The bad thing about demanding to be traded is that it doesn't apply to real life. Let's say you're working in a stomach-stapling clinic in Amish country, and one day you hear that all the really fat people are living in Milwaukee. You're a person with big dreams and little patients, so you demand to be traded to a clinic in a city with a brewery tour, someplace where a guy with a quick staple gun and a love of entrails can someday have his own TV commercial. But in real life you can demand to be traded until you're blue in the face, and the press will ignore you, and not one general manager will call and the whole experience will make you sorry you are alive.
Actually, that can happen in the National Basketball Association, too, and for a while last summer Jack Sikma thought it just might be happening to him. After nine seasons with the Seattle SuperSonics, Sikma had asked to be traded to a team with at least some hope of winning a championship, which the Sonics clearly lacked. His demand was followed by nearly three months of quiet, during which time Sikma began to worry that the press was ignoring him, that not one general manager would call and that he was going to end up playing in Seattle and being sorry he was alive. But in July he was finally traded to Milwaukee, making the Bucks, who were swept out of the playoffs by Boston last May, a credible threat to end the Celtics' dominance in the East.
"Sikma's not a dominating center," says Milwaukee coach Don Nelson. "I don't think he's the type of player who can carry a team. His value lies in his ability to do really well all the things a center has to do. There isn't a part of the game he isn't good at. We feel we've really improved ourselves, and that this move puts us in a position to win it all."
Sikma was once a member of that elite caste of NBA players considered "untouchables," stars so closely identified with the city they play in that trading them would be unthinkable. Four years ago someone asked the Sonics' then-general manager, Zollie Volchok, if he would consider trading Sikma for Moses Malone. "I wouldn't trade Jack Sikma for the resurrection of Marilyn Monroe in my bedroom," was Volchok's reply, and the feeling was that he spoke for a majority of the bedrooms in Seattle. It's unlikely, in fact, that the Bucks would ever have extracted Sikma from the Sonics if Sikma had not insisted upon the trade himself.
November 3, 1986
"Jack is huge in this community," says Sonics president Bob Whitsitt. "He's bigger than the Space Needle. If we had wanted to trade Jack and he had not come in first, it would probably have created the biggest public-relations nightmare the Sonics ever faced."
Seattle had finished 31-51 and out of the playoffs the past two seasons, even with Sikma, and it's entirely possible his demand to be traded, which was greeted with much public gnashing of teeth by the Sonics, was actually just what the team's front office was hoping for. "I think, from a p.r. standpoint, the fact that I came out and asked to be traded made it easier for them to make a business decision," Sikma says. As the last link to Seattle's 1978-79 championship team, Sikma was more than just another good player, he was a cherished relic. "As long as Jack is here, he is Sonics basketball," says Whitsitt. "This way, some of our younger players will have a chance to create an identity of their own. I think maybe people here were looking back too much. When Boston wins a world championship, they make room in the rafters for the next one. We won one, and everyone just stared at the banner."
After Sikma went public with his desire to be traded, Lenny Wilkens, then the team's general manager, was quoted as saying that any player making the kind of money Sikma was—a reported $1.6 million a year over four seasons—should be loyal to his team, win or lose. Wilkens had received much of the credit for drafting Sikma in 1977, when he was a virtual unknown out of Illinois Wesleyan, and he had been Sikma's only head coach for eight seasons. But as the years passed and the losses mounted, Sikma began to feel that Wilkens was "if anything, too nice a guy" to be the coach, and at the end of the '85 season Sikma led a group of veterans who went to owner Barry Ackerly to discuss the team's problems. As a result, Wilkens was kicked upstairs into the G.M.'s office. Now Sikma wanted to be traded, a subject about which Wilkens would have some say, and what he was saying was that Sikma had a lot to learn about loyalty.
"I thought about loyalty a lot when I was making my decision," Sikma says now. "I was involved with that franchise for a long time, and I wanted to make it work there. I knew what was there for me—a bird in the hand—and there were certainly a lot worse places I could have gone to than Seattle. When I talked to my wife or our friends about it, I was usually the one arguing that I should stay in Seattle." Sikma brooded over his situation for nearly a year before doing anything about it. "Jack's not the kind of person who comes to a decision easily," says his wife, Shawn. "It finally got to the point last year that I was encouraging him to make a move—any move—because he was coming home from every game feeling miserable."
