Sikma eyes NBA job, Hall of Fame


Sikma eyes NBA job, Hall of Fame

When he was a skinny 6-foot-10 kid working on a family farm in St. Anne, long before anyone recognized his enormous potential as a basketball player, Jack Sikma was a dreamer. He isn't surprised at where he is or how he got there. He just took a path that few others had to trod.

Now, after starring in the NBA for 14 years and coaching in the league for 10 years, Sikma is ready and willing and, he believes, qualified to achieve two more milestones in his career -- to be a head coach and to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

His credentials? He was the No. 8 pick in the 1977 NBA draft by the Seattle SuperSonics. A seven-time All-Star, he scored over 1,700 points and grabbed over 10,000 rebounds. He was a key factor in Seattle's drive to the 1979 NBA championship. He is the only center to lead the league in free-throw shooting, converting 92.2 percent in 1987-88.

"I am happy for the number of people in my era who have been inducted in the last few years," Sikma said. "I hope the Hall of Fame finds me worthy at some point in time. Some people feel I should be there. I think I have the credentials."

At 56, Sikma feels he also is qualified to be a head coach in the NBA. He just completed his ninth year as an assistant with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He once operated a school for "big men" and feels he has the knowledge and experience to be successful.

"Hopefully, I soon will get an opportunity to interview for a job," he said. "I want to be a head coach in the NBA. I have applied and expressed interest. I interviewed at Houston last year. I hope to be able to get another interview or two this year. There will be some jobs open. I feel I am very prepared to step forward and run a team. I would love to have a shot at it. I would love to prove through the interview process that I am ready to go."

Sikma has come a long way. In Seattle, he lives in Bill Gates' neighborhood. He played in an era where the big man dominated the game in the post, before the 3-point line was drawn. He still can't understand how Seattle, with a great fan base, lost a franchise with a great tradition.

But he succeeded without much fanfare, playing for a tiny school that nobody ever heard of, without a scholarship to a major Division I school. Virtually nobody knew who he was until he surfaced at the 1973 Class A tournament in Champaign, scoring 100 points and grabbing 73 rebounds in four games while leading St. Anne to fourth place.

He received national publicity when a fast-thinking photographer snapped his picture while being interviewed by a television announcer who was standing on a box.

"I was a dreamer," Sikma said. "I loved sports and competition. There is a history in Illinois with basketball and small towns. It was the event for the weekend for everyone. The gyms were full of neighbors, family and friends. It started there.

"I knew I had a chance to grow and it happened. It just fit together. It was the first example of a situation where I had to make a major decision as a late bloomer in high school. I got on the recruiting boards for Big Ten schools. But I decided to go to Illinois Wesleyan, a Division III school, where my sister had gone."

When Sikma got on the map, after the state tournament, Illinois coach Harv Schmidt, who had been a great high school player at nearby Kankakee, came to visit. Purdue coach Fred Schaus was in his living room. Northwestern coach Tex Winter called. DePaul assistant Joey Meyer recruited him. Indiana State and Kansas State visited, too.

"I grew up watching the Big Ten Game of the Week on television," he said. "Illinois was struggling. I wanted to go to Illinois in some sense. In the end, I went back and forth, then came to a decision over time and felt good about it. I never regretted it."

Sikma chose Illinois Wesleyan because coach Dennis Bridges had made a personal commitment to him. Bridges was the first college coach to seriously recruit him. From the outset, Bridges told Sikma that he would be the best player ever to play at Illinois Wesleyan. He scheduled Division I opponents to give Sikma more exposure.

"If I was good enough, the NBA would find me, even a 6-foot-10 skinny kid who loved to play basketball as a 17-year-old out of St. Anne," Sikma said. "The point is he had seen me play 10 times before the state tournament. He helped me to develop my inside game. We played man-to-man all the time. I got to the NBA and knew how to play defense."

Since Division III schools can't offer scholarships, Sikma had to uphold his end of the bargain. Because he was a good student, he qualified for an academic grant. He worked in the summer to pay his room and board.

As Bridges promised, the NBA scouts found Sikma even though he never appeared on national television. After his junior year, he was invited to the U.S. Olympic trials. As a senior, he was invited to participate in all-star games in Hawaii and Tulsa, Oklahoma.

"The light bulb went on between my freshman and sophomore years at Illinois Wesleyan, which I developed my inside game. That's when I began to realize how good I was and how far I could go," he said. "At the Olympic trials, I missed making the team but I played against Tree Rollins and Mitch Kupchak and Tom LeGarde. I competed. I fit in. Some said I should have made the team. It put me on the map for everyone to see as a senior in college."

Sikma played in an era when the big man was dominant, when the game went through the post, through Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Artis Gilmore, Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, Ralph Sampson, Robert Parish, Bob Lanier, Elvin Hayes and Moses Malone. And Jack Sikma.

"Then the rules changed. Along game the 3-point line and the understanding that a mix of 3-pointers gave you some better efficiencies with offensive possessions," Sikma said. "Now the bigs, even if they are the strongest players on the floor, have to face up and be able to understand how to pass out of the post on double teams.

