Born: November 14, 1955
Seattle SuperSonics (NBA): 1977-’86
Milwaukee Bucks (NBA): 1986-’91
Four years ago someone asked the Sonics’ then-general manager, Zollie Volchok, if he would consider trading Sikma for Moses Malone. “I wouldn’t trade Jack Sikma for the resurrection of Marilyn Monroe in my bedroom,” was Volchok’s reply, and the feeling was that he spoke for a majority of the bedrooms in Seattle.
You can say this about lots of players, but Jack Sikma’s NBA career truly was an improbable success story. He played college ball at Illinois Wesleyan, a small university in the NAIA garnering very little attention nationwide. However, he did catch the eye of Seattle Supersonics executive Lenny Wilkens. Much to the disbelief, chagrin and jeers of Sonics fans, Sikma was selected 8th overall in the 1977 draft. By the time he was traded to Milwaukee nearly a decade later, Sikma had become a cherished idol of Sonics fans with his rock steady play.
Sikma’s game was a curious blend of power and finesse. Until his senior year in high school, he played guard. However, his height exploded to 6’10” shifting him to the post. Barely able to hop over a phonebook and still figuring out his own dimensions and abilities in his new body, Sikma routinely had his shot blocked by opponents. As he recalled it, “I had SPALDING written across my forehead a few times.”
To combat this, Jack’s offense eventually centered on exquisite footwork to maneuver around or beyond his defender. He would pivot away from the basket to either take a jumper or create space to dribble or spin past his defender toward the basket. That jumper he took became increasingly harder and harder to block as he learned to shoot it from nearly behind his head.
The power in Sikma’s game came on the boards and defense. By no means was he a bulldozer knocking opponents over like they were bowling pins, but Sikma held his ground on defense effectively challenging and containing his own man, something which may be overlooked given his paucity of blocks. And on the glass, he was one of the finest especially on the defensive end. His defensive rebound percentage is 13th all-time and his ability to vacuum up these boards limited second-chance points for opponents.
These abilities were hidden to the average fan and even many NBA personnel (Don Nelson in 1977 scoffed at Seattle using an 8th pick on Sikma). Expectations for Sikma were certainly low entering the 1977-78 season, but the Sonics as a team stumbled to an abysmal 5-17 start before coach Bob Hopkins was removed and Wilkens assumed control as coach. With Wilkens at the helm, the collection of Seattle talent gelled into a Western powerhouse. “Downtown Freddie” Brown, Gus Williams and Dennis Johnson ran a three-man backcourt that was second-to-none. In the frontcourt, veteran Paul Silas, Marvin Webster and Sikma flummoxed opposing big men. The Sonics finished 42-18 after the rough start, but wound up blowing a 3-2 series lead against the Washington Bullets in the NBA Finals losing the 7th game at home.
The next year, the Sonics picked up where they left off. Blazing a trail of destruction in the West, they finished 52-30 in the regular season and had the Phoenix Suns pinned down 2-0 in the Western Conference Finals. Again, though, it appeared they were about to cough up another series as Phoenix reeled off 3 straight wins. Sikma played horrendously during this stretch. Finally, Sikma came back alive in Game 6 with 21 points and 10 rebounds and Seattle ultimately squeezed by in 7 games. A Finals rematch with the Washington Bullets awaited. Unlike the previous season and the previous series, Seattle got straight down to business and made mincemeat of the Bullets. Sikma capped off the easy series victory with 12 points and 17 rebounds in the clinching Game 5.
Two years in the NBA, two Finals appearances and a championship had warmed Seattle fans to Sikma and had convinced Jack that success wasn’t that hard to come by in the NBA. However, two problems arose for the Sonics’ domination of the West as the 1980s dawned: 1) the arrival of Magic Johnson to an already frisky Lakers team with Kareem, Jamaal Wilkes and Norm Nixon and more disturbingly 2) the combustible personalities in Seattle’s backcourt.
