Fire

Sikma eyes NBA job, Hall of Fame

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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.

As Fire's offseason activity picks up, GM Nelson Rodriguez says more improvement is needed

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USA TODAY

As Fire's offseason activity picks up, GM Nelson Rodriguez says more improvement is needed

General manager Nelson Rodriguez has taken his time this offseason, but things have been picked up in the past week and will continue to do so with the draft taking place on Friday.

Rodriguez spoke with reporters on a conference call a day after Bastian Schweinsteiger’s return became official and just hours after Jorge Bava’s exit and the Cam Lindley trade were announced as expected. Those topics and plenty more were discussed serving as a state of the team with offseason activity ramping up.

First off, the big news remains Schweinsteiger’s return. Rodriguez would not disclose the German’s salary, but did say that there is no option for a second year on the contract. The two sides would have to renegotiate just like they did this winter for him to return in 2019.

“Both parties were keenly interested in continuing the relationship so I think that made things a lot easier,” Rodriguez said. “There are always some little details that need to be worked out and I think that’s what prolonged the discussions, but I believe both parties felt reasonably confident that we would continue together.”

Elsewhere, the finalization of the Lindley trade allowed Rodriguez to discuss some of the details of the breakdown in negotiations with the homegrown prospect. The Fire sent the rights to Lindley to Orlando for Rafa Ramos and $100,000 in Targeted Allocation Money (broken down as $50,000 in both 2018 and 2019). Lindley signed a four-year contract with Orlando.

The Fire approached Lindley last winter, but he returned to North Carolina for his sophomore season.

“When we spoke this year, Cameron indicated that he would prefer to start his career outside of Chicago and so we were able to fulfill that wish for him, but in the process we thought we did very well for ourselves in acquiring a very talented, young player with professional experience and then on top of that getting allocation money, which can serve us,” Rodriguez said. “I think it’s an instance where it’s a win-win for Orlando and for us.”

Ramos, 23, will likely be the backup to both Matt Polster and Brandon Vincent. Lindley is a 20-year-old central midfielder who could have provided depth behind Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty this year.

When asked why Lindley didn’t want to sign with the Fire, Rodriguez said he didn’t ask Lindley.

“I’m only concerned with players who are in our locker room and want to play for us,” Rodriguez said.

Bava’s exit was under different circumstances. The 36-year-old goalkeeper expressed a desire to return to his home country of Uruguay, which he was able to do by landing with Liverpool FC Montevideo. The Fire and Bava mutually agreed to terminate his contract.

“He came to us and let us know that he had a playing opportunity,” Rodriguez said. “I think the second part of it is that we indicated to Jorge that we were very comfortable with Matt (Lampson) and Richard (Sanchez) and that it was going to be difficult for him to unseat one or both of those guys.”

Those moves put the Fire’s roster at 21 heading into Friday’s draft. The first two rounds will take place in Philadelphia starting at 10 a.m. The Fire have the 15th and 38th picks.

Rodriguez said the Fire’s draft is very different this year after having the top pick in 2016 and the third pick in 2017. The Fire traded both of those picks.

“With the first pick and the third pick, teams generally come to you,” Rodriguez said. “My experience is that there are several teams going for the clubs that hold those top three spots now so it’s almost flipped in that if we want to be active, no one is looking to move up to 15.

“I wouldn’t discount our making a trade because we have had conversations, admittedly all with teams ahead of us in the draft, no one below us in the draft. But some of that may be dependant upon how the draft actually goes. Usually you lock in on one or two players, you don’t want to necessarily trade up without knowing either or both of those players might be available. It might be a situation that occurs during the draft as opposed to prior to the draft.”

As for other potential additions, Rodriguez didn’t say much. He wouldn’t comment on the continuing Juan Quintero rumors and reports. The news is seemingly going in both directions on that front.

Rodriguez did comment on a potential return for Juninho, the Brazilian midfielder who was on loan with the Fire last season. Mexican club Tijuana holds his rights after the loan expired.

“We told Juni and his agent that we were not going to offer a transfer to acquire his services, but if he could extricate himself from that contract, we would be interested in having him return to the club,” Rodriguez said.

When asked what he believes the roster still needs, Rodriguez said “across all our lines,” even mentioning goalkeeper as part of that. At this point most additions will be for depth, but Rodriguez mentioned the need to replace midfielder Djordje Mihailovic and forward Michael de Leeuw, both of which suffered torn ACLs last in the 2017 season. Rodriguez said they are hoping for those players to return from injury in July or August, but obviously things can change as they continue to rehab.

Meet the Prospects: Zack Collins

Meet the Prospects: Zack Collins

The White Sox rebuild is in full swing. While it might still be a year or two before the big league team is expected to start competing for championships, the minor leagues are stocked with highly touted talent fans will be eagerly following in 2018. With that in mind, it's time to Meet the Prospects and get to know the future of the South Side.

Zack Collins

Collins, the 22-year-old catcher, has been projected as the White Sox catcher of the future since he was selected with the 10th overall pick in the 2016 draft.

A Florida native and University of Miami product, Collins initially was celebrated for his batting prowess and faced questions about his defensive abilities, only to improve with the glove in 2017 while he watched some offensive numbers slip a bit.

After joining the White Sox organization in 2016, Collins slashed .258/.418/.467 with six homers and 18 RBIs in 36 games at Class A Winston-Salem. In 2017, he played 101 more games at Winston-Salem, slashing .223/.365/.443 with 17 homers and 48 RBIs. He also played a dozen games at Double-A Birmingham, where he added a couple more homers and five more RBIs.

This offseason's signing of Welington Castillo installs a veteran backstop for two or three seasons at the big league level, meaning there's no rush for Collins to get to the majors.

As of their most recent rankings, MLB Pipeline had Collins rated as the No. 7 prospect in the White Sox organization.

Get to know Collins in the video above.