"What it came down to," Sikma says, "was that I believed I was a very good basketball player, and I selfishly wanted that to be shown by results. I thought I could help some team win again. Making that decision was very tough for me, but once I told Lenny, it was a huge relief. That was the point of no return." Sikma was able to have his way because his contract contained a clause allowing him to become a free agent at the end of the coming season, effectively preventing Seattle from trading him anywhere he didn't want to go.
It probably says something about Sikma and his ability to laugh in the face of danger that he hoped he would be traded to Dallas so he could be near his mother-in-law. Failing that, he wanted a chance to play for a team that could win an NBA championship, and he got it when Milwaukee traded center Alton Lister and two first-round draft picks for him and a pair of second-round choices. Dealing for a veteran center was not exactly an unprecedented move for the Bucks, who had traded for 31-year-old Bob Lanier in 1980 and 33-year-old Dave Cowens three seasons ago. Lanier gave Milwaukee a credible threat in the middle before his arthritic knees finally gave out, but Cowens, who had been in retirement for two seasons when the Bucks signed him, injured his knee in preseason and never played effectively for Milwaukee. Sikma will be 31 this month and had cartilage removed from his right knee last spring.
Nelson, a coach who takes a back seat to no one when it comes to acquiring players who probably couldn't remember what to do in a back seat even if they could fit into one, is still a little touchy about all the second-guessing that went on after the Cowens debacle. Nelson says he doesn't mind if his pivotmen can't chew their own food, because that's not actually part of the job description. "I've picked up three old centers, so I can't say it's not true," Nelson says. "If I could get Sampson and Olajuwon, I would like that. But when you're picking at about the 20th spot in the draft, the way we do every year, there aren't a lot of great centers left."
There was still a pretty good one available even after the Bucks had used two of their three first-round selections to take Kent Benson and Marques Johnson in the 1977 draft, but Nelson let Seattle take Sikma with the eighth pick, and the Bucks' coach said later he was glad to do it. "I think Seattle made a mistake," Nelson said airily that day. "We might have picked Sikma in the second round—if we had used up all 22 choices in the first round." Nine years and seven consecutive All-Star Game appearances later, it took Nelson the equivalent of all three of those first-round picks to get Sikma back. "I was young and dumb," Nelson says now. "Hell, I hadn't even seen him play."
Hardly anybody had. As a student at Illinois Wesleyan, a Methodist school with an enrollment of only 1,600, Sikma played in the NAIA. He had grown up in Wichert, Ill., a small Dutch village about an hour south of the farmers' markets in Chicago. For years Wichert had a post office and a general store, then somebody moved away and the post office closed. The Dutch who settled in the area found the sandy loam soil suitable for growing gladiolus bulbs, and the farmers there still do a brisk business selling "cut glads" to the city people.
Sikma was, as he says, "a late bloomer," playing guard for his first three years of high school before sprouting up to 6'10" in his senior season. The whole area was crazy for basketball, and that passion was sustained by the fact that "there were always a few tall Dutchmen coming through," Sikma says. He could have gone to any one of several major college basketball powers that recruited him after his sudden growth, but Sikma still thought of himself as a cut glad rather than a long-stemmed talent, so he chose Wesleyan. "There were people who thought he made a mistake when he went to Wesleyan," says his mother, Grace, who was one of them, "because he wouldn't get the exposure there."
They were right about that, but Sikma did learn something at Wesleyan that would lead directly to his later success in the pros. Never a great leaper, he had been getting a lot of his shots swatted back at him by the bigger players he was facing at the college level. "I had SPALDING written across my forehead a few times," he says. He and Wesleyan coach Dennis Bridges tried a number of evasive maneuvers before finally coming up with something they called an inside pivot, a move away from the basket that has since become Sikma's trademark. "I was a good enough shooter that taking a step away didn't hurt me," he says. He also began taking his shot from farther and farther behind his head, until finally it was impossible to block. Sikma remembers Bridges repeatedly coaxing him in practice, "Use your move, Jack. Use the move!" It did not come easily. "It took me half a season before I was comfortable with it," he says. The inside pivot is now referred to by basketball people simply as the Sikma Move, and big men are schooled in its intricacies the same way that young ballroom initiates were once taught the lindy hop.
