Despite all the winning, Wilkes has been recognized mainly for his physique and good looks. With his even-toned smooth skin and hazel eyes, Wilkes seems to glow on the court, as if surrounded by an aura. He has grown used to being called "kewpie-doll" or "baby-faced Jamaal Wilkes."
"That's the nature of the business," he says. "We're well-built men, running around in these short outfits, people watching us sweat. It's probably sort of sensual."
It was "baby-faced Keith Wilkes" until his first pro season when, after converting to Islam, he changed his name to Jamaal Abdul-Lateef. He continues to use the name Wilkes only for purposes of public recognition.
Wilkes grew up in Ventura, Calif., the son of a Baptist minister. He never really became a part of the shakin' and bakin' of the Ventura playgrounds, and he developed his sling-shot to avoid blocks from bigger, older players. Jamaal started playing in organized leagues at age eight. He took to the concept of team play, and even as a kid he diligently blocked out his man and set picks, to the surprise of his peers. "What was that?" "A pick and roll." "A whaat....?"
"Jamaal was raised and supported in a home environment where we always strove to be more reasonable and rational than others," says L. Leander Wilkes, Jamaal's father, a very reasonable and rational man himself who was supportive at the time of his son's religious conversion. "There was sometimes a different set of values on the playgrounds, but Jamaal was always secure, and that shows when he plays. Players who aren't as secure will show a weakness of character in times of stress, be it anger or loss of control. That doesn't happen with Jamaal."
Jamaal's strength of character is reflected in the won-lost columns. He hasn't been on a team with a losing record since he began playing basketball in the third grade; he hasn't missed the playoffs in his pro career. After triumphant high school seasons at both Ventura and Santa Barbara, Wilkes made the move down the coast to UCLA and two national championships and a pair of first-team All-America berths.
In his first season in the NBA, with Golden State, Wilkes was named Rookie of the Year and the Warriors won the championship. In three seasons with the Warriors he averaged 16.5 points a game playing in the shadow of Rick Barry and was twice named to the NBA's all-defensive team. He joined the Lakers as a free agent before the start of the 1977-78 season.
Wilkes' Hollywood debut was a critical bomb. Hampered by a broken finger and other injuries, he played in only 51 games, averaging 12.9 points—not bad at all, but not good enough for the L.A. fans, who thought he had been overrated. Wilkes had far bigger worries off the court. His infant daughter had recently died of a heart ailment, and his first marriage was breaking up. Wilkes averaged 18.6 points on 50.4% shooting in the 1978-79 season, a preview of last year's 20.0 and 53.5% marks. At the end of last season he remarried, and he and the former Valerie Topping now live—inconspicuously, of course—on the ocean in the L.A. suburb of Playa del Rey.
Wilkes' blossoming as a scoring threat isn't merely a tribute to the Lakers' fast break. Last season Wilkes shifted from power forward to small forward, a task for which his 6'6", 190-pound frame was better equipped. His overall game had always suffered as a result of the constant pounding he took at strong forward. It's not a coincidence that the Lakers showed their heels to the rest of the league last year after new owner Jerry Buss added muscle and board strength to his front line with people like Chones and Mark Landsberger.
That helped Buss entice Wilkes, again a free agent before the start of last season, to remain in Los Angeles. "After I got the team, my first priority was to sign Jamaal," Buss says. "At power forward he was overmatched night after night. I convinced him that we could add some rebounding and run and have fun with him at small forward. I knew we could win, too."