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Through it all—the 88-game winning streak at UCLA and the four national championships, collegiate and professional—the stars that glitter in the Hollywood firmament have never shone upon Jamaal Wilkes of the Los Angeles Lakers. That's probably because Wilkes isn't 7'4" tall or called "The Big Fella." Nor is he Magic. He's Silk, and that's, well, a bit effeminate. It just doesn't fit in with the roughness under the boards.
It's not that Wilkes isn't worthy. In last season's championship game against the 76ers, he scored a career-high 37 points. He added 10 rebounds, equaling the combined total of Philly's Darryl Dawkins and Caldwell Jones. Lights? Camera? Action? Nope. The spotlight that night shone on Earvin Johnson: 42 points, 15 rebounds and that smile. When asked about the game afterward, Wilkes gave Johnson his due, then added matter-of-factly, "I don't think we would have won without me, too."
No brag, fact. Wilkes, 27, is a winner, and this season he is hanging up some impressive numbers that are finally bringing him into the limelight. At last week's All-Star break he was averaging 23.3 points a game, 11th-best in the NBA, on 54.7% shooting from the field and was one of the main reasons Los Angeles was only 3� games behind front-running Phoenix in the Pacific Division despite losing Johnson on Nov. 18 with a knee injury. In games in which Wilkes has scored 20 or more points, the Lakers have a 27-10 record. They have won all 11 games in which he has scored 30 or more.
Predictably, the fans didn't vote Wilkes to a starting berth in last Sunday's NBA All-Star Game, but he was named to the West squad by the coaches, and in an informal SI poll of league players, he received more votes than any other Western Conference forward. For Wilkes it was only his second All-Star Game in a steady, if unspectacular, pro career. That has been the Wilkes story: a consistent player consistently under-recognized. A 17.8-point career scorer, he played the full 82-game schedule four times in his first six NBA seasons. He has played in 224 consecutive regular-season games, scoring in double figures in the last 131.
"What happens with Jamaal is, he slides the knife into you, delivers the goods, takes it out and is gone into the night to the next city," says Laker Coach Paul Westhead. "He does it again and again and never even gets a mug shot taken. The other day Michael Cooper scored on a great stuff shot off a rebound. Now if someone were scouting the game they would say, 'Try and stop Kareem and watch out for Cooper on the offensive boards.' Then, as an afterthought, they'd add, 'Oh, yeah, Wilkes has a nice shot, too.' "
Wilkes kills his opponents softly, using L.A.'s fast break and his speed and soft hands to get more layups than perhaps anyone else in the league. Last Thursday in a 118-104 victory over Kansas City, which stretched L.A.'s winning streak at the All-Star break to five games, Wilkes scored 30 points, 16 on layups.
The Lakers' fast break usually begins with an Abdul-Jabbar or Jim Chones rebound and outlet pass to Norm Nixon, with Cooper or Magic (when he's healthy) on one wing, and Wilkes on the other, filling the lanes. And the lanes are always filled. "If the man I'm guarding likes to crash the boards, I'll screen him out, then go, but sometimes I just take off," Wilkes says. "The transition game is suited to me because I can get out and move. To me the game is a series of moments passing. I get distressed when I don't use those moments as best I can."
Even when the break stalls, Wilkes remains in motion, slithering back and forth across the lane, running his man through pick after pick, eventually breaking free for an easy bucket. When not shooting layins, Wilkes scores with an awkward-looking but deadly corkscrew jump shot. Or set shot. As he shoots, Wilkes' feet barely leave the ground. He just sort of stretches up on his tiptoes. The basketball moves from the waist to a spot somewhere behind his right ear and is released with both hands pushing across his body.
As he shoots, Wilkes resembles a giant slingshot; the execution isn't pretty in the classic sense. But the ball goes in. That doesn't always wow the crowd, as West-head lyrically points out. "To me his shot is like snow falling softly off a bamboo leaf," he says. "One minute it's there, the next it's not. Unfortunately, people don't get into falling snow." Falling snow might be better appreciated if Jamaal would also rear back and throw down a dunk or two, but he has purposely omitted that shot from his repertoire, as he has be-hind-the-back, no-look passes and most other flash and dash.
"A long time ago I saw what winning meant, what you were exposed to from winning," he says. "I decided to dedicate myself to that phase of the game, to concentrate on winning, even to the point of never being flashy. People who win and like to win appreciate that."