The voice on the public address system echoes across Albert Gersten Pavilion:
“Laker basket by Timo Saarelainen.”
“Laker basket by Jose Slaughter.”
Welcome to the summer basketball league at Loyola Marymount University, where the Lakers, such as they are, do battle with such teams as Italian BC, the B-Team and Celtics Plus. It’s basically a league for rookies and free agents in which teams try to find out if these boys of summer can become the men of winter and spring, when the games count.
“Laker basket by Dexter Shouse . . .
“Laker basket by Jamaal Wilkes.” Jamaal Wilkes?
The Jamaal Wilkes? Former NBA Rookie of the Year? One of the top active NBA scorers? A member of two undefeated NCAA championship teams at UCLA and four NBA championship teams in an 11-year pro career with the Golden State Warriors and the Lakers?
What is this man doing wearing a uniform with a beer advertisement on the back, running up and down the court with kids who were in grammar school when he was a rookie?
Enjoying himself, that’s what.
A few months ago, Wilkes was wondering if he would ever run at all.
That was after a knee injury Feb. 1 had left the Laker forward sidelined for the rest of last season, which followed a shooting slump that had left him on the bench, which followed a recuperation period that had left him ineffective in the 1984 playoffs, which followed a serious stomach ailment.
It’s been a heck of a year and a half for Wilkes.
“If things happen in bunches, I’m in good shape,” he said with a smile. “It seems like I’ve been Rip Van Winkle, I’ve been away so long.”
They call the man Silk because of his smooth moves on the court. His once-deadly jump shots from the corner were labeled “20-foot layups” because of their accuracy.
Silky smooth is also an accurate description of his career. Look all the way back to his senior year in high school and you won’t find his name on a losing team. And although he had competed for more than a decade in the NBA with a thin, 190-pound body on his 6-7 frame, he had never had a major injury. He didn’t know from casts or splints or arthroscopes. In the five years before his run of misfortune, Wilkes had missed a total of three games.
Then it began.
“I had constant headaches, stomach cramps and cold chills,” Wilkes said of the spring of ’84. “I thought I had the flu bug.”
He missed seven regular-season games while undergoing tests that eventually determined he was suffering from a gastrointestinal infection, probably caused by bad drinking water.
He returned for spot duty in the playoffs, but his jump shot did not. Out of shape after his long illness, he shot only 40%. Suddenly, his layups looked like 20-foot jumpers.
By last fall, he had a new obstacle to overcome--James Worthy. In Wilkes’ absence, Worthy had replaced him as starting forward. Trade rumors followed. Wilkes and his big contract had been offered here, offered there.
Nevertheless, he began last season in the starting lineup but was benched after eight games when the team stumbled out of the starting blocks. Then, ever so slowly, his game began to come around. He hit the peak Jan. 29, when he scored a season-high 24 points in a victory over the Portland Trail Blazers.
Then he fell off the mountain again.
Three nights later, he planted his left leg while attempting to stop the New York Knicks’ Ernie Grunfeld from making a layup.
“Grunfeld fell, and his leg swung around and hit me hard on the outside calf,” Wilkes said. “I felt a sensation I had never felt before. I thought it was just sprained. But Dr. (Robert) Kerlan thought it was serious right away.”
That it was. He had partial tears of two ligaments in the left knee. Team doctor Steve Lombardo advised against reconstructive surgery. He thought that immobilizing the leg in a cast might be enough to trigger the healing process.
Wilkes spent more than a month wearing the cast, all the while working with weights. But it wasn’t until the cast came off that he discovered what work is.
“When I got the cast removed I was so excited,” Wilkes recalled. “I thought I would just walk out of the doctor’s office. I figured I would be playing basketball in another week.
“But my leg had atrophied. I almost fell down. I had to use crutches for two more weeks. I realized I would have to learn to walk all over again. It was a major adjustment, not being able to get around much. I went through quite a few depressing moments.”
Enter Mitch Kupchak. This Laker forward knows all about casts and crutches and walking all over again. It took Kupchak more than three years to regain some effectiveness on the court after suffering a knee injury that doctors called the worst they had ever seen.
Before Wilkes began hobbling on the road back, Kupchak took him aside.
“Rehabilitation’s a bitch,” he said. “There’s times you don’t know why you are doing it. There’s times you may not do it. But you’ve got to hang in there.”
Wilkes soon learned that Kupchak knew what he was talking about. “I thought about what he said many times. I wondered what is it all for. Why me, at the age of 31?” said Wilkes, who had to watch on television as his Lakers finally beat the hated Celtics in the championship series.
“But I have to be grateful I went as long as I did without a major injury. I missed out on some things I would have liked to have been a part of, but I got a chance to rejuvenate my body.
“I had seen what Mitch went through, but you get a whole different perspective when it happens to you. When you see someone else go through it, you feel for them, but you don’t get the full spectrum of it.”
He got it this time.
Under the direction of therapist Clive Brewster, Wilkes worked with weights. He did exercises on the knee.
“Some of the exercises seem like nonsense,” he said. “There’s one where you’ve got to straighten out your knee and hold it like that for 10 seconds. You’ve got to do that 20 times.”
