Scowling Sidney Wicks Will Smile . . . When He Wins, 1977

[In late 1976, freelancer Don Kowet landed a plum assignment with SPORT Magazine to profile former UCLA star Sidney Wicks. Kowet, of course, knew that Wicks had had his ups and downs in the NBA. He’d worn out his welcome in Portland and was hoping for a fresh start in his first season with the defending NBA-champion Boston Celtics. 

Kowet’s likely angle for his story: After playing for a losing expansion team in Portland, this UCLA great now has a chance to reclaim his dynastic championship pedigree in Boston. But, as his opening lines suggest, Kowet didn’t hit it off with Wicks. Neither did many reporters . . . or staff in NBA front offices. Wicks’ failure to win friends and influence people would ultimately poison his NBA career and legacy. Want to know more? Then read Kowet’s story, which ran in March 1977.] 

All the Boston Celtics understood the game they were about to play—all except Sidney Wicks. The squad was divided into four three-teams for a game of “21”—a shot-matching game—and 11 of the 12 Celtics were positioned properly, behind the foul line. Not Wicks. The 6-foot-9 forward, his bright red headband a perfect symbol of his mood, angrily grabbed a basketball, took two strides past the foul line, and shot. The ball dropped through the hoop. 

“One-to-zero,” Wicks called out.

“Hey, man,” Charlie Scott yelled, “what you think this is? A dunkin’ contest?” Scott and Jo Jo White and Kevin Stacom, all guards, were the “21” opponents of Wicks, Curtis Rowe, and Steve Kuberski. “You gotta shoot from back here,” Scott insisted, pointing to a spot behind the foul line.

“Who says I gotta shoot from back there?” Wicks said. “The man said ‘twenty-one.’ He didn’t say twenty-one from where.” 

“C’mon, man,” moaned Charlie Scott. “Come on.”

Coach Tommy Heinsohn had been watching from the sideline. He bent down and picked up a roll of tape. Then he walked quickly toward Wicks and Scott. Heinsohn ripped off two strips of tape, one for Wicks’ team, one for Scott’s. He stuck them to the floor side by side, behind the foul line. Sidney Wicks didn’t utter a word. He just glared, smoldering. 

The night before, against Wicks’ former teammates, the Portland Trail Blazers, Sidney had taken only two shots in the entire first half. Heinsohn had lectured him during the intermission. In the second half, Wicks exploded for 13 of his 19 points and pulled in five clutch rebounds (for 14 overall), as the Celtics ended the Blazers’ five-game winning streak. Afterwards, Heinsohn told reporters: “I told Sidney he’d been thinking too much, that’s been his problem ever since he came here. I told him to stop looking to make a pass every time down court. I told him he was in a shooting slump, and the way to end it was to get the ball, come off the goddamn pick, and shoot.”

Another player might have accepted Heinsohn’s appraisal as a compliment, not a criticism. In effect, Heinsohn was saying Wicks wasn’t being selfish enough. But Wicks was seething. He resented the implication that he hadn’t performed adequately since joining the Celtics early in the exhibition season. “I didn’t like Heinsohn’s choice of words,” he said after the practice. “Look, I didn’t go to training camp. I’d never played with a team that runs and runs and runs. I just wasn’t in condition up to now. Overthinking?” he added contemptuously. “That’s just crap.”

UCLA teammates Curtis Rowe and Sidney Wicks (right) re-united on Boston Celtics.

During the three years Sidney Wicks spent on the UCLA campus (he attended junior college for one year), the Bruins won three successive NCAA championships, so Wicks almost never felt anger or frustration. Sidney was, in fact, the team comedian. Whenever winning became too routine, and basketball a drudgery, the kid from the West Los Angeles ghetto would lift the spirits of teammates Henry Bibby and Curtis Rowe and Steve Patterson and John Vallely with his imitation of Midnight Cowboy’s Ratso Rizzo, or of his idol—Butch and Sundance. “He knew by heart all the dialogue between Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid during their flight through South America,” recalls Curtis Rowe, whom the Celtics obtained from the Detroit Pistons earlier this season. “He’d do the whole number, complete with fast draws and facial expressions.”

Henry Bibby, now with the Philadelphia 76ers, remembers how Wicks would trail, at a safe distance, a somber John Wooden through airports, concocting loud but imaginary conversations with the UCLA coach, saying all those things that no teammate ever dared to tell Wooden to his face. Then, before home games at Pauley Pavilion, Wicks and Rowe would put on their breeches and waistcoats and bifocals, and swagger past the Bruin cheering section. Horns would blare. War-whoops would splutter. Once in a while, Wicks or Rowe might even wave at their adorning fans. Or they might not. 

