In recent years, the Los Angeles Clippers have become one of the best teams in the NBA – which is a far cry from what they were three decades ago. Jamaal Wilkes, who spent most of his career with the Lakers, played for the Clippers in 1985.
“Well, from my memory, it was like (going from) The Alps to the outhouse,” Wilkes said on CBS Sports Radio’s The Doug Gottlieb Show. “I was with them for a couple months before I finally retired, and it was just a losing culture. That was the best way I can explain it. They expected everything to go wrong and would talk about what could go wrong all the time. I had never heard of anything like it. Plus the owner at the time was a real character and it contributed to this feeling that everything is going to go wrong. It was just unbelievable. And they had some pretty good players at the time, but it just started at the top and it just festered the whole organization.”
Wilkes’ experience with the Lakers was quite different. Wilkes was drafted by the Warriors in 1974, was named Rookie of the Year and won an NBA championship in 1975, and played for the Lakers from 1977 to 1985, winning three championships with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
“Unbelievable,” Wilkes said of his first few days around Johnson. “First of all, Dr. Buss had bought the team and he drafted Magic and that was like a revolution. (Buss) . . . loved the game, appreciated the history of the game and treated people nice and it just laid the foundation. But when Magic came, especially (after) that exciting NCAA Championship victory against Indiana State with Larry Bird, it was just – I mean, the onslaught was unbelievable.”
Wilkes remembers the buzz Johnson created when he played a summer-league game at Cal State.
“It was a line all the way around the campus waiting to get in,” Wilkes recalled. “Just the excitement – you knew he was going to be special. I personally didn’t realize he would have the impact he did so soon. It was immediate. It was immediate.”
Johnson led the Lakers to a title as a rookie, scoring 42 points in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals. Wilkes poured in 37 points. Abdul-Jabbar, meanwhile, missed the game with an ankle injury but wound up becoming the all-time leading scorer in NBA history.
“He was the consummate professional,” Wilkes said. “He always brought his best to the game, even practice. At times, he could be aloof. And other times, he could be very funny, very personable. And as yo could imagine, being a 7-footer from New York City before it was cool to be seven feet, he could be a little standoffish with people that just wanted to gawk or act silly around him. But he was a marvelous specimen. He did yoga, took excellent care of himself. You always know, whether he had a migraine or not, that he would be there when you needed him. That sky hook was just off the charts.”
Wilkes, 62, released a memoir earlier this year entitled, Jamaal Wilkes: Memoirs of The Original Smooth As Silk. In the book, Wilkes discusses his experience playing for John Wooden at UCLA – which Wilkes referred to as “the greatest dynasty” in sports – as well as his time in the NBA.
“You’re going to see it from my eyes and I’m going to tell it in a way that hopefully is going to inspire you and uplift you,” Wilkes said. “What I always like to say, particularly for our young people, is that you can fail without being a failure. I know we’re all under a lot of pressure today, especially our young people, but I’d like to continually say that because I raised three children and I just like to remind (people): You can fail, but just pick yourself back up. Rebound from it all.”