Wilkes’ agent is not surprised by his quick comeback, and she knows him as well as almost anyone. Naomi Wilkes, an attorney, is Jamaal’s sister.
“He lowers his head and consistently moves forward with everything he does,” she said. “He’s worked hard. I look at him and see muscles where I’ve never seen muscles before.”
Wilkes learned almost literally what it means to crawl before you walk. He ran on a trampoline for a week. There was a week of running on a treadmill. Exercise on a stationary bike followed. Then there was actual running outside until he got up to five miles a day.
Finally, he got a basketball in his hands and began to arch those slingshot-style jumpers. Three weeks of one-on-one basketball with fellow Laker Earl Jones and Micah Blunt, who played at Tulane, followed.
And then, the summer league.
On his first night at Loyola Marymount, Wilkes, who has played more than 900 games in the NBA, is excited.
“I didn’t want to be as excited as I was only to find out they would have to do surgery,” he says.
“But I was so excited, words cannot describe it. I had a serious injury and I want to test it sooner rather than later. This is a great opportunity to test it, playing with guys who are hungry and want to make the team.”
On this first night, the rust is still clinging to his favorite shot, the jumper. But what is also evident, and infinitely more important at this stage, is the return of his mobility.
This certainly doesn’t look like a guy who was struggling to walk a few months ago. He plants the knee on defense. He hits the boards. And, in the second half, he even darts among two opposing players on the break to bat a ball away.
“He is a finesse player, and our engine was not that well tuned to get the ball to Silk,” Bill Bertka, Laker summer league coach, says when the game is over. “But what I saw tonight was an overall agility unusual in a player coming back that soon from that type of injury. He was not hesitating. He was operating in traffic all night. Subconsciously, this has to make him more confident.”
In the locker room, Wilkes removes the bandages and protective brace he wears over his damaged knee and points proudly to it.
“See, no swelling,” he says. “That’s a good sign. I’m scared in the sense everything is too good to be true.
“I was going to play without this,” he adds, pointing to the brace. “But Steve Lombardo said, no way. I’m hoping I can get it off by the end of the summer.”
Lombardo is pleased by Wilkes’ progress, but cautious.
“He had a major serious injury,” Lombardo says. “The fact he is back now at five months is a surprise and a tribute to how hard he has worked at rehabilitating himself. But what percent of recovery he will have we will not know for six to nine months.
“If he loses a half-step, it may mean the difference between having a job and not having a job. At his position, he is dependent on speed, cutting ability, making a move.
“Something he has in his favor is that he is a glider, not a pounder. With his style of play, he doesn’t put the same stress level on his body that other people do. But if he loses his speed and quickness, it could compromise his game. So far, it hasn’t appeared that way. He has exceeded our expectations.”
And what of the future? Wilkes, now 32, has three years remaining on his contract that guarantees him $860,000 this year, $400,000 of it deferred; $800,000 next year, again $400,000 deferred, and $747,000 in the 1987-88 season, $347,000 deferred. That’s a lot of money for a guy in his 30s coming off a knee injury.
Then there is the imposing figure of Worthy ahead of him. And those trade rumors. Wilkes has been listening.
“You hear those things, but there’s nothing you can do but put it out of your mind and deal with the matter at hand,” he said. “This is a business, and trades are part of the business. It’s been a hard pill to swallow, but I’ve been around long enough to see things like that happen. The team has been doing well.
“I’m trying to prioritize things. I wanted to walk again first. That’s what I’ve had to put my energy into. Everything was so iffy, I had to put basketball aside and learn to do normal things.
“I have an open mind. I think the jury is still out on me. But there is no doubt in my mind I can still play. I want to play basketball. I feel good now, and as long as I’m on a team that is good enough to be in the playoffs, I’m going to hang around.
“If I’m healthy, the Lakers may re-think things. If not, there are other teams out there. The only question is, am I healthy?
“I know one thing. I have to show up (for training camp) ready to go to work after the last two years. But that will be a pleasure.”
Among the bleacher spectators at Albert Gersten Pavilion was the man who’ll have the largest say in Wilkes’ future--Coach Pat Riley.
“It’s difficult, our winning the title with Worthy stepping in,” Riley said after watching Wilkes perform. “He’ll be a sub in the beginning. I think he knows that. But if he comes back 100%, he’s still front-line material. I think he is.”
If not, there are options, according to Naomi Wilkes.
“He’s more than just an athlete,” she said. “He was an academic All-American. He has talked about law school or perhaps getting his MBA. If he could not have played after the injury, he can do many other things. He’s not like a lot of other athletes for whom there is basketball and that’s it.”
Wilkes is now in his third summer league game. Watching on the sideline is teammate Magic Johnson, who has had more than a nodding acquaintance with a bad knee. He missed 45 games in his second season because of torn knee cartilage.
“You always have your doubts at first that you can still do it,” Johnson says. “I remember it wasn’t until the following summer, when I dunked between two guys, that I had all my confidence back. You just have to do it.”
Wilkes has the ball in the right corner. A defender is on him. He fakes to his left, drives the baseline and lays the ball through the hoop.
The crowd cheers. Johnson smiles that knowing smile.
And an old phrase is heard again:
“Laker basket by Wilkes.”