Family Matters with Omar & Jordan Wilkes
Jan. 31, 2007
One stands 6-foot-4 and the other has grown to a full seven feet in height. Yet despite the vertical differential, it's easy to tell what they have in common. One quick look, and it's rather obvious they comprise the brothers Wilkes.
More often than not, the basketball-playing siblings - junior guard Omar and sophomore center Jordan - have been teammates whenever possible, from grade school to high school to college. Although there have been occasional interruptions, they almost always seem to wind up together.
Just spend a few minutes with them, and it becomes abundantly clear that it is no mere coincidence that they don't stay separated for long.
'It comes from our parents instilling their values in us,' said Jordan. 'For them, family always comes first. And at the end of the day, it is really all you have. I love my family and wouldn't trade them for the world.'
Although Omar and Jordan both play high-intensity basketball at the NCAA Division I level, they are nowhere near the most well-known member of the Wilkes family. After all, their father, Jamaal won numerous basketball championships as a player at UCLA in the early 1970s, and in the NBA with both the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers, where he starred alongside Magic Johnson during much of the Showtime era.
While his sons also chose basketball as their primary sport, Jamaal consciously didn't drive Omar or Jordan onto the court. Instead, he let them create their own paths, providing support and encouragement along the way.
'I think he is a big fan because he never really forced us to play,' Omar said. 'It just came natural for us. Basketball is his passion and love, and to be able to watch your sons play the sport you love and be able to play together is all he can ask.'
With his level of recognition, Jamaal almost seems to go out of his way to ensure that he does not become a distraction for his sons. For example, on the first day of basketball practice this past October, he watched the workout from high above the Haas Pavilion court near the top of the bleachers. Barely noticeable to the coaches and players, he still kept a watchful eye on the activities below.
'When Omar and Jordan first came here, Jamaal asked if he could one day watch a practice,' head coach Ben Braun said. 'I looked up, and he was in the last row of the gym. He wanted to be as inconspicuous as possible, but wanted to observe practice and observe his sons. That is the way he is; he doesn't want to be in the limelight. It's his sons' time now.'
Jordan and Omar both said they don't spend much time watching highlights from their father's playing days, except for an occasional NBA clip that crosses their paths.
Recently, though, associate head coach Louis Reynaud showed Jordan some film from the 1973 NCAA Final Four contest between UCLA and Memphis, best known as the game Bill Walton sank 21-of-22 shots from the floor for the Bruins. For Jordan, it was a rare opportunity to see his father in college.
'There was no sound and the quality was a little average, but it was so weird to me,' Jordan said. 'I have seen his tapes from the pros, but this was different, just looking at him and seeing how young he was. And I thought, `Wow, his figure kind of looks like me!''
Omar, on the other hand, recommends another film, dated 1975, a year after Jamaal graduated from UCLA.
'I don't ever watch game tapes. I watch a movie called `Cornbread, Earl and Me' with Laurence Fishburne.' Omar said of Jamaal's Hollywood debut as Nathaniel 'Cornbread' Hamilton. 'You can pick it up a Blockbuster. It's a great film!'
Jamaal is by no means the sole parental figure in the Wilkes household, and Valerie Wilkes' influence cannot be discounted in their sons' welfare, either. Jordan and Omar both list their mother as the person they most admire, and Omar, when asked what he would put on a personalized license plate, readily replied: VALSBOY.
Choosing a College
Prior to last season, the last time Omar and Jordan teamed up was at Loyola High School in Los Angeles during the 2002-03 season when Omar was a senior and Jordan a sophomore. Omar earned first-team all-state and CIF Southern Section Player of the Year honors that final high school campaign while averaging 18 points per game.
When it came time for his college choice, Omar initially opted for Kansas, signing to play for head coach Roy Williams. But before he arrived, Williams had left Lawrence, Kan., for North Carolina, and Bill Self took over the program.
Omar played sparingly as a freshman, appearing in 21 games and averaging 1.4 ppg for a team that reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. But by the end of that first collegiate season, he longed to return to the West Coast and elected to look for another place to play and attend school.
'I had a lot of friends on the team and the coaching staff,' Omar said. 'It was tough to transfer - really, really hard. But once I narrowed it down to coming back to the state of California, it was easy.'
