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Jamaal Wilkes Plays in Summer League as He Works Way Back to the Lakers : Torn Silk

July 25, 1985|STEVE SPRINGER | Times Staff Writer

The voice on the public address system echoes across Albert Gersten Pavilion:

"Laker basket by Timo Saarelainen."

And:

"Laker basket by Jose Slaughter."

Welcome to the summer basketball league at Loyola Marymount University, where the Lakers, such as they are, do battle with such teams as Italian BC, the B-Team and Celtics Plus. It's basically a league for rookies and free agents in which teams try to find out if these boys of summer can become the men of winter and spring, when the games count.

Then:

"Laker basket by Dexter Shouse . . .

"Laker basket by Jamaal Wilkes." Jamaal Wilkes?

The Jamaal Wilkes? Former NBA Rookie of the Year? One of the top active NBA scorers? A member of two undefeated NCAA championship teams at UCLA and four NBA championship teams in an 11-year pro career with the Golden State Warriors and the Lakers?

What is this man doing wearing a uniform with a beer advertisement on the back, running up and down the court with kids who were in grammar school when he was a rookie?

Enjoying himself, that's what.

A few months ago, Wilkes was wondering if he would ever run at all.

That was after a knee injury Feb. 1 had left the Laker forward sidelined for the rest of last season, which followed a shooting slump that had left him on the bench, which followed a recuperation period that had left him ineffective in the 1984 playoffs, which followed a serious stomach ailment.

It's been a heck of a year and a half for Wilkes.

"If things happen in bunches, I'm in good shape," he said with a smile. "It seems like I've been Rip Van Winkle, I've been away so long."

They call the man Silk because of his smooth moves on the court. His once-deadly jump shots from the corner were labeled "20-foot layups" because of their accuracy.

Silky smooth is also an accurate description of his career. Look all the way back to his senior year in high school and you won't find his name on a losing team. And although he had competed for more than a decade in the NBA with a thin, 190-pound body on his 6-7 frame, he had never had a major injury. He didn't know from casts or splints or arthroscopes. In the five years before his run of misfortune, Wilkes had missed a total of three games.

Then it began.

"I had constant headaches, stomach cramps and cold chills," Wilkes said of the spring of '84. "I thought I had the flu bug."

He missed seven regular-season games while undergoing tests that eventually determined he was suffering from a gastrointestinal infection, probably caused by bad drinking water.

He returned for spot duty in the playoffs, but his jump shot did not. Out of shape after his long illness, he shot only 40%. Suddenly, his layups looked like 20-foot jumpers.

By last fall, he had a new obstacle to overcome--James Worthy. In Wilkes' absence, Worthy had replaced him as starting forward. Trade rumors followed. Wilkes and his big contract had been offered here, offered there.

Nevertheless, he began last season in the starting lineup but was benched after eight games when the team stumbled out of the starting blocks. Then, ever so slowly, his game began to come around. He hit the peak Jan. 29, when he scored a season-high 24 points in a victory over the Portland Trail Blazers.

Then he fell off the mountain again.

Three nights later, he planted his left leg while attempting to stop the New York Knicks' Ernie Grunfeld from making a layup.

"Grunfeld fell, and his leg swung around and hit me hard on the outside calf," Wilkes said. "I felt a sensation I had never felt before. I thought it was just sprained. But Dr. (Robert) Kerlan thought it was serious right away."

That it was. He had partial tears of two ligaments in the left knee. Team doctor Steve Lombardo advised against reconstructive surgery. He thought that immobilizing the leg in a cast might be enough to trigger the healing process.

Wilkes spent more than a month wearing the cast, all the while working with weights. But it wasn't until the cast came off that he discovered what work is.

"When I got the cast removed I was so excited," Wilkes recalled. "I thought I would just walk out of the doctor's office. I figured I would be playing basketball in another week.

"But my leg had atrophied. I almost fell down. I had to use crutches for two more weeks. I realized I would have to learn to walk all over again. It was a major adjustment, not being able to get around much. I went through quite a few depressing moments."

Enter Mitch Kupchak. This Laker forward knows all about casts and crutches and walking all over again. It took Kupchak more than three years to regain some effectiveness on the court after suffering a knee injury that doctors called the worst they had ever seen.

Before Wilkes began hobbling on the road back, Kupchak took him aside.

"Rehabilitation's a bitch," he said. "There's times you don't know why you are doing it. There's times you may not do it. But you've got to hang in there."

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