The Trail Blazers’ 50-year anniversary season is temporarily on pause as the NBA goes on hiatus to slow the spread of COVID-19. During that break, Blazer’s Edge is counting down the top 100 Blazers: players, executives, and other influencers who made the franchise what it is today.
No. 21 | Sidney Wicks
Games Played with Blazers: 398 Regular Season, 0 Postseason
*PTS: 22.3 | REB: 10.3 | OREB: 2.8 | FG%: 46.0%
*Statistics are pulled from a player’s time in Portland
Joined Club: March 1971, second overall selection in the 1971 NBA Draft
Departed Club: October 1976, traded to the Boston Celtics for cash
Place in History: If you’re familiar with the history of the Portland Trail Blazers prior to 1977, you’re already familiar with the company line on Sidney Wicks. For those less immersed in the early years of the franchise, all you need to know is this: Wicks was the inaugural Trail Blazers villain, the original scapegoat, the first guy we were supposed to hate.
After being selected with the second overall pick of the 1971 NBA Draft, the hugely-talented forward was tabbed with all kinds of labels from within his own organization. “Selfish” and “underachiever” were among the more prominent. He was cast opposite Geoff Petrie, who was revered as the organization’s first big star. The two reportedly didn’t get along, and Wicks had run-ins with a couple of his early coaches.
The Wicks-as-villain narrative was chronicled in David Halberstam’s “The Breaks of the Game”, recounting the Trail Blazers’ 1979-80 season and their growth from expansion team to championship-winning franchise. [The book is mandatory reading. If you haven’t yet seen it, click through that link and buy a copy. Warning, though: prepare for the uncomfortable racial tone of the era.]
In the book, Wicks’ tenure is remembered as problematic. He was described as looking for his own shot, at odds with team staff, rebellious and problematic. The 1976 trade that sent him to the Boston Celtics for cash was painted as a win, one of the moves that opened the door on championship possibilities.
Here is one of the paragraphs from Halberstam’s work. In it, newly minted head coach Jack Ramsay discusses personnel and playing style with star center Bill Walton. After Walton pans many of his teammates, Ramsay inquires about Wicks.
What about Sidney Wicks? Ramsay had asked, for Wicks had by then become a symbol of Portland’s dissension and frustration, a player of great potential skills who seemed to play beneath his level and was regarded as a source of dissidence. Wicks, Walton thought, had been a problem, but he also considered him a victim of unfair fan pressure and expectations, and that the negative feeling about him in Portland was at least party racist. Ramsay had listened and had decided to take Wicks a little more seriously, but a few days later Wicks, whose capacity to win friends and influence coaches had steadily declined over the years, had come to see Ramsay to complain about the amount of money he was making, which was in fact more than Ramsay was making. He had, even worse, added, “Coach, I don’t want you to take it personally, but there’s a salary they’re paying you, and a full salary they’re still paying Lenny Wilkens and a lot of that is money that could be going to Sidney Wicks.” Ramsay, much to Wicks’ surprise, had taken that seriously and shortly thereafter Wicks was traded to New Orleans, where, after a very brief visit in which the New Orleans general manager expressed extreme displeasure over Wicks and his personality, he was returned to Portland. From there in October of that year he was finally traded for marginal value to Boston, a city where his years were said to be even less happy for all concerned than in Portland.
There’s truth there. Nobody disputes Wicks had interpersonal issues, or that his career was essentially done when he left Portland. But let’s hold on a minute and unpack. Wicks’ “transgressions” amount to:
- Being a scorer, interested in getting his own shot.
- Wanting to get paid for it.
- Letting people know that.
- Making more money than his coach.
The NBA was a different place in the 1970’s. Players had little power. The modern concept of free agency didn’t arrive in the NBA until 1988. Before then, players were basically forced to suit up for the teams that drafted them until they were traded or cut.
Franchises weren’t owned by billionaires back then. There was no nine-figure salary cap. There were no seven-figure salaries either. Owners, even championship owners, had to worry about the bottom line with their rosters.
Between the owner’s supposed lack of money and his own lack of leverage, Sidney Wicks probably had reason to complain. It was the only outlet he had. Most of us would do the exact same thing.
