When Lenny Wilkens first called Jack Sikma to tell him of Seattle’s interest in drafting him and asked him what he thought, Sikma replied, “That’s not my first choice.”
And when the Sonics, undeterred, did indeed take Sikma with the eighth overall selection of the 1977 draft — after Wilkens had to overrule hesitant members of the Seattle front office — the fans gathered at the Olympic Hotel let loose a smattering of boos. The next day, the headline in one Seattle paper read, “Jack who?”
All that was recalled with delight on Friday by Wilkens when news broke — first reported by Art Thiel of Sportspress Northwest — that Sikma has been selected for induction to the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.
“I’m really happy he’s going into the Hall of Fame, because I remember those headlines of ‘Jack who?’’’ Wilkens said. “Jack Sikma, that’s who.”
The long-overdue announcement came officially on Saturday, in conjunction with the men’s Final Four in Minneapolis. It was greeted locally with great joy, along with the latest wave of nostalgia for the departed and still-lamented Sonics. They reached their glorious peak almost immediately upon Sikma’s arrival.
Sikma, taken out of an obscure NAIA school, Illinois Wesleyan, turned out to be a perfect fit in Seattle. His Dutch-boy haircut soon transformed into a distinctive blonde afro. His post play was revolutionary, in the sense that the “Sikma move” is still taught today. Few athletes in Seattle’s history have ever been as productive, or as popular.
When Wilkens inserted Sikma into the starting lineup after taking over for the fired Bob Hopkins, a Seattle team mired at 5-17 took off on their miraculous run to the NBA Finals. And the following year, when Sikma moved into Tom LaGarde’s center spot so that recently acquired Lonnie Shelton could slide into Sikma’s forward position, the ’79 Sonics stormed to the title.
With Seattle facing elimination in the Western Conference finals, Sikma had 21 points and 10 rebounds in a Game 6 win at Phoenix. In Game 7, he scored 33 to send them back to the finals.
Facing the Washington Bullets, the same team that had beaten the Sonics in the finals the previous year, Sikma averaged 16.2 points and 14.8 rebounds. More importantly, he held the brilliant Wes Unseld to 11 points and 11.4 rebounds, well below his average. The final points scored by Seattle in the decisive Game 5, before a jubilant Gus Williams hurled the ball into the air as time expired, were Sikma free throws.
It was the first Seattle major professional title since the Metropolitans won the Stanley Cup in 1917. The city’s love affair with the Sonics was in full bloom, and Sikma was front and center, along with heroes like Williams, Dennis Johnson and Fred Brown.
“It was fun,’’ Wilkens recalled. “Our players talked about the game, everyone understood their role. People forget how good that team was. It was also No. 1 in defense. They worked on both ends of the floor. Jack was an integral part of it.”
At Illinois Wesleyan, under the tutelage of coach Dennie Bridges, Sikma had developed his trademark move — an inside pivot in which he held the ball high over his head — to compensate for his lack of strength. In a recent discussion on NBA.com, Chris Webber, Kevin McHale and Isiah Thomas noted how influential the nearly unblockable “Sikma move” remains to this very day.
Those glory days in Seattle eventually faded, and Sikma asked to be traded after enduring back-to-back 51-loss seasons in 1985 and 1986. He was the last remaining link to the title team. The Sonics complied, sending Sikma to Milwaukee for Alton Lister and two first-round draft picks.
Sikma for a long while had seemed destined to be a Steve Largent or Edgar Martinez — a Seattle icon for perpetuity. As Sonics president Bob Whitsitt once said, “He’s bigger than the Space Needle.” But things change. Hard times and dissension hit the Sonics. Sikma determined he had to leave for a chance at another title.
As Sports Illustrated wrote: “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.”
Seattle’s sports history is littered with examples of beloved stars for whom the bloom eventually fades, at least temporarily. But Sikma remained a favored son, even in absentia. He and his family had settled in Seattle. Sikma came back to the Sonics to coach after his five-year stint in Milwaukee ended with five playoff berths but no second title.
Now, at 63, Sikma is an enduring symbol of a beloved era of Seattle’s sports history. And he’s heading to Springfield, Mass., a place that Sonics fans — and astute basketball aficionados — knew he belonged all along.
Jack who? Jack Sikma, Hall of Famer, that’s who.