BLOOMINGTON — As in the mid-1970s, the big man on campus at Illinois Wesleyan on Wednesday was Jack Sikma.
The 6-foot-11 basketball legend was visiting ahead of Thursday’s 7 p.m. speech at the Bloomington-Normal YMCA's Legacy Dinner at Bloomington Country Club.
As the 63-year-old strode across campus, a flood of memories returned.
“I made so many lifelong friends here so it’s always a treat to get back and tell some war stories,” he said. “Some are true and some are not.”
The improbable story of Sikma’s ascent from late-blooming farm boy to seven-time NBA all-star bound for induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in September, is true.
Already a member of several other halls of fame, Sikma wouldn't be in the Small College Basketball Hall of Fame without Wesleyan. He concedes it would “be a little tougher” for a player of his ability to pick an NCAA Division III school nowadays.
“I was able to afford it,” he said. “At a Division III school, you’ve got to pay your own way. (IWU) worked for me and it fit for me in my time frame.”
If Sikma were in college today, he says he'd still play all four years because he was not physically ready for the NBA prior to graduation in 1977.
“I was fortunate,” he said. “I put on about 25 pounds through my senior year and the summer before I went to play for the (Seattle SuperSonics as the No. 8 draft choice). I needed that.”
Sikma takes pride is seeing variations of his “Sikma” move still in use in the NBA. The drop step reverse pivot maneuver away from the basket involved raising the ball behind his head for a shot released beyond the reach of blockers.
It helped him score an IWU record 2,272 career points and then 17,287 more during a 14-year NBA career.
“The face-up game has become an even bigger part of basketball and the NBA,” Sikma says. “You see it a lot in the women’s game, too. If you’re a good shooter and you’re big, face up and make (defenders) make a decision. Put pressure on them right away.”
After his playing career, Sikma served as an assistant coach for Seattle, Houston and Minnesota. This past season, he was a consultant for the NBA champion Toronto Raptors, primarily mentoring post players.
“The young guys I work with respond to it,” he said. “They trust me so it’s good.”
Sikma believes Toronto’s team chemistry is similar to what his 1979 NBA champion Sonics had.
“By the time we got to the playoffs, we had a good mix of some young players who had to step up (and) we had a mixture of veterans,” said Sikma, who doesn’t know yet if he’ll return next season.
“If not, it’s been a great experience. Maybe there is some other place I fit in. I’d like to stay connected to the game.”
Sikma’s friends and family were thrilled by his Hall of Fame selection.
“I’ve had a number of people reach out to me,” he said. “Really what it does is make you go back in time because there’s usually a specific segment in your life when these people had the most impact. Then you start to realize just how many people touched you along the way. It’s humbling a little bit, just how many people impact your life.”
The impact good people have on youngsters is something Sikma plans to address in Thursday’s speech.
“I think it’s important to surround yourself with people who have your best interests in mind,” he said. “For young people, sometimes they get pulled in directions that aren’t very helpful. It’s important to understand who’s helping you and who’s not.”
Sikma said his Hall of Fame speech won't omit those who helped him, especially former IWU coach Dennie Bridges.
“He had a huge impact on my life and basketball career," Sikma said.
Sikma and his wife, Shawn, built their life in Seattle where they still reside. Their oldest son, Jacob, is a computer coder. Middle son Luke plays pro basketball in Berlin. Youngest son Luke, a former Hartford college player, works for a wealth management firm.
Sikma's athletic career will briefly resume at Saturday's 1:20 p.m. Chicago Cubs game against the New York Mets when he throws out the ceremonial first pitch at Wrigley Field.
National anthem singer Wayne Messmer, a 1972 IWU grad, will share the spotlight, but there'll be no mistaking who's the big man on the mound.