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A BUCK, FOR A CHANGE
Bruce Newman
November 03, 1986
After nine seasons in Seattle, Jack Sikma is back home in the Midwest, hoping he'll be the money player who at last helps Milwaukee cash in on a championship
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November 03, 1986

A Buck, For A Change

After nine seasons in Seattle, Jack Sikma is back home in the Midwest, hoping he'll be the money player who at last helps Milwaukee cash in on a championship

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The bad thing about demanding to be traded is that it doesn't apply to real life. Let's say you're working in a stomach-stapling clinic in Amish country, and one day you hear that all the really fat people are living in Milwaukee. You're a person with big dreams and little patients, so you demand to be traded to a clinic in a city with a brewery tour, someplace where a guy with a quick staple gun and a love of entrails can someday have his own TV commercial. But in real life you can demand to be traded until you're blue in the face, and the press will ignore you, and not one general manager will call and the whole experience will make you sorry you are alive.

Actually, that can happen in the National Basketball Association, too, and for a while last summer Jack Sikma thought it just might be happening to him. After nine seasons with the Seattle SuperSonics, Sikma had asked to be traded to a team with at least some hope of winning a championship, which the Sonics clearly lacked. His demand was followed by nearly three months of quiet, during which time Sikma began to worry that the press was ignoring him, that not one general manager would call and that he was going to end up playing in Seattle and being sorry he was alive. But in July he was finally traded to Milwaukee, making the Bucks, who were swept out of the playoffs by Boston last May, a credible threat to end the Celtics' dominance in the East.

"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."

Sikma was once a member of that elite caste of NBA players considered "untouchables," stars so closely identified with the city they play in that trading them would be unthinkable. 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. It's unlikely, in fact, that the Bucks would ever have extracted Sikma from the Sonics if Sikma had not insisted upon the trade himself.

"Jack is huge in this community," says Sonics president Bob Whitsitt. "He's bigger than the Space Needle. If we had wanted to trade Jack and he had not come in first, it would probably have created the biggest public-relations nightmare the Sonics ever faced."

Seattle had finished 31-51 and out of the playoffs the past two seasons, even with Sikma, and it's entirely possible his demand to be traded, which was greeted with much public gnashing of teeth by the Sonics, was actually just what the team's front office was hoping for. "I think, from a p.r. standpoint, the fact that I came out and asked to be traded made it easier for them to make a business decision," Sikma says. As the last link to Seattle's 1978-79 championship team, Sikma was more than just another good player, he was a cherished relic. "As long as Jack is here, he is Sonics basketball," says Whitsitt. "This way, some of our younger players will have a chance to create an identity of their own. I think maybe people here were looking back too much. When Boston wins a world championship, they make room in the rafters for the next one. We won one, and everyone just stared at the banner."

After Sikma went public with his desire to be traded, Lenny Wilkens, then the team's general manager, was quoted as saying that any player making the kind of money Sikma was—a reported $1.6 million a year over four seasons—should be loyal to his team, win or lose. Wilkens had received much of the credit for drafting Sikma in 1977, when he was a virtual unknown out of Illinois Wesleyan, and he had been Sikma's only head coach for eight seasons. But as the years passed and the losses mounted, Sikma began to feel that Wilkens was "if anything, too nice a guy" to be the coach, and at the end of the '85 season Sikma led a group of veterans who went to owner Barry Ackerly to discuss the team's problems. As a result, Wilkens was kicked upstairs into the G.M.'s office. Now Sikma wanted to be traded, a subject about which Wilkens would have some say, and what he was saying was that Sikma had a lot to learn about loyalty.

"I thought about loyalty a lot when I was making my decision," Sikma says now. "I was involved with that franchise for a long time, and I wanted to make it work there. I knew what was there for me—a bird in the hand—and there were certainly a lot worse places I could have gone to than Seattle. When I talked to my wife or our friends about it, I was usually the one arguing that I should stay in Seattle." Sikma brooded over his situation for nearly a year before doing anything about it. "Jack's not the kind of person who comes to a decision easily," says his wife, Shawn. "It finally got to the point last year that I was encouraging him to make a move—any move—because he was coming home from every game feeling miserable."

"What it came down to," Sikma says, "was that I believed I was a very good basketball player, and I selfishly wanted that to be shown by results. I thought I could help some team win again. Making that decision was very tough for me, but once I told Lenny, it was a huge relief. That was the point of no return." Sikma was able to have his way because his contract contained a clause allowing him to become a free agent at the end of the coming season, effectively preventing Seattle from trading him anywhere he didn't want to go.

It probably says something about Sikma and his ability to laugh in the face of danger that he hoped he would be traded to Dallas so he could be near his mother-in-law. Failing that, he wanted a chance to play for a team that could win an NBA championship, and he got it when Milwaukee traded center Alton Lister and two first-round draft picks for him and a pair of second-round choices. Dealing for a veteran center was not exactly an unprecedented move for the Bucks, who had traded for 31-year-old Bob Lanier in 1980 and 33-year-old Dave Cowens three seasons ago. Lanier gave Milwaukee a credible threat in the middle before his arthritic knees finally gave out, but Cowens, who had been in retirement for two seasons when the Bucks signed him, injured his knee in preseason and never played effectively for Milwaukee. Sikma will be 31 this month and had cartilage removed from his right knee last spring.

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