SPRINGFIELD — Mark Price was a dead-eye shooter who won two 3-point shootouts. Craig Hodges won three of them, and was such a great shooter, the NBA invited him to participate in one contest when he wasn’t even on an NBA roster.
In 1989, Jack Sikma took more 3′s than either of them.
Sikma, who will be enshrined into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame tomorrow night, was a stretch big before we figured out what to call tall guys who could shoot.
“Jack was an inside player who could shoot mid-range jumpers most of his career and then when the 3-point line came, he found out that he could shoot with range too,” said fellow inductee Paul Westphal. “He’s really a player that showed a center could be a legitimate threat out there.”
Evolution is slow. Sikma is the fish walking on land, and 1989 feels like 400 million years ago in NBA time. There is a straight line from Sikma to today’s five-out offense, even if people don’t readily make that connection. In fact, Sikma won’t even do it.
“Spacing is the new way to play, that means you have to be able to shoot it with range,” he said today. “I don’t know what place I have in that whole process, but definitely the concept was there my last few years in Milwaukee.”
Sikma, like many bigs who work their way out to the perimeter, was a late bloomer in terms of ability and height. He learned the game as a wing, and only became a post player because that’s where tall players had to play in the mid-1970′s.
He wasn’t the prototypical center, though. Back then, a center was the brontosaurus. A center was giant and slow, relying on strength and maybe a few choreographed moves that helped him launch shots a few inches closer to the basket.
Sikma wanted no part of that life. He was a 6′11″, 195 pound kid at Illinois Wesleyan University whose coach challenged him to be a better post player. He needed something that worked for him. So they experimented.
“He had a friend who suggested ‘hey down in Southern Illinois there are some coaches to do an inside pivot with their guys to pivot and face the hoop and I think it might be able to create a little space for Jack,’” he recalled. “I was really thin, I just wanted to get dislodged from the defender. I wanted to create some space.”
After perfecting the footwork and working in a higher release point, Sikma not only had a move, he had his signature move. The reverse pivot became the “Sikma move,” elegant in its simplicity but deadly in its execution. It quickly created feet of space which, coupled with his high release, made for an impossible-to-challenge shot. If a defender tried to close the gap, Sikma could take a dribble and get to the rim. If a defender tried too hard to challenge, he’d get to the line, where he once led the league and shot 85 percent for his career.
“If you’re going to turn and face and shoot a 12-foot shot as kind of the bread and butter of your game, you, from an efficiency standpoint, are probably only going to hit 50 percent if you’re shooting it well,” Sikma said. “But if I could get three or four guys to foul me in the act of shooting, and if I could get to the foul line and make seven out of the eight shots, then all of a sudden my efficiency gets better and I could get away with playing the game that way.”
There’s nothing glamorous about this move. It’s not Hakeem Olajuwon’s Dream Shake or James Harden’s step-back 3 by any stretch of the imagination. What it was, though, was a mold-breaking concept that changed what centers could be. In an era where the goal was to get closer to the basket at all costs, Sikma proved that moving a little further away was ok if you had the skills to make it work.
Facing up was a sin for centers in Sikma’s days, which might be tough for fans today to comprehend. What’s common now was uncommon then.
It’s been said that necessity is the mother of invention. It’s true of Sikma, who didn’t set out to revolutionize anything in basketball. He just wanted to be better at it.
“I was a skinny, decent-shooting big man and found a move that fit my skill,” he said. “Today, a lot of post guys, because of the lever (allowing a defender to put a forearm on a post player’s back) and so forth, there’s a big advantage of facing up because the guy can’t put his hands on you anywhere. I’m not saying they go to the Sikma move where they pivot with the ball over their head ready to shoot, but guys turn and face and unlock their defender all the time.”
Sikma might have been more suited for the modern era of basketball, but he won’t entertain those thoughts much. He won’t even say he was a square peg trying to fit into the round hole of the position’s heyday. Sikma is just appreciative of the recognition for something that many people may not fully appreciate.
“I played against so many good centers,” he said. “I think with Vlade (Divac, who is also being inducted this weekend) here, he’s the 15th Hall of Fame center that I played against. So it’s a great time period for me to play and the fact that I’m recognized here is a cherry on top.”