was twice named to the NBA's all-defensive team. He joined the Lakers as a free agent before the start of the 1977-78 season.
Wilkes' Hollywood debut was a critical bomb. Hampered by a broken finger and other injuries, he played in only 51 games, averaging 12.9 points—not bad at all, but not good enough for the L.A. fans, who thought he had been overrated. Wilkes had far bigger worries off the court. His infant daughter had recently died of a heart ailment, and his first marriage was breaking up. Wilkes averaged 18.6 points on 50.4% shooting in the 1978-79 season, a preview of last year's 20.0 and 53.5% marks. At the end of last season he remarried, and he and the former Valerie Topping now live—inconspicuously, of course—on the ocean in the L.A. suburb of Playa del Rey.
Wilkes' blossoming as a scoring threat isn't merely a tribute to the Lakers' fast break. Last season Wilkes shifted from power forward to small forward, a task for which his 6'6", 190-pound frame was better equipped. His overall game had always suffered as a result of the constant pounding he took at strong forward. It's not a coincidence that the Lakers showed their heels to the rest of the league last year after new owner Jerry Buss added muscle and board strength to his front line with people like Chones and Mark Landsberger.
That helped Buss entice Wilkes, again a free agent before the start of last season, to remain in Los Angeles. "After I got the team, my first priority was to sign Jamaal," Buss says. "At power forward he was overmatched night after night. I convinced him that we could add some rebounding and run and have fun with him at small forward. I knew we could win, too."
The part about winning was all Wilkes needed to hear, and he promptly signed a long-term contract at a reported $600,000 a year. That pact was negotiated for Wilkes by an old teammate from the Ventura playgrounds, his sister Naomi, who is now a lawyer. "She really played basketball first," Wilkes recalls. "She was the neighborhood tomboy, always playing with the guys. Because she helped me learn the game, it only seemed right that she remain a part of my career, so we decided to give it a try."
Westhead is glad they did because Wilkes' presence gives the Lakers a force, albeit a quiet one, to accompany Abdul-Jabbar on offense. "Our thinking is to get Jamaal out of the game early for a little rest, then bring him back in when Kareem sits down," Westhead says. "When Kareem is out, the offense really revolves around Jamaal, but the way he goes about his business no one really notices. His in-conspicuousness is part of his greatness. I just hope no one ever catches on."