Except back in the 70’s, players weren’t supposed to speak up like that. The organizational balance of power skewed heavily towards owner and staff. Players who tried to buck that system were termed malcontents.
The label usually stuck, too. Fans tended to identify more with the guys in suits preaching loyalty to the franchise than the guys in uniforms making financial demands. “All this money is ruining the game” was a common refrain, uttered whenever NBA players started making scratch, but never when PGA pros did. Any player who threatened the team’s integrity by asking for money was deemed a traitor.
Two years after bringing Portland a championship, Walton would be roundly vilified for suffering a foot injury and suggesting the team was more concerned about its bottom line than his welfare. (He “selfishly” made a lot of money too. What was he doing making all that if he wasn’t even going to play?) By the time Walton signed with the San Diego Clippers, half of Portland said, “Good riddance.”
If fans would turn on Walton like that, what chance did Wicks have?
Fast forward to 2020. If scoring big and asking for more money than the coach makes were crimes worthy of banishment to Boston, the Celtics would own half the league...the better half too.
Sidney Wicks may not have been a problem as much as 30 years ahead of his time. The unforgivable sins of which he was accused may have been as much about era as personality.
Let’s look at what Wicks actually accomplished in Portland.
- He was named Rookie of the Year in 1972, one of only four Blazers to win that honor. The others are Petrie, Brandon Roy, and Damian Lillard.
- He earned four NBA All-Star appearances, tied with LaMarcus Aldridge for third most in team history behind only Lillard and Clyde Drexler.
- He finished Top 20 in the NBA at least once, and often multiple times, in every statistical category you can name, including assists, blocked shots, defensive win shares, overall win shares, field goal percentage, PER, Box Plus/Minus, and VORP.
- He ranks 3rd in franchise history for scoring average, behind only Lillard and Kiki Vandeweghe.
- He’s fourth in franchise history in rebounding average behind Walton, Leroy Ellis, and Hassan Whiteside. He maintained that average while playing more games than those three players combined.
- He also ranks 11th in franchise history for total points scored, 6th in total rebounds, and 11th in total assists as a power forward.
- He holds the franchise record for average minutes played per game. (This will never be broken.) He ranks 13th in total minutes played. He appeared in 398 out of a possible 410 regular season games played during his tenure in Portland.
What more do you want from the guy? If that’s “underachieving and selfish”, I’d be scared to meet the Sidney Wicks the Blazers thought they were getting. He must have been frickin’ Bill Brasky.
Putting a period on this, let’s compare Wicks’ stats in Portland to Petrie’s.
One of those players has gone down in history as a franchise legend while the other is remembered as a team-scuttling, underachieving villain. Something’s not right here.
Sidney Wicks was assertive, grumpy, and divisive? Too bad. The Blazers got WAY more out of him than they could have expected. Frodo Baggins could count on one hand the number of Portland players who have equaled or out-performed him.
Sidney Wicks bucked the system? Fine. The NBA system and its assumptions probably needed to be bucked back then.
Again, nobody is going to deny that Halberstam’s account, or the views of the people he quoted, are true. They came from a certain perspective that shouldn’t necessarily hold up as the only truth throughout all of time. If we’re going to cast down Sidney Wicks from star to pariah based on his character, we should remember the quote Halberstam himself chose for the opening of his book, from a biographical article in Sports Illustrated, circa 1979, authored by Paul Zimmerman:
“Fame...is a vapor, popularity is an accident, and money takes wings. The only thing that endures is character.”
“Where’d you get that from?” Cowlings asked.
“Heard it one night on TV in Buffalo... I was watching a late hockey game on Canadian TV and all of a sudden a guy just said it. Brought me up right out of my chair. I never forgot it.”
The subject of Zimmerman’s article, the hero who lifted up that quote about excellence of character as a mantra, was O.J. Simpson.
Judgment isn’t always as simple as you think.
For nearly-unequaled numbers, multi-time All-Star representation, and durability in an era where the franchise didn’t have a lot of other options, Sidney Wicks earns the 21st spot in our Top 100 Trail Blazers players and influencers list.
Thank you, Mr. Wicks. Sorry if it was harder than it needed to be.
Share your thoughts or memories of Sidney Wicks below, and stick with us as we crack the Top 20 on the way to number one!