Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Review: Jamaal Wilkes (2014)

By Jamaal Wilkes with Edward Reynolds Davis Jr.

Everything about basketball seemed to come easily to Jamaal Wilkes. At the least, it looked that way.

Wilkes always made it look so easy and smooth that his nickname was silk. He was an ideal team member throughout this career - worked hard on both ends of the floor, came through in the clutch, and was an ideal complement to those around him. If you wanted to sound like you knew basketball in those days, you'd say that Jamaal Wilkes was your favorite player.

It took a while, but Wilkes recently came out with her version of his career in "Jamaal Wilkes." (As you can see by the cover, it's a little difficult to figure out what exactly the title is - but more on that later.) It turns out plenty of hard work went into those seemingly effortless performances.

Wilkes' father was a pastor, mostly in Southern California, and his mother worked for the state. They had high standards, and they demanded that son Keith (he later changed his first name) follow them. He had a fine high school career, mixing great academics with superb basketball. Wilkes had his pick of colleges, and thought about the Ivy League for a while. However, there was a school down the road that featured good academics too, and the basketball education was unmatched.

Wilkes walked into the finest basketball program in the country, UCLA, which was led by one of the great coaches in history in John Wooden. The talent on the roster was overwhelming, starting with Bill Walton in those years before his knees became a major day-to-day concern. Once the Class of 1974 became eligible to play varsity ball, the Bruins were off. They didn't lose a game in their first two years, adding to the legacy of Wooden and the program. About the only thing that could stop UCLA was the odd injury (Walton was hurting and ineffective when the great 88-game winning streak came to an end) and boredom, and those two factors played a role in the Bruins losing in 1974.
Wilkes was a perfect sidekick to Walton on those teams, with his outside shooting, quickness and defensive effort. As you could imagine, Wilkes writes about Wooden and Walton a lot in the book, but gives the impression that he was a bit of a loner during those years. Therefore, there aren't a lot of great stories about those teams - simply lessons learned along the way and praise for his teammates and coaches.

Then it was on to the pros, as Wilkes landed with the Golden State Warriors. He was rookie of the year in 1975, and that team surprised everyone by winning the championship. Funny how titles seemed to follow Wilkes around. He became involved in a contract dispute there and soon jumped to the Los Angeles Lakers. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, someone in the argument for best player ever, was waiting. What's more, Earvin "Magic" Johnson would be along shortly. The Lakers of the 1980s may have not been the most dominant team in history, but they might have been the most exciting team to watch. They didn't call that style of ball "Showtime" for nothing, and Wilkes was a big part of it.

The Lakers won championships in 1980 and 1982 with Wilkes playing a key role in both of them. Los Angeles also won in 1985, but Wilkes knew he was on the battered side by then. He won one more title in L.A., squeezed out a last season with the Clippers, and retired.

For those who simply want the story of a basketball player who didn't take any short cuts to success, this clearly fits that description. Still, it's fair to note a couple of good-sized flaws in the story.

First, there's not much drama here. Yes, yes, that's how his life went for the most part, and that can't be changed. But practically all sides of Wilkes' personal life go unmentioned here. A couple of personal tragedies are touched so lightly that it's easy to guess whether they should have been brought up in the first place. At the end, there's nothing in the book that indicates what Wilkes has been doing since he retired almost 30 years ago. Anyone reading this book is a fan of Wilkes, and the question "What's he doing now?" never gets answered.

Then  there's the problem of editing, and it's a good-sized one. Some names are misspelled along the way, such as those of Ernie DiGregorio and Jim McMillian. The book has some really striking typographical errors, such as Wilkes' university as "ULCA" and a reference to "John wooden." There are about three instances in which lightning came out as lightening, which is a big difference in meaning. The layout has some silly mistakes such as the odd indentation and line of space, and a cover page that makes it difficult to figure out the title. The book certainly could have used one more read by an outside editor to catch some of these items.

"Jamaal Wilkes" the book may have its flaws, but Jamaal Wilkes the basketball player was admirable - an opinion reinforced here. This publication goes by quickly and easily, and his many fans ought to enjoy it.

Three stars

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