The mellifluous baritone voice on the other end of the phone belongs to one of the great Southern California athletes of his time — or any time. It’s the voice of Jamaal Wilkes, aka “Silk,” aka “The Silent Assassin,” aka an all-around decent, thoughtful sort.
He’s currently doing media tours and signings for his book, “Memoirs Of The Original Smooth As Silk,” a breezy, 290-plus page account (co-authored with longtime friend and journalist Edward Reynolds Davis, Jr.) of his connection to and participation in two fabulous eras of basketball — the 1971-74 UCLA team that won 88 straight games and two NCAA Division I titles, and the 1980s “Showtime” Lakers, where Wilkes won three NBA titles. He also won a title and was Rookie of the Year with the 1974-75 Golden State Warriors.
For those looking for a salacious, “set-the-record-straight” exposé about John Wooden, Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson or Rick Berry — just a few of the immediately recognizable, mega-talented people that Wilkes was quote, unquote “overshadowed” by — this is not that kind of book. For that is not who Jamaal Wilkes is.
This is a book Wilkes said he was going to keep upbeat throughout.
“They (the fans) were always asking me ‘when are you coming out with [a book]?” he said, relaxing in Santa Barbara, where he went to high school his senior year. “I wanted to give the fans back some love, and to also give them a view through my eyes of what it was like at UCLA, the Warriors, and ‘Showtime.’ I’ve been fortunate to have been part of the greatest college basketball dynasty at UCLA, a champion with Golden State, and part of the great run with the Lakers.
“I wanted it to be uplifting. It was a huge effort, the organization and the commitment of time. But once I got started it was also therapeutic for me. It was not meant to take swipes at people. Just giving back to fans, and a positive message.”
Wilkes was always an understated and criminally under appreciated component of those championship teams, in part because of his quiet personality. That’s not to say he was without ego; you don’t compete well or long at the game’s highest levels unless you believe in your talent. But Wilkes also figured out early he could do more being part of the overall team tapestry rather than being its brightest thread. Because without him, the tapestry still wouldn’t hold together.
His game was one of efficiency, not flash. The 6-feet-6, 190-pound Wilkes averaged 15.0 points and 7.4 rebounds in college, and 17.7 points and 6.2 rebounds in the pros. But he excelled atdoing whatever the team needed in a given game. If it was rebounds, Wilkes rebounded. If it was defense, Wilkes defended. If it was scoring he could score in bunches or in critical stretches — whatever made the difference between winning and losing.
But always within the team’s flow and framework.
Chunks of that perspective came from his father, the late Rev. Leo Leander Wilkes, who was a prominent minister in Ventura and Santa Barbara. Some of Leo’s life lessons, Wilkes writes, included: “That one should always be in control of his or her thoughts; that one should always be in control of his or her actions; to hold steadfast to your sense of purpose; to not be resentful when treated wrongly; and the importance of having the confidence in the ability of your teacher to teach you.”
“It was my father’s teaching and his example in my life,” Wilkes said. “I wasn’t always conscience of it, but it was a steadying influence on me. It laid the foundation for who I was to become.”
Wilkes’ book touches on the key influences in his life, from his friends and family — notably sister Naomi Wilkes, who passed away in 1993 and to whom he dedicates the book — to high school coaches Bob Swanson (Ventura) and Jack Triguerio (Santa Barbara), Laker coaches and teammates and, of course, Wooden.
He has a special place in his heart for the late UCLA coach and how he managed the team through its record 88-game winning streak.
“He never talked about it. All he asked was for us to be able to look in a mirror after a game and know we did our best,” Wilkes said.
“[Wooden] was more interested in winning championships so he wouldn’t have worried about a loss or two in the [non-conference or conference season] — but he created this bubble for us to operate in. I knew it was something different, and that he was on his way to being the greatest college coach ever. I didn’t have the perspective to appreciate it as I went through it…I only now truly appreciate that. Coach was so brilliant and profound. And humble.”
Lakers fans will enjoy Wilkes’ memory lane stroll on his biggest game for the team — Game 6 of the 1980 NBA playoffs, where Los Angeles defeated Philadelphia 123-107 for the championship despite not having Abdul-Jabbar due to a sprained ankle. What people focused on was Johnson’s amazing performance of 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists. But Wilkes had a career-high 37 points and 10 rebounds — all of them necessary.
For those who thought Wilkes led a charmed Hall of Fame life, there are acknowledgements of hard times — an early divorce, the loss of two baby daughters, a 1985 knee injury that accelerated a premature end of his pro career. But he doesn’t let those devastating setbacks overwhelm the general tone of the book.
“There were times I wanted to share my pain,” he said. “But I had learned and believed that the fans weren’t interested in hearing about your pain. Some of [that writing] was therapeutic for me.”
Wilkes can still deliver wisdom with the same smoothness of his jump shot, the one legendary Lakers broadcaster Chick Hern dubbed “the 20-foot layup.”
“This is for the younger people,” Wilkes said. “First, you can fail without being a failure. You can make mistakes, but dwelling on it just compounds it. And second, you must have responsible decision-making. We’re free to choose our actions, but not free to choose the consequences of our actions.”