Arrogant. That’s what critics called Sidney Wicks. He had a glare as intimidating as a mugger’s. He was bright (a sociology major, he graduated a quarter ahead of his class), he knew basketball tactics and strategy, and was never reluctant to share that expertise with the Bruin coaching staff. Yet even the critics often succumbed to his charm. Sidney was so handsome, so clever, so loose. And if he was arrogant, who could blame him? For Sidney Wicks was one of the finest forwards ever to play college basketball. 

He proved that, once and for all, in a crucial game in the 1970 NCAA tournament, when coach Wooden shifted him to center and assigned him the formidable task of stopping Jacksonville’s 7-foot-2 Artis Gilmore. Gilmore (now with the Chicago Bulls), was five inches taller than Wicks, who for a time seemed overmatched. He was playing at Gilmore’s side, and Artis was destroying him. Then Wicks moved behind Gilmore. He started outjumping him. He blocked five shots, as Gilmore went on to miss 20 of 29 field goal attempts. UCLA won, and Wicks was voted MVP of the tournament. 

“Sidney,” says John Wooden, “is definitely the fastest, quickest big man I ever coached.”

“Sidney was always a super player,” adds Henry Bibby. “The first time I saw him play, he was a sophomore and I was a freshman. I was impressed by his strength and the way he moved. After playing with him for a couple of years, I knew he’d have no trouble playing in the NBA.”

After Wicks graduated from UCLA in 1971, he signed with the expansion Trail Blazers for $1.5 million over five years. When he first reported to the team, he was as loose as he had been in college, joking, talking to himself in the chow line, and singing to himself in the shower. But on the court, things were very different and, before he realized it, Wicks was caught up in the chaos of a losing team.

In Portland’s first two games in 1971-72, Wicks scored nine baskets in 45 attempts, against Seattle and Milwaukee. Larry Costello, the Bucks’ coach, said, “Wicks is great around the basket and is unbelievably quick. But the guy has no outside shot.”

Wicks didn’t respond with words. The next time Portland played Milwaukee, he took 11 shots from farther than 20 feet. He converted eight of them. He scored 30 points. “Okay,” said Costello, conceding the obvious, “so Wicks can shoot from long distance.”

However, there were critics Sidney couldn’t silence with a basketball. That first year, he was disturbed by comparisons between himself and another rookie, 6-foot-11 Elmore Smith of Buffalo. Once Cleveland’s Austin Carr was sidelined with injuries, Smith became Sidney’s chief rival for Rookie of the Year. One night, Hot Rod Hundley, the ex-Laker and then-Phoenix Suns broadcaster, suggested over the air that Portland had made a mistake drafting Wicks instead of Smith. Hundley cited then Chicago Bulls’ coach Dick Motta’s theory that only giant centers could turn losing franchises into winners. 

Wicks himself went on the air in a postgame show in Chicago. “We were losing regularly,” he recalls now, “and by about 25 points a game. I said people shouldn’t be worrying about Portland drafting me. The only problem with us was we weren’t playing together. I said ‘we,’ meaning all of us.”

Then he said, “There are too many guys out there playing for themselves—guys standing around with their heads down, not looking for the other guys.”

“Well,” Wicks says now, “the next day Geoff Petrie was quoted in all the papers as saying, ‘Sidney should look to his own game, instead of worrying about everyone else’s.’ He thought I was talking about him.”

The tension between Wicks and Petrie had been building all season. Petrie, the ex-Princeton guard, had been the NBA’s co-Rookie of the Year (along with the Celtics’ Dave Cowens) in 1970-71. In 1971-72, that honor would go to Sidney Wicks. Petrie was a scorer. He was Portland’s offense before Wicks arrived. But that first season with the Blazers, Sidney replaced Petrie as the team’s top scorer, averaging 24.5 points per game. 

However, Portland managed to win only 18 games all year—11 fewer than the previous season. In 1972-73, Petrie’s average of 24.9 points per game was good enough to regain the team scoring title for him, as he edged out Sidney’s 23.8 average, but Portland won only 21 games, and the fans who had expected Wicks to turn the Blazers into an immediate contender were disappointed.

By the end of his second NBA season, Sidney Wicks was starting to feel angry, to feel frustrated. One thing playing basketball at UCLA has never taught him was how to lose. 