Braun and his staff had originally tried to lure Omar to Cal out of high school, and the positive experience created during the recruiting process proved to be a key factor in Omar's decision to move to Berkeley.
'We saw Omar at the USC game when he was still at Kansas, and he came by and gave us a hug and said hello to the players,' Braun said. 'He was there to watch our team play. That is one of the biggest indicators of the kind of guy Omar is. Even though he didn't come to Cal, he didn't forget the coaches and he didn't forget the guys that helped recruit him.
'We were impressed with Omar as a basketball player and as a person,' Braun continued. 'He has a lot of charisma. He is very polite, courteous and takes care of business, and he happens to be a good basketball player.'
Omar arrived in Berkeley for the 2004-05 season, but had to sit out under NCAA rules. He used the year to acclimate himself to both the team and to school.
'I kind of enjoyed it,' Omar said of his redshirt season. 'Nobody really knows who you are, but you are putting in good work and improving. I think it also gave me a lot of confidence going into last year.'
Just before the campaign started, Jordan opted to join his other brother at Cal, signing a National Letter of Intent in November 2004. Rated the No. 7 prep center in the country by one recruiting service and voted league MVP, Jordan averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds while leading Loyola High to a 22-7 record.
The fact that Omar was already in a Cal uniform when he made his college selection was a key factor in Jordan's decision to move up the coast from his Los Angeles home.
'It has obviously been a huge plus for me,' Jordan said of his brother's attendance at Cal. 'It helps having someone who has been there already, being there for me and leading me in the right direction. And then introducing me to people, who have in turn become my friends now. He has basically been there to teach me things that I would not have gotten if I didn't know anyone and was all by myself.'
Having a caring brother on campus is perhaps even more critical this season. Jordan, expected to be a major contributor after gaining more than 15 pounds of muscle through hard work in the weight room over the summer, partially torn the patella tendon in his left knee in practice just before the start of the regular season. He then underwent surgery in late November and, with a normal 3-4-month recovery period, is expected to sit out the entire season.
Omar, meanwhile, is in his second year on the active roster and serves as one of the Bears' starting guards. One of the most accurate shooters ever at Cal - his career three-point rate is well over 40 percent - he set his career high with 18 points in the Bears' 88-69 victory vs. Long Beach State in November 2005, helping Braun to his 500th career win.
Brothers as Teammates
Braun is quite familiar with brother combinations on his rosters, dating back to his time running the basketball program at Eastern Michigan from 1986-96. In fact, with twins Carl and Charles Thomas aboard, the Eagles advanced the Sweet 16 of the 1991 NCAA Tournament.
Since he has been in Berkeley, Braun has had two other brother tandems suit up in blue and gold - Solomon and Gabriel Hughes, and Ryan and Tashaan Forehan-Kelly - and he believes the older brother/younger brother dynamic has many benefits.
'Jordan is aspiring to be successful, and Omar is there as a role model,' Braun said.
Although they eventually opted to further their educational and athletic experiences at Cal, neither brother can agree on how they adopted basketball as their sport of choice. Omar and Jordan both started with soccer, while Jordan also dabbled in baseball.
'In Little League baseball, Jordan was a terror on the mound,' Omar recalled with a smile. 'He was kind of a right-handed Randy Johnson.'
Middle school marked the first time either Omar or Jordan can remember playing organized basketball together. When Omar was in sixth grade, Jordan moved up a level or two to play in a few tournaments, and they continued on the same team until Omar reached high school. They reunited, then, for a couple of seasons at Loyola High before coming to Cal.
Despite their intertwined playing careers, little, if any, rivalry has developed between the Wilkes pair. Much of that may be due to the fact Jordan and Omar play different positions and aren't battling each other for playing time. But their natural camaraderie seems to trump any perceived competition.
'Sometimes, you want to make your own mark,' Braun said. 'I believe Jordan coming to Cal had a lot to do with Omar. There is no question in my mind that it was a positive for Jordan. I don't know that he wanted to play against Omar if he had the chance to play with him. It was good that Omar was here.'
'My recruiting was going on at the same time as his transferring,' Jordan said. 'We obviously talked about it. `What are you thinking? Where are you thinking about going?' Going back to the influence of family, his influence had a big impact on what I was going to do.'
As it has throughout their young lives, the closeness of family will continue to affect and inspire the Wilkeses for a long time to come.