These issues came to a head in the 1980 Western Conference Finals as the Sonics and Lakers squared off. After blowing an 18-point lead in Game 4, Coach Wilkens singled out Dennis Johnson for the loss and the guard exploded on the coach in front of all his teammates in the locker room after the game:
“That was the beginning of the end of the good times in Seattle,” Sikma says. “I was sitting in traffic after that game, and some people rolled down their windows and said not to worry, that everything would be all right. I remember just sitting there thinking that everything wasn’t going to be all right, that something had changed that day and it would never be the same again.”
Johnson was banished to Phoenix, Gus Williams held out for a new contract, Silas retired, a doped up David Thompson was brought in to no avail and the Sonics staggered to 34 wins after 56 the previous year. Sikma though continued to roll along. Routinely he finished just a touch below 20 points per game while grabbing 10 to 12 boards a game. With Gus Williams’ return, the 1982 Sonics would defeat Houston in a three-game miniseries thanks to 30-point, 17-rebound closeout game gem from Sikma against the Rockets’ Moses Malone. In the next round though, Seattle lost 4-1 against San Antonio. That would be the last 2nd round appearance for Seattle during Sikma’s tenure as he and Williams tried in vain to keep the faltering roster afloat.
By 1985, all of the pieces of the ’79 title team in Seattle were gone except Sikma. He’d become a golden-haired idol and a relic to Seattle fans of their past glory, but Jack was now 30 years old and eager to contend for a title once again. Management heeded his wishes and it was off to Milwaukee where the once-skeptical Don Nelson was eager to use him:
“Sikma’s not a dominating center,” says Milwaukee coach Don Nelson. “I don’t think he’s the type of player who can carry a team. His value lies in his ability to do really well all the things a center has to do. There isn’t a part of the game he isn’t good at. We feel we’ve really improved ourselves, and that this move puts us in a position to win it all.”
In Sikma’s first season, Milwaukee took the Boston Celtics to 7 games in the Eastern semi-finals after Jack had burned the Sixers with 18 points and 21 rebounds in a close-out Game 5 in the 1st round. That’s as good as the times got in Milwaukee, though. Injuries to Sidney Moncrief derailed the team’s hopes for true championship contention despite making the playoffs every year through Sikma’s tenure.
As the center entered his mid-30s, his points and rebounds predictably slid. His free throw shooting, always excellent, went into overdrive, however. He shot 92% in 1988 to become the only center since Dolph Schayes in the 1950s to lead the league in FT% for a season. During his final three seasons, Sikma also turned into a three-point threat connecting on 35.6% of his 3-PT attempts. In December 1990, he pasted David Robinson for 29 points and 7 rebounds including going 6-8 from downtown. However, a bad back would ultimately limit Sikma for the rest of the season and force his retirement.
Despite the Sonics crumbling amidst backcourt egos and the Bucks’ bad injury luck, Sikma’s personal excellence came rain or shine. He maintains the Sonics’ all-time lead for career rebounds and is top ten in games (4th), minutes (2nd), assists (7th), blocks (2nd) and points (3rd). He’s tied with Dolph Schayes at 84.9% for the highest career FT% for a center. And since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976-77, Sikma ranks 7th among centers in rebounds, 8th in points scored, 3rd in assists, and 6th in steals. He’s also one of the 20 players in league history to record at least 1000 blocks and 1000 steals during a career.
That kind of impressive resume is expected considering Sikma’s desire to improve never dissipated after leaving Illinois Wesleyan. Even as he was a 30-something veteran in Milwaukee Sikma showed up early in training camp to practice jumping drills…
“Now I’ll be able to jump over two phone books instead of one.”
It’s little goals like that lead to big accomplishments, apparently. Go figure.
All-Defensive 2nd Team (1982)
7x All-Star (1979-’85)
All-Rookie Team (1978)
Regular Season Career Averages (1107 games):
Playoff Career Averages (102 games):