“They said I had a bad attitude,” he says now. “Well, I was on a losing team, and I’d considered myself a winning player . . . and I just didn’t like losing. I thought every ballplayer on that team should hate losing, too.”

Wicks was still angry and frustrated when the Blazers toured Israel during this summer after his second season. One day the team went on a sightseeing tour that ended on a beach on the Sea of Galilee and some of the players, including Wicks, decided to go for a swim. 

Sidney was the best swimmer, so he ventured out farther than the rest. “I was doing fine,” he recalls, “when suddenly I got this pain in my leg—a leg cramp. It hurt like hell, so I started heading for the shore, when my right arm cramped up, too.” 

Wicks was paralyzed. He struggled to stay afloat. He began shouting desperately for help. “The tour chauffeur was swimming right nearby,” Wicks remembers, “but when he saw me thrashing around, he just started laughing. I’d been doing so much clowning all day, he thought, ‘Old Sidney’s just trying to put everyone on again.’” 

Sidney began to sink, he was ready to panic . . . when suddenly a pair of strong hands grabbed him by the shoulders, flipped him over on his back, and began towing him toward the shore. Sidney was spitting water, he was almost doubled over with pain, but finally he managed to twist his head enough to glimpse his savior. 

“So, who stands around with his head down, not looking for the other guys?” said Geoff Petrie, grinning.   

Today, although Wicks readily admits Petrie saved his life, he says, “Shoot, man, there were a whole lot of guys swimming toward me. If Petrie hadn’t gotten to me, someone else would have.”

Over the next three seasons, the situation never improved in Portland. Wicks played in two All-Star games, averaged 22.3 points per game, and more than 10 rebounds per game, but the Blazers kept losing more games every week than UCLA had any year. In 1973-74, the Blazers won only 27 games, and Petrie again won the team scoring title, an accomplishment which certainly didn’t endear him to Wicks. 

Then in 1974, to accentuate the friction between Wicks and Petrie, Bill Walton came to the Blazers from UCLA. Wicks immediately befriended the towering redhead from his alma mater who wore lumberjack clothes and ate exotic foods. Petrie was les fond of “Captain Flake.” Worse, even with Walton (or, without him, as was more often the case, due to his injuries), the Blazers could not get over .500, winning only 38 games in 1974-75 and 37 in 1975-76. “Portland,” Sidney Wicks was fond of telling friends, “is a passive verb.”

The current season, 1976-77, was Sidney Wicks’ option year. The Portland management knew he would be gone by next season, so they decided to sell him while they still had his body to barter. After trading Petrie to the Atlanta Hawks, they tried to ship Wicks to New Orleans, but he refused to sign with the Jazz, voiding the deal. Some say he didn’t sign because his wife hated New Orleans. Wicks says, ”My wife it doesn’t tell me where to play basketball. She’s my wife, she goes where I go, and that’s that.” Others say Wicks didn’t want New Orleans because the Jazz had both a losing record and a guard named Pete Maravich, whose run-and-gun style reminded Wicks of Petrie. 

Tommy Heinsohn has another explanation. “Wicks went to Portland and spent a few years there and never came away with anything,” he says. “I think it’s understandable that if he didn’t like losing in Portland, he wouldn’t like it in New Orleans.”

In any case, his decision did bruise egos. “Sidney Wicks thinks he’s a superstar,” says New Orleans executive vice president Barry Mendelsohn, “but as far as I’m concerned, he’s not half the player Pete Maravich is, or the human being any player on the New Orleans team is.”

The truth was, though, a lot of NBA general managers and coaches did think Wicks was a superstar. Bill Russell wanted Wicks in Seattle. Wayne Embry wanted Wicks in Milwaukee. Red Holzman wanted Wicks in New York. They all offered enormous sums of money. Then Red Auerbach, the Celtic GM, made Wicks an offer the others couldn’t match, and Sidney couldn’t refuse: The chance to play with the reigning champions.

At the time, early in the exhibition season, the Celtics were still trying to sign forward Paul Silas, who was holding out for more money. If Boston did convince Silas to sign, with Wicks and Havlicek in the corners, Dave Cowens in the middle, and Charlie Scott and Jo Jo White in the backcourt, Silas would revert to his “sixth man” role, filling the vacuum created by Don Nelson’s retirement. And if Silas didn’t sign—well, Wicks was two inches taller, five pounds heavier (225), six years younger, and a much better scorer.   