"Andrew Bynum is the most dominant big man today. He must understand the value of the 3-point shot. Tim Duncan is the best example. In playoff games, you have to have a good post player who can draw double teams. That's where it pays off. Successful playoff teams and NBA championship teams have a post player who is effective enough to draw a double team."

Sikma would rather be playing, of course, but he enjoys the one-on-one relationships with players and other coaches. He believes his background as a post player, where offenses were run through him and he passed outside for pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops and three-point shots, affords him a broad experience for the coaching profession.

"The pro game is so fast. Strategically, you can do so many things on the move. The more you're in it, as a coach, you realize all the ways you can impact a game," he said.

"Sure, it draws on your patience. The raw talent continues to improve. The preparation and fundamental work that needs to be done to develop a complete player isn't done as much at the pro level as in the past. You cannot replace an experienced player's impact on a team when he is doing it the right way. You have to have a mix or you don't have stability."

He only hopes he soon will have an opportunity to put all of his knowledge into practice -- as a head coach in the NBA.

Kyle Hendricks outduels Clayton Kershaw and delivers legendary performance that puts Cubs in World Series

Kyle Hendricks outduels Clayton Kershaw and delivers legendary performance that puts Cubs in World Series

John Hendricks sent a text message to his son at 11:24 a.m. on Saturday: “Good luck tonight!! Remember, great mechanics and preparation will prevail. Just let it go!!” It ended with three emoji: a smiley face with sunglasses, the thumbs-up sign and a flexed biceps.

The Cubs have bonded fathers and sons for generations, and Hendricks immediately understood what it meant for his boy when the Cubs traded Ryan Dempster to the Texas Rangers minutes before the deadline on July 31, 2012, telling Kyle: “You win in this city, you will be a legend. There is no doubt about it. This is the greatest sports town in the United States.”

This is the intoxicating lure of the Cubs. It didn’t matter that Kyle had been an eighth-round pick out of Dartmouth College, and hadn’t yet finished his first full season in professional baseball, and would be joining an organization enduring a 101-loss season, the third of five straight fifth-place finishes.

Kyle’s low-key personality will never get him confused with an ’85 Bear, but he delivered a legendary performance in Game 6, outpitching Clayton Kershaw at the end of this National League Championship Series and leading the Cubs to the World Series for the first time in 71 years.

Five outs away from the pennant, a raucous crowd of 42,386 at Wrigley Field actually booed star manager Joe Maddon when he walked out to the mound to take the ball from Kyle and bring in closer Aroldis Chapman. Kyle, the silent assassin, did briefly raise his hand to acknowledge the standing ovation before descending the dugout steps. 

After a 5-0 win, Kyle stood in roughly the same spot with Nike goggles on his head and finally looked a little rattled, his body shivering and teeth chattering in the cold, his Cubs gear soaked from the champagne-and-beer celebration.

“It’s always been an uphill climb for me, honestly,” Kyle said. “But that really has nothing to do with getting guys out. My focus from Day 1 – even when I was young, high school, college, all the way up until now – all it’s been is trying to make good pitches. 

“And as we moved up, you just saw that good pitches get good hitters out.” 

At a time when the game is obsessed with velocity and showing off for the radar gun, Kyle knows how to pitch, putting the ball where he wants when he wants, avoiding the hot zones that lead to trouble, mixing his changeups, fastballs and curveball in an unpredictable way that takes advantage of the team’s intricate scouting system and keeps hitters completely off-balance.

“Kyle didn’t even give them any air or any hope,” general manager Jed Hoyer said.

Amid the celebration, scouting/player-development chief Jason McLeod spotted Kyle’s dad and yelled at John: “You f------ called it!” John – who once worked in the Angels ticket office and as a golf pro in Southern California – had moved to Chicago two years ago to work for his good friend’s limo company and watch his son pitch at Wrigley Field. John had told McLeod that Kyle would one day help the Cubs win a championship.

“That was one of the best pitching performances I’ve ever seen,” McLeod said. “Ever.”

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities] 

The media framed Kyle as The Other Pitcher, even though he won the ERA title this season, with all the pregame buzz surrounding Kershaw, the three-time Cy Young Award winner and 2014 NL MVP. Except Kershaw gave up five runs and got knocked out after five innings, while Kyle only gave up two singles to the 23 batters he faced, finishing with six strikeouts against zero walks and looking like he had even more left in the tank at 88 pitches.

“It was incredible,” Ben Zobrist said. “That was the easiest postseason game we’ve had yet and it was the clincher to go to the World Series. 

“He’s just so good, so mature for his age. He just has a knack to put the ball where he needs to. He’s smart and he’s clutch. He deserves to win the Cy Young this year.”

Where Kershaw’s presence loomed over the entire playoffs, Kyle has always been underestimated, coming into this season as a fourth or fifth starter with something to prove, and even he didn’t see all this coming. But big-game pitchers can come in all shapes and sizes and don’t have to throw 97 mph. 

“He wants the ball,” John said. “Every big game – I don’t care if it was Little League or wherever – he wants the ball. Plain and simple, (he’ll) get the job done.”

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