Unfortunately, none of this had caught on yet in Seattle when Sikma arrived there, and for a while it appeared that the only Sikma move people there wanted to hear about was one that involved his catching a bus out of town. There had been stunned silence at the team's draft-day headquarters when his name was called, followed in short order by boos from the audience. "They had a history at that point of making bad draft picks," Sikma says, "and my reception in Seattle was pretty much on the order of 'Jack who?' There were a lot of players out there who had been on TV a lot more than some skinny guy from Illinois Wesleyan with a Dutch-boy haircut."
A Seattle paper actually ran a headline that said, SONICS SIGN 'WHO'S HE?' SIKMA. When he showed up in town to sign his rookie contract, Sikma was refused entry to a popular local bar because he couldn't produce sufficient identification, this despite the wretched pleadings of a Sonics publicist who must have suddenly seen his entire expense account flash before his eyes.
During Sikma's first season in Seattle, the Sonics got off to a 5-17 start under coach Bob Hopkins. "We were laughing-stocks," Sikma recalls. "People were trying to sell their season tickets." Hopkins was dismissed after the dismal start, and Wilkens almost immediately turned the team around. Seattle made it all the way to the NBA finals that year, losing in seven games to the Washington Bullets. The following season Seattle went to the finals again and this time beat the Bullets 4-1. Sikma just assumed that life in the NBA would always be like that—lose almost all of your games at first, fire the coach, then win almost all your games and go to the championship series. "I just got swept up in it," he says. "It all came so fast I didn't realize how tough it was to get that far."
He found out soon enough. The perfect harmony that had existed on the team the previous two seasons had all but vanished by the 1980 playoffs, and the Sonics had to labor through a seven-game series with Milwaukee before taking on the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals. Seattle split the first two games in L.A., then lost a close one at home. In Game 4 the Sonics had an 18-point halftime lead and, unbelievably, allowed the Lakers to come back and win it 98-93. In the locker room after the game Wilkens was furious, and in front of the entire team he blamed guard Dennis Johnson for the loss. Johnson replied with a verbal fusillade of his own, as his teammates sat in horror.
"That was the beginning of the end of the good times in Seattle," Sikma says. "I was sitting in traffic after that game, and some people rolled down their windows and said not to worry, that everything would be all right. I remember just sitting there thinking that everything wasn't going to be all right, that something had changed that day and it would never be the same again."
Johnson was traded to Phoenix that spring for Paul Westphal, and after he was gone Wilkens described DJ as "a cancer" on the team. It was just the first in what was to become a long series of disastrous personnel moves that dismantled Seattle's championship team, the last of which was the trade that sent Sikma to Milwaukee.
The Bucks weren't scheduled to play their home opener against Boston until this week, but Sikma was so anxious to get off to a good start that he showed up in Milwaukee five weeks ago to participate in the Bucks' "jump training" sessions. These are conditioning drills based on an East German technique called plyometrics, designed specifically to improve jumping skills. Curiously, it appeared that the only players with plyometric deficiencies were, like Sikma, of the Caucasian persuasion. "White guys' camp," Sikma huffs. "Now I'll be able to jump over two phone books instead of one."
Sikma missed the All-Star Game last season for the first time in seven years, a consecutive-appearance streak equaled during his career only by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, George Gervin and Larry Bird. He hopes the trade will help motivate him again.
"You've got to shake the tree sometimes," Sikma says. "Maybe I did get too comfortable in Seattle. I was always known for my slow starts, but a lot of times there was a reason for that. Early in the season we always had a couple guys who were trying to catch the coach's eye. Given a choice between putting up a 20-footer and passing it inside, they'd let it fly, so I would just save myself for later, when it counted. Then, after everyone had taken a shot at being the star and we were still losing, they'd eventually come back to Old Faithful."
Nelson is hoping Sikma will be that dependable while splitting his time at center and power forward, so that the Bucks can play the 7'3" Randy Breuer in the middle and 6'9" Terry Cummings at small forward. "I've tried to win with a small team for a few years now and couldn't do it," says Nelson. "L.A. tried last year and couldn't do it. For us to compete with the other good teams, we have got to be comfortable with our big lineup in there."
Sikma might just be the big man who makes the Bucks bigger than real life itself.