Nelson, a coach who takes a back seat to no one when it comes to acquiring players who probably couldn't remember what to do in a back seat even if they could fit into one, is still a little touchy about all the second-guessing that went on after the Cowens debacle. Nelson says he doesn't mind if his pivotmen can't chew their own food, because that's not actually part of the job description. "I've picked up three old centers, so I can't say it's not true," Nelson says. "If I could get Sampson and Olajuwon, I would like that. But when you're picking at about the 20th spot in the draft, the way we do every year, there aren't a lot of great centers left."
There was still a pretty good one available even after the Bucks had used two of their three first-round selections to take Kent Benson and Marques Johnson in the 1977 draft, but Nelson let Seattle take Sikma with the eighth pick, and the Bucks' coach said later he was glad to do it. "I think Seattle made a mistake," Nelson said airily that day. "We might have picked Sikma in the second round—if we had used up all 22 choices in the first round." Nine years and seven consecutive All-Star Game appearances later, it took Nelson the equivalent of all three of those first-round picks to get Sikma back. "I was young and dumb," Nelson says now. "Hell, I hadn't even seen him play."
Hardly anybody had. As a student at Illinois Wesleyan, a Methodist school with an enrollment of only 1,600, Sikma played in the NAIA. He had grown up in Wichert, Ill., a small Dutch village about an hour south of the farmers' markets in Chicago. For years Wichert had a post office and a general store, then somebody moved away and the post office closed. The Dutch who settled in the area found the sandy loam soil suitable for growing gladiolus bulbs, and the farmers there still do a brisk business selling "cut glads" to the city people.
Sikma was, as he says, "a late bloomer," playing guard for his first three years of high school before sprouting up to 6'10" in his senior season. The whole area was crazy for basketball, and that passion was sustained by the fact that "there were always a few tall Dutchmen coming through," Sikma says. He could have gone to any one of several major college basketball powers that recruited him after his sudden growth, but Sikma still thought of himself as a cut glad rather than a long-stemmed talent, so he chose Wesleyan. "There were people who thought he made a mistake when he went to Wesleyan," says his mother, Grace, who was one of them, "because he wouldn't get the exposure there."
They were right about that, but Sikma did learn something at Wesleyan that would lead directly to his later success in the pros. Never a great leaper, he had been getting a lot of his shots swatted back at him by the bigger players he was facing at the college level. "I had SPALDING written across my forehead a few times," he says. He and Wesleyan coach Dennis Bridges tried a number of evasive maneuvers before finally coming up with something they called an inside pivot, a move away from the basket that has since become Sikma's trademark. "I was a good enough shooter that taking a step away didn't hurt me," he says. He also began taking his shot from farther and farther behind his head, until finally it was impossible to block. Sikma remembers Bridges repeatedly coaxing him in practice, "Use your move, Jack. Use the move!" It did not come easily. "It took me half a season before I was comfortable with it," he says. The inside pivot is now referred to by basketball people simply as the Sikma Move, and big men are schooled in its intricacies the same way that young ballroom initiates were once taught the lindy hop.
Unfortunately, none of this had caught on yet in Seattle when Sikma arrived there, and for a while it appeared that the only Sikma move people there wanted to hear about was one that involved his catching a bus out of town. There had been stunned silence at the team's draft-day headquarters when his name was called, followed in short order by boos from the audience. "They had a history at that point of making bad draft picks," Sikma says, "and my reception in Seattle was pretty much on the order of 'Jack who?' There were a lot of players out there who had been on TV a lot more than some skinny guy from Illinois Wesleyan with a Dutch-boy haircut."
A Seattle paper actually ran a headline that said, SONICS SIGN 'WHO'S HE?' SIKMA. When he showed up in town to sign his rookie contract, Sikma was refused entry to a popular local bar because he couldn't produce sufficient identification, this despite the wretched pleadings of a Sonics publicist who must have suddenly seen his entire expense account flash before his eyes.
During Sikma's first season in Seattle, the Sonics got off to a 5-17 start under coach Bob Hopkins. "We were laughing-stocks," Sikma recalls. "People were trying to sell their season tickets." Hopkins was dismissed after the dismal start, and Wilkens almost immediately turned the team around. Seattle made it all the way to the NBA finals that year, losing in seven games to the Washington Bullets. The following season Seattle went to the finals again and this time beat the Bullets 4-1. Sikma just assumed that life in the NBA would always be like that—lose almost all of your games at first, fire the coach, then win almost all your games and go to the championship series. "I just got swept up in it," he says. "It all came so fast I didn't realize how tough it was to get that far."
He found out soon enough. The perfect harmony that had existed on the team the previous two seasons had all but vanished by the 1980 playoffs, and the Sonics had to labor through a seven-game series with Milwaukee before taking on the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals. Seattle split the first two games in L.A., then lost a close one at home. In Game 4 the Sonics had an 18-point halftime lead and, unbelievably, allowed the Lakers to come back and win it 98-93. In the locker room after the game Wilkens was furious, and in front of the entire team he blamed guard Dennis Johnson for the loss. Johnson replied with a verbal fusillade of his own, as his teammates sat in horror.
"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."