Sidney Wicks: Simply Awesome, 1974

[If you grew up in the 1960s or 1970s dreaming of playing basketball somewhere-someday, you probably remember the slender paperbacks published each year celebrating the game’s top stars. They usually ran you a buck, often less. 

Fifty years some odd years later, my memory of these Greatest Stars paperbacks (pocket books, I think they were called) is they were heavy on the fluff and short on the details. Boy, was I wrong. I pulled a copy of Pro Basketball Superstars off my bookshelf, where it has been collecting dust for at least two decades, and was pleasantly surprised with the content. The player profiles in this 1974 paperback were assembled by tip-top wire service reporters Bert Rosenthal and Bruce Lowitt. Most impressive of all is their sourcing. They definitely knew their way around an NBA and ABA locker room.

The first of several profiles that I’ll pull from the dust is of Sidney Wicks, then trying to turn things around in expansion Portland. Today, we tend to remember Wicks for his less-productive seasons in Boston and Los Angeles. That’s a shame. In his early NBA years, Wicks was feared by his contemporaries. This article explains why in great detail and from some of the best sources available.]

Sidney Wicks, the Portland Trail Blazers’ cat-quick forward, has deep, penetrating eyes and likes to use them to scare opposing players. When Wicks walks onto the court before a game sporting his menacing glare, many opposing players have taken a quick look and backed off politely. 

“I try to turn that glare on as much as possible,” said Wicks. “A lot of cats want to come out and beat you. I want to put the game away as soon as possible. I don’t like playing in those close ones.”

But Wicks isn’t always very serious; after we talked about his famed glare, a smile crossed his face and he added: “You have to be loose. A lot of people in the world take things too seriously today.”

So, which is the true Sidney Wicks?

Offcourt, the 6-foot-9 former UCLA All-American is as loose and easy as he suggests. But once involved in a game, his disposition changes, and he acts mean and hungry. He can score, rebound, pass, dribble, shoot, and play defense well, making him one of the finest all-around players in the National Basketball Association. Perhaps he is better than many players his size because of his speed. 

“He is simply amazing,” said coach Bob Boyd of the University of Southern California, whose teams were beaten consistently by Wicks’ UCLA clubs. “I’ve never seen anyone that big move so well.”

The powerful 225-pound Wicks dazzled Boyd and the Trojans often by being in the middle of a UCLA fastbreak, speeding past the defender at the top of the key, and swooping in for an easy layup. He has bewildered NBA rivals in the same manner. “It’s not really enough to describe him as being quick,” said Fred Schaus, former coach and general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers. “Although when you stop and think about it, you can’t remember anybody his size any quicker.”

John Wooden, the great UCLA coach, can’t remember anyone being that quick, either. “Sidney is the fastest, quickest big man I ever coached,” said Wooden. 

“He’s lightning-quick,” said Greg Smith, formerly with the Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets before becoming Wicks’ teammate at Portland during the 1972-73 season. “When he’s in motion, he is impossible to stop, just like a meteor hurtling through space. Your only hope is to catch him standing still before he makes his move.” 

“He’s the quickest big man in the league,” said the New York Knicks’ Dave DeBusschere, chosen for the NBA’s All-Defensive team in each of the past five seasons. “He’ll beat you to the basket if you let him. You either must stay on him close and keep him from getting the ball, or else drop back and keep him from driving to the basket.”

DeBusschere’s teammate, Jerry Lucas, also is aware of Wicks’ offensive power. “You can’t let him get that first step on you,” explained Lucas. “If he ever catches you coming toward him when he has the ball, you can forget it. The best way to play him is to stay back, protect the baselines and give him the outside shot.”

Los Angeles’ Bill Bridges also finds it frustrating trying to stop the awesome Wicks. “I’d rather guard any forward in the league than Sidney,” said Bridges. “He’s the quickest forward in the game, and he can shoot from outside, so you have to play him honest. But you can’t win playing him honest.”

Bridges remembered that two seasons ago, in Wicks’ rookie year, he was feeling chipper on the day of a game, until he realized he would have to play against the Portland star that night. Then his mood changed. “Why don’t you belt him a couple of times?” Bridges was asked. 

“I’ve thought about it,” Bridges quipped, “but I haven’t gotten close enough to him in three games to get in any licks at all.”

Tom Sanders, considered for years one of the best defensive forwards in the NBA before retiring from the Boston Celtics after the 1972-73 season, admitted he found Wicks almost unstoppable. “He’s got everything going for him—size, quickness, a good outside shot, good judgment, good moves, and confidence,” said Sanders. “Confidence is the key thing. He knows he can beat you, so he does it.”

John Havlicek, the Celtics’ captain and high scorer, agreed with Sanders. “He was good the first time I saw him,” said Havlicek, “and he’s much better now. He’s a very smart player, and he’s unselfish.”

