Dependable and durable
Jack Sikma averaged 21.2 ppg and 13.1 rpg in four seasons at Illinois Wesleyan, which was then an NAIA school and is currently classified as a Division III NCAA program. Sikma led the Titans to a 71-20 record and three College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin (CCIW) titles in his final three seasons (1975-77).
The Seattle SuperSonics selected Sikma with the eighth overall pick in the 1977 draft. Seattle had posted a 40-42 record the previous season, finishing near the bottom of the league in rebounding. Sikma provided an immediate boost in that area, ranking second on the team with an 8.3 rpg average, helping Seattle improve to fourth in the NBA in total rebounds. He also averaged 10.7 ppg, earning a spot on the All-Rookie Team. The Sonics got off to a 5-17 start under first year coach Bob Hopkins but went 42-18 down the stretch after Lenny Wilkens replaced Hopkins at the helm.
“Jack never shied away. He stepped up. That is why we drafted him,” recalls Wilkens. “We felt that he was a guy who could contribute and who would be consistent and when I took over as the coach of the Sonics I started him. He had been coming off of the bench. He made free throws at crucial times and was always in the game. When you have success early in your career it makes you that much more confident.”
Seattle advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. There they faced the Washington Bullets, a veteran-laden team that had been swept in two previous Finals trips (1971 and 1975). Hall of Famers Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes anchored a deep, talented frontline that also featured Bobby Dandridge, Mitch Kupchak and Greg Ballard. Sikma averaged 13.7 ppg and 7.6 rpg in the Finals, including 21 points and 11 rebounds in a 105-99 game seven loss at home as the Bullets won their first and only championship.
Seattle posted the best record in the Western Conference in 1978-79 (52-30). Sikma averaged 15.6 ppg and 12.4 rpg (fifth in the league), earning his first All-Star selection. The Sonics returned to the Finals only to find a familiar foe standing in their way: the Washington Bullets, the only team in the league that won more games than Seattle (54). The Bullets seemed to be in good shape after a 99-97 victory in game one, but Seattle won the next four games as Wilkens claimed the only title of his dual Hall of Fame career as a player and a coach. Sikma averaged 16.2 ppg in the Finals and led both teams with 14.8 rpg and 3.2 bpg.
“It’s interesting, because we played them two years in a row and my matchups were different each year,” Sikma says. “The first year, I had to play Elvin because Marvin Webster was playing Wes. Of course, you are talking about a guy who is so aggressive with his scoring, attacking the basket and he had the turnaround jumper. He was very physical. That was a series when having Paul Silas behind me was a great help, because it was really challenging physically and I was in foul trouble a lot because I was guarding a player who had the ball in his hands a lot. What is good about those situations is that you have a clear and focused goal: find a way to win no matter what. I was able to do that and get that done – or at least play with some level of success and learn a lot. The second year playing against Wes was a whole different thing with his size and power. Then, defensively, I knew that I was going to be in a physical battle. I had to use my strengths, try to go away from the basket and that kind of thing.”
Wilkens believes that Sikma learned a lot from his first NBA Finals experience and that he applied that knowledge during the 1979 Finals.
“The second year, he was a lot better; he was much more confident about what he could do,” Wilkens says. “Our whole team was more confident. After we played them, we felt that we could beat them. We believed that and we believed that we were going to get back the next year.”
As Sikma noted, Paul Silas, a two-time All-Star who was a key member of Boston’s championship teams in 1974 and 1976, played a much more important role on Seattle’s 1979 championship team than is suggested by his pedestrian regular season statistics (5.6 ppg, 7.0 rpg). “Paul was aggressive and he could play,” Wilkens says. “Any time that I thought that another veteran team was trying to take advantage of Jack, I’d insert Paul. He was a wise veteran; he knew what to do and how to do it. That helped give Jack a reprieve, a chance to catch his breath before he had to go back in the game. In practice, Paul would go against Jack. I would match them up because I wanted Jack to learn from one of the best. Paul was huge in that respect.”
“Paul had a great effect helping me to become successful, both on the court and off of it – his approach to the game, how tough you have to be, how relentless you have to be, how focused you have to be,” Sikma remembers. “Not just Paul, but the other veterans on the team kind of saw what could maybe happen (with my game) and were always encouraging me – but also challenging me. We always practiced really hard. We were a bunch of young guys trying to get it together. During those practice sessions I got a lot of input from Paul Silas, both verbally and physically” – chuckles as he says this – about how to play the game. John Johnson, Fred Brown, Dennis Awtrey – all the guys who had been in the league for awhile – were really helpful and encouraging and challenged us every day.”
