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Vol. 57, No. 2 • January 2020 • .pdf version
Wilkinson stayed for the love of the game
If it fast-twitched, Jack Wilkinson covered it for the more than 30 years he spent at sportswriter's fantasy camp.
No one-arena specialist, Jack was a proud and skilled general practitioner. But there was never a doubt about what in the wide world of sports made his own creative pulse quicken. Just read anything he wrote about college basketball.
His muse spoke in the slightly wise-guy dialect of a 1980s Big East coach preaching the backdoor cut. His inner self always wanted to get out and sit courtside. Some people may go to a Final Four, but with Jack, this trip was his Hajj.
Today, living in Atlanta with his wife Janet, near his two daughters and a cadre of old coot friends who know enough to defer to him on all things college hoops, he no longer writes on the game (our loss). But he'll still light up like a shot clock when talk turns to March and its manic tournament. And don't get him started on prima donnas, cheaters, showboats or any of the other old-school taboos.
Growing up on Long Island gave Wilkinson a home-court advantage when dealing with certain of college basketball's great character coaches, the kind that seemed drawn to him. It has been said he was among those few in the profession who could speak fluent Carnesecca and Cremins, among the most difficult to master of romance languages.
When reading Wilkinson, you came for the word play. To wit:
Wake Forest's Chris Paul was "one deking demon of a Demon Deacon."
Gifted shooters from long range were "3-point arc angels."
When Duke's Mike Krzyzewski deployed Grant Hill in a 1994 game against Arkansas, it went something like this: "Krzyzewski may have the antidote to the Hogs' signature 40 minutes of hell: 40 minutes of Hill."
But you stayed for the love of the game.
He went public with his printed shows of affection in Chicago and New York and Miami. But some of his best work happened during 24 years (1983-2007) in Atlanta at the Journal-Constitution. This also represented one of Jack's greatest professional achievements, creating a wide-ranging basketball body of work in the great southern outpost of college football, where all sporting goods are supposed to be more oblong than round.
If not for Jack, think of the deprived Atlanta reader who might never know the intimacy of an evening spent at Hinkle Field House in Indiana or the Palestra in Philly.
In 2002, he took us into the bedroom of college basketball's greatest coaching legend, long retired: "John Wooden continues to sleep on the left side of the bed, as he did when Nell was alive. On the right side lies Nell's robe, along with two framed photos of her, some flowers and a figurine. At the foot of the bed is a gold-and-blue UCLA blanket, inscribed with 'John' and 'Nell.'"
In 1990, he painted the scene of a fleeting sensation at Georgia Tech: "But as darkness fell last Feb. 1, even the worst seat in the house was a perfect perch from which to watch Kenny Anderson weave his magic down on the floor ... You could see everything unfolding – the fast breaks, the passing lanes, the seams, the infinitesimal cracks in the North Carolina defense that Anderson carved into canyons."
Why this sport among the lavish menu of options? Basketball always mattered around his house, starting with Jack's dad. The old man drove a newspaper delivery truck, but there was always the suspicion that in his day he drove the lane, too, and better than anybody else around the kitchen table.
Before he played football and lacrosse at Hofstra, Jack dabbled in basketball at Lynbrook (N.Y.) High. There, in a testament to his coach's acumen, someone else always tried to guard Julius Erving whenever Roosevelt High came calling.
It was Jack's younger brother who was the college basketball player in the family, and it was in Tommy Wilkinson, who died in 2008, that Jack found his most personal connection to the game. Of all the athletes Jack would encounter on every field and court, Tommy was his hands-down favorite. Thus, Tommy's sport had to be his favorite, too.
When summing up why Jack wrote college basketball so exceptionally well, the capper to his story about the Palestra comes to mind. Jack wrote of the lovely plaque marking that sporting cathedral. Fitting that we borrow it now and attach it to the writer's induction as well.
To Win The Game Is Great ...
To Play The Game Is Greater ...
But To Love The Game Is The Greatest Of All.
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