“Smart” and “unselfish” are surprising choices of words because they have not always been associated with Wicks. After graduating from Hamilton High School in Los Angeles, where he had become the team’s starting center when he was only 14 years old, he wanted to attend UCLA. But he couldn’t get in as a freshman because of his low grades. So, he spent one year at Santa Monica City College, where he was the Metropolitan Conference’s most valuable player. More importantly, his grades were good enough to qualify for UCLA. 

When he arrived at UCLA, Wicks found himself in a most unusual position—a second-stringer. It was a shattering and humbling experience for someone who had been used to being the best. “That was a difficult period,” said Sidney. “I was used to playing. And then, when I got a chance, I started pressing. I tried too hard and made too many mistakes.”

His scoring average was only 7.5 points per game as a sophomore. But as a junior, he made the starting lineup the first day of practice and remained there for the next two seasons. “When he arrived here,” said Wooden, “he wasn’t playing under control. Although he always made things happen when we put him in for a while, not all of them were good.”

But under Wooden’s careful and patient guidance, Wicks began to harness his talent. He reached a peak in the NCAA championship game against Jacksonville University at College Park, Maryland, at the end of his junior season. He not only outplayed, but even embarrassed Jacksonville’s 7-foot-2 giant Artis Gilmore. Shifted to center for this one crucial game, Wicks. despite giving away five inches in height to Gilmore, blocked five of Artis’ shots and rattled him so much that the towering Jacksonville pivot man missed 20 of 29 field goal attempts. Wicks outscored and outrebounded Gilmore, helping UCLA win its sixth national championship in seven years and earning for himself the tourney’s Most Valuable Player award. 

“Sidney has as much ability for his size as anyone I’ve ever coached,” said Wooden, a man usually limited with his praise. “He hasn’t reached his full potential yet, but he’s coming fast now. Nothing he does from here on will surprise me.”

In his senior year, Wicks led UCLA to another NCAA title, then was drafted No. 1 by the Trail Blazers, and signed to a multi-year contract. During his first NBA season, he suffered frustrations which he had never endured before. “It was a bad trip,” he said. “It was humiliating. It was hell.”

Wicks had gone to Portland with a reputation for winning. But the Trail Blazers finished in last place in the Pacific Division with a miserable 29-53 record. There were times when Wicks admittedly didn’t try hard when Portland was being soundly beaten. And there was friction between him and guard Geoff Petrie, the team’s other high scorer. 

Wicks, angered because the team couldn’t win consistently, charged his teammates with “playing as individuals, not as a team, and it stinks.” He didn’t mention any names, but Petrie took it as a personal rap and said, “I’m sure he’s talking about me, because a couple of times when I shot, I saw him shake his head as if he should have had the ball. 

“Sidney is just as guilty as anybody on the club,” continued Petrie. “He probably leads the league in shots attempted.”

Wicks didn’t lead the league and shots attempted, but he did finish fifth with 1,837. He also wound up seventh in field goals made (784), 12th in scoring average (24.5), eighth in total points (2,009), 16th in rebounds (943, an 11.5 average), 13th in free throws made (441), 22nd in assists (350, a 4.3 average), and ninth in minutes played (3,245). Putting it all together, he was the league’s outstanding rookie and was so honored. 

Although Wicks naturally was pleased at winning the rookie award, he was far from satisfied with Portland’s record and some of his own performances. “I still have a lot of things to learn,” he said. “But I learn a little more every time I play. I have to show more consistency and think more about passing off instead of forcing shots. I also have to learn better self-control on the court. I tend to get upset or excited at certain things, then I lose myself. If I don’t keep my head, I’m not going to help this team.”

Last season, Wicks and Petrie solved their rift, the team had more unity, a more-controlled and patterned offense, and a tighter defense. But the record was worse—21-61—and Portland again finished in last place in the Pacific Division. Wicks’ scoring and rebounding figures dipped only slightly (23.8 points per game and 870 rebounds), but he led the club in assists with 440. 

“However, that’s all in the past,” said Wicks. “I want to talk about the future.”

The future indeed is bright for Wicks. “He’s one of the best already,” said DeBusschere, a good judge of talent who formerly coached the Detroit Pistons. “And he’s getting better all the time. He’s shooting better and becoming more aware of defenses. He can be one of the really great forwards in the NBA.”

“He’s an explosive player with all the skills and soundness of a guard, and intimidation quality of a center, and a good head for the game,” said Elgin Baylor, formerly of Los Angeles and one of the game’s all-time great forwards. 

“Wicks does a lot of things accidentally that other players can’t do on purpose,” observed Cleveland coach Bill Fitch. 

“Sidney is not a center, a forward, or a guard—he’s just an all-around player,” said Neil Johnston, a former NBA scoring champion and Portland’s assistant coach. “I think he can be the finest all-around player to play the game. I really mean that, and I’m not given to overstatement. In my view, he is not that far away right now.”

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