Seattle won 56 games in 1979-80, setting a franchise record that stood until the 1993-94 team won 63 games. However, a new power had arisen in the Western Conference, as rookie Magic Johnson teamed up with MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Norm Nixon and Jamaal Wilkes to turn the Lakers into bona fide contenders. The Lakers beat Seattle 4-1 in the Western Conference Finals and won the 1980 championship. The Lakers won five titles in the 1980s and made it to the Finals eight times. Meanwhile, slowly but surely the Sonics declined, bottoming out at 31-51 in 1985-86. The team obviously had to rebuild and Sikma wanted to finish out his career playing for a contender, so the Sonics traded him to Milwaukee. Sikma spent the last five years of his career with the Bucks, who made the playoffs each of those seasons but never got past the second round of the playoffs.
Sikma ranked in the top ten in the league in rebounding six straight years (1979-84) and he made the All-Defensive Second Team in 1981-82. He played in all 82 games in eight different seasons. How was he able to be that durable and productive?
“I was fortunate. I wasn’t the most athletic big guy,” Sikma says. “I felt that I had a level of quickness, especially earlier in my career, that helped me a lot. I played the game positionally. My feet were on the ground a lot. I tried to react and anticipate better than the next guy; I think that helped a lot. There were not a lot of times that I was at risk while playing the game.”
In other words, a player who is fundamentally sound and has good anticipation can avoid collisions or at least lessen the impact from them.
“That’s part of it,” Sikma agrees. “The other part of it is (the difference between) collisions while you are in mid-air when you don’t have a lot of control versus collisions when you (are on the ground and) have a stable base where you can react and move and that kind of thing – that keeps you out of harm’s way more often than not.”
Sikma shot better than .800 from the free throw line in 13 of his 14 seasons. In the last three years of his career, he emerged as a legitimate three point shooter.
“Part of it had to do with how we played as a team in Milwaukee,” Sikma says of his late career rebirth as a long range bomber. “We had some other low post scorers, so we were looking for ways to spread the court. I was able to guard ‘fives’ and match up with them and this was a way to pull them away from the basket. When I got to Milwaukee under Don Nelson for one year and then Del Harris, we always had a lot of three point shooting games (in practice) and that type of thing and I kind of showed that I could make a few of those. Del started to implement it little by little in the games and there were a few times when we would go to it early in the game just to get the opposing big guy away from the hoop and we had a level of success to keep it going.”
After his retirement, Sikma returned to Seattle as an assistant coach for several seasons. Currently, he is an assistant coach for the Houston Rockets, providing guidance to Yao Ming and the team’s other big men. Sikma has very specific ideas about how to help post players to develop their games.
“Number one is I just spend some time getting to know them and developing a relationship where there is a level of trust,” Sikma says. “I watch what they do and try to soak up where we are at. The next thing is that I have certain ideas that I like to discuss, such as how they can be effective by mixing in some face up moves or by attacking the middle more or whatever – just from what you perceive, you basically talk with them to get a level of commitment from them that they think that this type of thing is going to work and then they commit to it. My inside pivot move with my college coach is something that took a long, long time to develop and it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t committed to do it day in and day out.”
Of course, the “inside pivot move” is now widely known as the “Sikma move” because Sikma honed it into a useful weapon at the highest levels of the game.
“You have to commit to something and that commitment isn’t me committing to make you do it,” Sikma concludes. “It is you receiving the information and we have to talk about it and then you believe that it can help and are willing to make that commitment. I went against Kareem and some of the great centers in the league and balance (is very important – especially, specifically now with Yao – finding ways where you can improve your positioning on the court and maintain your balance. The big challenge for bigs is we have an advantage when we are extended, when we are tall – but that takes away our balanced position. There is a lot of up and down movement that big people have to learn to get comfortable with, when to be down and when to extend and be up. Just start there. There are no big rules: establish a relationship, analyze what may work and what can be improved on and then get a commitment from the player that he wants to do it and then move forward with it.”
David Friedman's work has appeared in Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. He wrote the chapter on the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com
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