The Twenty-foot Lay-up

Gatinho —  September 14, 2006

The ball would swing back behind his left ear and, in a circular motion, move back behind his head, held high above his wiry 6′ 6″ 190 lb. frame. A slight bend of the knees and, without ever passing the crown of his head, it was gone. Released skyward, still moving, in a slow motion, circular fashion before inevitably touching the bottom of the twine.

Sounds awkward; looked smooth.

“(Wilkes) had a way about him that didn’t look like he was doing something, and then you look at the stat sheet and he’s got 29 points. Jamaal used to wind up, but (his shot) was like snow falling off a bamboo leaf, it was so smooth.”

Pat Riley comparing Wilkes to Tayshaun Prince

Silk was his name, and silently assassinating teams was his game. His play was unassuming and in no way physically imposing but upon checking the box score at the end of the game, he’d have an efficient 22 points, 6 or 7 rebounds, and a handful assists.

A member of a championship team at every level, he was born in Berkley but later migrated to the Southern part of the state where he would be an All America Prep at Santa Barbara High School. From then on in his career, he was never simply a spoke but also never the hub.

First he was placed alongside arguably the best collegiate ever, Bill Walton.

John Wooden when asked to describe the perfect recruit:

“I would have the player be a good student, polite, courteous, a good team player, a good defensive player and rebounder, a good inside player and outside shooter,” Wooden told the New York Post in 1985. “Why not just take Jamaal Wilkes and let it go at that.”

When the Wizard knocks on your door, you accept the invitation to the quest.

Jamaal, then Keith Wilkes, was a starter on a team that would win 88 in a row. The freshman battled legendary high-flyer David Thompson to aid Walton and UCLA in cutting down the nets in 1972, a climax to the first of two undefeated seasons.

In his pre-Laker incarnation, he was drafted 11th overall and captured the Rookie of the Year award and his first ring as a member of the 1975 Warriors’ team. But, as part of a developing theme, there he was along side Hall of Famer Rick Barry.

It was as a Warrior that his Islamic beliefs would lead him to change his name to Jamaal Abdul-Lateef, though he would continue to be referred to as Jamaal Wilkes.

He would sign with the Lakers as a free agent in 1979, where two future HOFers would be there to greet him.

Magic Johnson’s rookie performance in the 1980 Finals has been heralded as a mythological big game performance. A jaw dropping 42 points, 15 rebounds and 7 dimes while, say it with me, playing all five positions…

But who remembers that Wilkes had 37 points and 10 rebounds in that pivotal game 6?

“Tied 60-60 at the half, Wilkes got 16 in the third quarter…Wilkes drove the lane, drew a foul and made a three-point play…The Lakers were up by seven only 1:16 after the timeout.”

Wilkes was incredulous after capturing his second NBA title, “I thought our chances of winning (Game 6) were 10% to 15%,” he said.

He combined with Magic to score 79 of the teams 123 points.

Throughout his collegiate and pro career he was a steadying force but lucky to be placed alongside some the game’s elite. A solid second (or third) option. Way more than a minute eating role player, he garnered two All-NBA defensive team honors. Those long arms would help the Lakers as they ran a relentless half court trap when they would again meet and beat the Sixers in 1982.

Three times he would play in the All-Star Game. His final one played in 1983 at the Fabulous Forum, where he bobbed his head to Marvin Gaye’s daring interpolation of the Star Spangled Banner.

He was deftly efficient on the offensive end. So much so, Chick Hearn took to marking his patented baseline jumpers, calling them good at the zenith of their arc, and dubbing them “Twenty foot lay-ups.”

In his heyday he posted an eFG 53%, averaged 21.1 points per in ’81-82, and 18 per game for his career.

He would be unceremoniously usurped by another future Hall of Famer out of North Carolina, later known as Big Game James, and would end up earning another ring in 1985 while watching from the bench injured. After an 18 game stint with the Clippers, he would retire.

Jamaal Wilkes: a Laker I miss.




to The Twenty-foot Lay-up

  1. ahhh, Silk…man those were the days, having Chick calling the games, magic doing everything imaginable to win…when those guys walked on the floor before tip off, they had such confidance it was like they walked on in slo-mo, (ala Resevoir Dogs) and the other team were like…’oh man, I don’t want to face these guys”


  2. That was a good read. Thanks Gatinho. I did not start following the Lakers until I was 10 (in ’87) so I do not remember much of Wilkes. But after reading your post I feel like I miss him.


  3. Thanks, Michael.

    I tried to find some footage of him and found little to none, which is a shame. His shot was really a one of a kind…


  4. I started following UCLA in 1965 – after I left Oregon State (where even Mel Counts couldn’t offset the UCLA teams). Therefore I was there when Keith Wilkes first arrived. Silk was always underrated because he never seemed to work at his craft. Everything he did was smooth and efficient. Nothing was forced or heavy-handed. People like John Wooden would never say anything bad about him, but others wanted more flash and criticized him because he wasn’t a marketable. He just won, baby! Sort of reminds me of ESPN today. Where is my daily ‘flash’.

    There is another guy around like that today, but he sadly doesn’t play for the Lakers — Elton Brand.

    We should appreciate what we are seeing in Kobe, because he will be gone one day and we will then only be talking about memories. The same can be said of Elton Brand. Root for the Lakers, but watch both teams.

    Go L.A.


  5. U said it, Craig.

    My brother didn’t have one of those Hummer-sized VCRs
    of the era yet, so the only video I know of is the footage
    shown on NBA TV or EPSN Classic, neither of which
    I can get without paying clam$.

    I do remember in the mind’s eyeball Jamaal
    going to that one spot in the corner of the court
    and– like automatic and ee-ee-zee.

    You want to talk “like butter”,
    that was a Wilkes basket.

    I was a smart enough kid to be way impressed.

    When I went to the Olympics in Atlanta,
    the only tix available were Team Handball
    ( which turned out to be a lot of fun —
    Croatia won the gold and Macarena’ed
    after the championship game )
    where I talked to a couple of guys
    from Southern California about Laker ball and Showtime.

    They almost began to cry the way kids do
    on their first day in Kindergarten.

    It was tenderer than a broiled lamb chop.

    Happy Friday.

    – 5 –