While the weary Clippers waited in the Sacramento airport for the dense fog to clear last Sunday morning, it became clear in Jamaal Wilkes' troubled mind that he should get out of professional basketball.
"For the first time in my life, I thought to myself that I really didn't want to be there," Wilkes said Thursday at a farewell press conference at the Sports Arena. "That's when I knew for certain it was time to get out." Tuesday morning, Wilkes, 32, informed the Clippers that he was retiring, effective immediately. He met the media Thursday to explain his reasons, which were rather obvious, for abruptly bowing out 29 games into the season. Once among the NBA's top small forwards with the Lakers, Wilkes had seen his productive 12-year career dissolve into cameo appearances for the struggling Clippers.
No doubt, this was a day Wilkes knew had to come sooner rather than later, but that didn't make his retirement press conference any easier to handle. Just like his on-court persona, Wilkes remained unemotional, but this time he he had to work at it.
He also was able to smile often, probably for the first time in weeks.
"It's been fantastic, and I've enjoyed my career," Wilkes said in his usual soft-spoken manner. "But it hasn't been fun recently."
Retirement was something Wilkes thought about since he tore ligaments in his left knee last February, and he seriously contemplated it after the Lakers waived him Aug. 28. But after working so hard to rehabilitate his knee, he decided to give it another chance with the Clippers.
It was a decision Wilkes hoped could revitalize his career after the Lakers, upon waiving him last summer, handed him a gold watch in the form of $2.4 million of guaranteed salary owed him over the next three seasons. Wilkes felt he should not have been written off so quickly by his previous employers.
Instead, the Clippers' depressing penchant for losing with regularity and severity, coupled with Wilkes' lingering ankle injury less than a month into the season, led to frustration and embarrassment for a player who had been on two of UCLA's NCAA championship teams and on four NBA championship teams--three with the Lakers. "It just wasn't fun anymore," Wilkes said. "Quite frankly, it got to the point where I was thinking more of my life outside of basketball than my life in basketball. I started thinking about what I could do with my time that was more productive."
Wilkes definitely did not want to linger if it was evident he no longer was a productive player. But he didn't want to leave before his time, either.
Wilkes said it was a question he grappled with during the summer.
"Dr. J (Julius Erving) says he would rather hang on too long than leave to early, and Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) says he'd rather leave too soon than hang on too long," Wilkes said. "I'm somewhere in between."
That's probably why he wanted to come back this season and see if he had something left to contribute. His statistics in 13 games with the Clippers--5.8 points while playing 15 minutes a game--were insignificant in comparison to his 17.7 career scoring and 6.2 rebounding averages.
"Yes, of course, I'd like to be remembered for the majority of my career," Wilkes said. "I wouldn't trade (my NBA career) for anything. I have no gripes with the Clippers. Carl (Scheer, the general manager) has been good to me."
Considering everything else Wilkes has done in his NBA career, perhaps it is best just to forget his brief tenure as a Clipper. Wilkes, asked to name his personal highlights, said poignantly, "The most enjoyable part has been all of it."
Wilkes, who always went about his job with quiet enthusiasm, said he is excited to usher in a new chapter in his life.
Wilkes has a lot of plans, among them obtaining an MBA degree, devoting energy to his import business and spending more time with wife, Valerie, and his two children.
"I also have to work on my golf game," Wilkes said, smiling. "It needs a lot of work."
Another business option for Wilkes, which made Scheer do a double take during Thursday's press conference, is a career as a sports agent.
"Ken Norton's management firm is a possibility," Wilkes said. "He called me. I don't know."
There also is a chance, albeit unlikely, that Wilkes might not like this retirement business and make a comeback. It wouldn't be with the Clippers, though. Wilkes said he feels some regret not signing with Chicago when he had the chance.
"I wouldn't rule (a comeback) out, but it's not in my thinking right now," Wilkes said. "My motivation is in other areas now."