That Wilkes Look--Still Smooth as Silk, but Eager to Return

When he walked onto a basketball court, Jamaal Wilkes always looked like the only guy in class who had studied for the test.

Calm. Cool. No dunk, no funk, no frills or thrills. Quiet, confident and smooth. They didn't call him Silk because of his wardrobe, which is right out of the Hang Ten college catalogue.

Wilkes, it turns out, has brought that same laid-back style to spectating.

Sunday afternoon, as thousands of fans in Denver and Los Angeles were on the edges of their seats and sanity, Jamaal Wilkes was leaning back in an easy chair in his living room, enjoying the game.

"I never watched the game from the fans standpoint," Wilkes said. "I was always out there trying to create an edge. Now I'm just watching and enjoying.

"Like Larry Bird. I was always trying to make him play defense, keep him busy. Now I can watch him. He's uncanny. He's scary.

"I get to watch Kareem, watch his moves. Or Magic, see the impact he can have on a game without scoring. Some of these guys, just watching them is unbelievable. Isiah Thomas, Alex English . . .

"The NBA really is magnificent, it has a lot to offer."

Not long ago, the NBA offered a quietly exciting guy named Silk. He had a sweet slingshot jumper and a knack for finding himself open under the basket every time Magic Johnson was looking for someone to pass to.

Then, last season, Wilkes suffered a viral illness that wiped him out of the playoffs. He returned this season, won back his starting job, lost it, rotted away on the bench, then made a comeback.

Two months ago, as he was rising from what appeared to be the ashes of his career, he blew out a knee. End of season. At age 31, end of career? The doctors couldn't say. They repaired the knee, but couldn't say if he would ever play again.

"I thought about retiring," Wilkes said, watching the Lakers vs. Nuggets TV track meet. "I had a great career, no regrets."

But the knee responded to treatment and therapy. The injury occurred Feb. 1, and two weeks ago Wilkes went out and ran three miles. A week ago, he threw away his knee brace.

"I think I'm responding well," he said.

He's been doing upper-body weight work for the first time in his life, he feels strong, he's already talking eagerly about going to training camp next October.

"I like my chances," he says.

But if you think his improving health makes it more painful psychologically for him to sit and watch his teammates in the playoffs, you still haven't grasped the scope of Wilkes' coolness.

"I did miss it (playing)," he said, "but I had a major obstacle I had to deal with. I knew that when they took the cast off, if the rehabilitation didn't go well, they were going to have to go in and reconstruct the knee. That was such a downer, it kind of took my mind off not playing basketball.

"Now I've kind of gotten acclimated to not playing. Besides, I look at it as temporary. I do get excited about the idea of playing again."

When the Lakers are at home, Wilkes sits at the end of the bench in a suit and tie. When the Lakers are on the road, he sits in an easy chair, in casual clothes and slippers.

Now, as Jamaal watches his teammates struggle against the gritty Nuggets, there was no cheering, yelling, moaning or cursing the gods of basketball fate. In short, Wilkes is no typical fan.

He spectates like he plays. On the court, Silk rarely questions a referee's decision, and he never sulks or grimaces when he misses a shot.

Now, on the screen, the game is getting tense. Kareem loses the ball out of bounds at a crucial point late in the fourth quarter.

"This is a good game," Wilkes says, almost sitting up straight.

The Nuggets fight for their lives. A Nugget guard hits a spectacular three-point jump shot and Jamaal smiles. "Is this crazy, or is it crazy?"

He's not worried about the Lakers' choking on an unfriendly, foreign court. He remembers the Philadelphia Spectrum in 1980. With Kareem out of the lineup, Magic scored 42 points and the Lakers won a world championship.

Nobody paid much attention, but a guy named Silk scored 37 that night. The greatest second-fiddle performance in NBA history.

Now he's not even in the orchestra. Wednesday night, as usual, he'll get to the Forum early, sit around the locker room while the other players are getting dressed, taped, psyched.

"I'm not quite on the same wave length as everyone else," Wilkes says. "But I'm not too far away."

If the Lakers make the NBA finals, and the series comes down to a deciding game on the road, Wilkes will travel with the team.

"Sure, I would go to Boston," says the forgotten Laker. "I wouldn't want to miss the (victory) parties. I'd be excited. I might even blow my cool."

Don't count on it.

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