Nor were the Celtics put off by Wicks’ alleged “attitude.” “I used to go after guys like Wicks, guys who had played for winning teams in college, places like Kentucky,” Red Auerbach said when he revealed that the Celtics had purchased Wicks for cash. “Ramsey, Loscutoff, Tsioropoulos—they knew what it was to win. Well, Wicks knows what it is to win. I know he’ll pay the price.”

Wicks, too, was optimistic. “Look,” he said, “I’m just relieved to be with a winner again.”

And then the controversy that had blown around him throughout his years in Portland swirled into Boston. The Celtics never did sign Paul Silas, who went to Denver instead. John Havlicek hurt his knee. Then, less than a month after Sidney Wicks first put on a Celtic uniform, Dave Cowens took his off. He had lost his enthusiasm for the game, he said, announcing his retirement. Others say it wasn’t only his enthusiasm for the game that had evaporated, but his affection for the Celtics’ management, who had brought Sidney Wicks to Boston—thereby making Paul Silas, Cowens’ buddy, expendable. 

By the start of 1977, Sidney Wicks was starring in an all-too familiar scenario: He was the central prop, on defense and offense, of a team that was faring far worse than anyone could have predicted. The world-champion Celtics were in third place in the Atlantic Division, behind Philadelphia and the Knicks. The Celtics had won only one more game than they had lost. And Sidney Wicks was averaging only 16 points per game—about six less than his career average. Even being reunited with Curtis Rowe, his friend and ex-teammate at UCLA, couldn’t relieve his frustration for long. He had traveled across the country to play with the NBA champions. And now, without Dave Cowens, it seemed entirely possible that the Celtics would finish the season as NBA also-rans. Ironically, Portland was leading its division—and the irony was not lost on Wicks. 

“We’re a good team without Cowens,” he said, “but not good enough. Hell,” he added bitterly, “Big Red’s got his championship ring, he can quit if he wants to. I want mine.”

P.S.: Early in January, Cowens abruptly rejoined the Celtics, perhaps giving Wicks a shot at that ring after all. 

P.S.S.: Maybe not. The 1976-77 Celtics ended the season 44-38, second best in the Atlantic Division. After breezing past San Antonio in an opening-round Eastern Conference playoff mini-series, the Celtics lost in seven games to Philadelphia. The 76ers would lose in the NBA finals to   . . . Portland. Oh, the irony.

P.S.S.S.: In October 1977, the Los Angeles Times ran a story with the headline, “Wicks Waits as NBA Fails to Telephone.” Sidney opted for free agency but was asking for a bundle. The article started with these unfriendly quotes: 

“Sidney Wicks is the most disruptive influence to ever walk into Boston Garden,” Bob Ryan, Boston Globe.

“He is arrogant and fully convinced of his so-called super-stardom,” Jeff Cohen, Boston Celtics’ publicist.

By mid-October, Wicks signed a five-year, $1 million contract with Boston in Tom Heinsohn’s hotel room the day before the season opener. The last-minute deal left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. By December, Boston Globe columnist Ray Fitzgerald had this to say about Wicks. “Let’s this morning, clap and cheer and stomp our feet for Sidney Wicks of the Boston Celtics. Wicks, through prolonged ineptness, devotion to sloppy work and sheer inertia, has made the big breakthrough. He’s reached the innermost circle in Boston sports and been accepted on the list of fan and media punching bags.”

At the end of the disastrous 1977-78 season, Wicks was traded with the Boston franchise that became the  Los Angeles Clippers (remember that crazy franchise swap?). Wicks blamed the Boston media for his rough stay in Beantown, particularly the Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan, whom he despised. In December 1978, Ryan accompanied the Celtics on a West Coast trip and (blithely or perhaps provokingly) stepped into the Clippers’ locker room. Wicks immediately bellowed, “There’s gonna be a murder in here; there’s gonna be a murder in here.” Wicks approached Ryan. “Get your ass out of here.”  Ryan pivoted toward the door and sarcastically blurted out, “Are you finished? Got it all out?” Wicks charged, but a teammate restrained him from throwing a haymaker.

When Ryan returned to Boston, he wrote of Wicks’ blame-it-on-the-media argument, “The fact is that Sidney did that all by himself. We just stated the obvious . . . I’d say one of the blessings for which Celtic fans can be thankful is that Sidney Wicks is 3,000 miles away.”

In Ryan’s 2014 autobiography, Scribe, he doesn’t mention Wicks. He must have gotten it all out long ago. 

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