Until Friday night, it never dawned on me how closely Basketball Hall of Fame speeches tend to mirror the inductees.
Ralph Sampson's speech was ... long, just like the player, whose legs, torso and arms seemed to go on forever. Don Nelson's speech was appropriately unorthodox, concluding with out-of-nowhere references to making watches and bicycles, and an invitation to join him for coffee in Maui.
Jamaal Wilkes' speech was notable for its tempo. He clocked in at just more than five minutes, about one-third of the time Sampson took. He kept a crisp pace. Wilkes used a couple of sentences to describe each of his presenters -- Bill Walton, Rick Barry, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson. Wilkes thanked his family and his coaches, and even managed to thank the PR guys and a sports writer. He quoted his coach at UCLA, John Wooden, a reminder to "make each day your masterpiece," and then he was done. Get up, talk, get off the stage. Tempo.
It didn't feel rushed, just efficient. What Wilkes understood better than anyone else was the use of time and space.
Something Johnson said 30 years ago has always stuck with me. He said Wilkes played at a different beat than everyone else in the NBA. That explained why he was always so open. It explained how he could blow by people even though he wasn't the fastest player on the court. How he could get off that shot against the best defenders in the world even though he took so long to wind it up.
How important is a different beat? Well, James Brown funkified music by insisting his band play "on the one" -- emphasizing the first beat rather than the customary second. That subtle difference made his songs impossible not to groove to. (Here's a video of Bootsy Collins explaining how Brown explained the concept to him. It might be the best thing you see all day. Definitely the funkiest.)
In the NBA, when everyone else tapped their feet to a 1-2-3, 1-2-3 beat, Wilkes would go 1 ... 2. He found a way to slip between the beats, and it proved to be completely disruptive, just as effective as the ultimate beat shifter, the crossover dribble. The crossover brings the rhythm to a complete stop. It makes fans go, "Ooooooh!" Wilkes simply made fans scratch their heads and say, "How did that happen?"
At least once a game, Wilkes would be open right in front of the basket, Magic would zip a pass to him and Wilkes had a layup. The layups were another thing that set Wilkes apart. Amid the Showtime Lakers' high-flying finishers such as Michael Cooper and James Worthy, you could count on Wilkes simply depositing the ball in the hoop.
That's another reason Wilkes slipped through NBA memories. The passes from Magic were usually more dazzling than the shots by Wilkes. Wilkes' play didn't do anything to draw attention to himself. He was just ... there. You noticed him only after he'd accomplished his goal, never before. He didn't taunt his opponents. He pointed fingers at teammates only to acknowledge a pass, never to accuse them.
Maybe we should judge him by the company he kept. He played with the four Hall of Famers who stood behind him on the stage. Won championships with all of them, too. He was coached by the likes of Wooden, Pat Riley and Al Attles. In a video, Walton noted in his own whimsical way that championships always seemed to follow Wilkes around, from college to the pros. It can't be coincidence that greatness was always around Wilkes. Or that Wilkes was always around greatness.
There was greatness within him ... as long as you recognized the beat. His, not yours.