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.