Basketball

‘You either adapt or die’: How Sonics legend Jack Sikma carved his path to the Basketball Hall of Fame

Jack Sikma spent most of the summer working on the speech he'll give Friday night when he's inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

After several drafts, rewrites and a few edits from his wife Shawn, he finished up last week and submitted a copy to the Hall of Fame committee for approval.

The final version is a tight narrative in which Sikma will hit the high notes of a 14-year NBA career that spanned from Seattle to Milwaukee.

"The goal is to give everyone a feel about my upbringing," Sikma said. "Make a connection with a few of the key people in my career. Recognize my family and appreciate their support. Then reach out to all my friends that I've made along the way. And thank the fans in both Seattle and Milwaukee."

Admittedly, Sikma isn't exactly the emotional type, but he's unsure how he's going to react surrounded by peers and idols; and officially taking a place alongside the game's greatest players.

"Do you think a Red Bull would help or do you go the other way and have one stiff one before you go up there?" Sikma said smiling. "I might need a little something to settle the nerves."

More than once in the past few weeks, Sikma broke down crying while reflecting on an improbable basketball journey that started at Illinois Wesleyan University – an NCAA Division III school – and ended in Springfield.

He's spent a lot of time recently thinking about his parents Clarence and Grace, five siblings and how basketball bonded a Midwestern family that followed him and settled in the Pacific Northwest.

"The hoop on the garage was the starting point," Sikma said in an interview with the Daily Journal, his hometown newspaper in Kankakee, Ill. "Basketball was a part of every family gathering. We would go outside after eating and the game would begin. We would only stop when someone got a bloody nose."

Even now, Sikma chokes up when reminiscing about his childhood during lunch at Carmine's, one of his favorite restaurants.

"Since I've heard about the Hall and getting ready for everything, I lost it pretty good a couple of times," Sikma said. "So I don't need to get into all of that point in the speech. I can reflect in private times. This is a time to be happy about how fortunate I've been and the people who have touched my life, which will include my parents who are now gone. I think I'll be good.

Sikma isn't political, but he'll stump for the Sonics and make an impassioned plea for the franchise's return to Seattle.

"That's about the only time I'll get on the soap box," he said. "And I'm not stepping on anyone's toes. I could take 10 minutes and blame everybody, but we don't care about who's to blame. We care about a solution and getting a team back here."

Mostly, Sikma's speech will be a history lesson to the Twitter generation that's unfamiliar with the former Sonics center who hasn't played in 28 years.

For those whose only connection with Sikma is through grainy YouTube videos, here's what you need to know about his brilliant career: He's one of seven players in NBA history to have 17,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, 3,000 assists, 1,000 steals and 1,000 blocked shots.

The others include Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Tim Duncan, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon and inevitable inductees Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett.

"When all the nominees came out, my son who is 26 said, 'Man, (Chris) Webber and Ben Wallace have to get in. They're the front runners, right?' Sikma said. "Then he says, 'How do you compare to them?' I said, you're the social media guy, go look it up.

"I'm sure those guys will get in someday, but I'm not the only one who has waited around a long time."

Sikma is arguably the most accomplished among the five former NBA players (Sydney Moncrief, Bobby Jones, former Sonic Paul Westphal and Vlade Divac) in this year's nine-member Hall of Fame class.

The Sonics selected the 6-foot-11 center with the No. 8 overall pick in the 1977 NBA draft and he made seven consecutive All-Star Game appearances during his nine-year tenure with Seattle.

Sikma, who helped the Sonics to back-to-back NBA Finals appearances, including the franchise's only championship in 1979, forced a trade to Milwaukee in 1986 and spent his final five seasons with the Bucks.

It was never his intent, but Sikma became a trendsetter off the court due to his Dutch-boy haircut and, later in his career, his curly blonde perm.

On the court, the versatile big man averaged 15.6 points and 9.8 rebounds per game for his career. He's the only center to lead the league in single-season free-throw percentage at 92.2% and he also shot 32.8% on 3-pointers during his career.

"You either adapt or die," Sikma said. "There's smart people making decisions and my last three years in Milwaukee Del (Harris) had me out shooting threes. I made 200 threes combined my last three years. ... Back then a center was out there making threes was pretty uncommon."

There was nothing conventional about the former Sonics center, who revolutionized basketball with his trademark move – an inside reverse pivot in which he held the ball over his head with both arms before shooting a mid-range jumper or driving to the basket.

Sikma downplays his impact on basketball even though you can see his low-post moves being mimicked by today's NBA stars.

Instead, a significant part of his Hall of Fame speech will pay homage to the NBA's 'golden age' of centers, which explains why Abdul-Jabbar is one of his three presenters along with Lenny Wilkens and Wes Unseld.

"We're not close friends or anything like that, but I wanted to bring attention to when I played how many great centers there were," Sikma said. "We're talking about Kareem and Moses (Malone). I cut my teeth on (Wes) Unseld, (Bob) Lanier, (Artis) Gilmore, (Dan) Issel, (Bill) Walton, (Robert) Parrish and (Kevin) McHale.

"At the end of my career, there was Patrick (Ewing), Hakeem (Olajuwon), (Ralph) Sampson and David Robinson. It went from a pounding game to I'm chasing those guys around. It was a challenge. I want to highlight that I appreciate the competition. Kareem made me a better player. Maybe bring a little awareness to the center position because it's gone away now."

It's been 28 years since Sikma retired, and in many ways not much has changed with the 63-year-old former Sonics star.

He still lives in Bellevue with Shawn, and the couple recently celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary. Their three sons Jake, Luke, Nate are grown up, which Sikma said "is an accomplishment, but the house becomes awfully quiet."

He spent the past three years working as a consultant with the Toronto Raptors, which won the NBA championship in 2019, but Sikma is unsure if he'll return to the NBA next season.

"This summer has been an 'adulation tour' as my wife likes to say," Sikma said. "I've touched base with a lot of friends. ... I'm not ready to retire and work on my golf game. There needs to be some schedule in my life. I don't mean 9-5, but something.

"It's better for me to be active and be connected. I feel good. Once I get the Hall of Fame stuff out of the way, I'll figure out what I'm going to do with the rest of my life."

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