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“The biggest problem was I didn’t know what to do” - Jamaal Wilkes shares his struggles to adjust to life after basketball

A challenge almost every professional athlete faces.
Jamaal Wilkes

Jamaal Wilkes

Jamaal Wilkes played an integral role at the beginning of the Los Angeles Lakers dynasty during the 1980s. With Magic Johnson making an immediate impact and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar already established, Wilkes was the third threat who helped make the Lakers very nearly invincible.

Despite his seismic impact with the Lakers, Wilkes’ contributions tend to go unnoticed by the casual NBA fan. While Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson stole headlines, “Silk” was comfortable sitting back and letting them soak up the attention while he went on the court and did his thing. And it worked, as he won four titles and earned three All-Star appearances during his 12-year career.

Wilkes would lose his starting spot to James Worthy during the 1984-85 season, which ended up being the beginning of the end for him. He would play one more season with the Los Angeles Clippers before hanging it up at the end of the season. But Wilkes faced a problem; he had no idea what to do once he retired.

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Jamaal Wilkes’ struggles with retirement are a common issue for professional athletes

Wilkes faced an issue that every athlete, regardless of what level they play at, will always face at one point or another. Everybody will eventually be forced to give up playing the sport they love at one point or another; it’s inevitable, even if a guy like LeBron James seems hellbent on proving otherwise. Wilkes summed up the struggles presented during retirement in an interview back in 1987.

“It was a difficult time, doing one thing for so long, and even though I saw the end coming, it’s kind of like your mother or father dying. You know they are going to die, but when it happens it’s still very emotional and very shocking. But I think the biggest problem, the biggest sadness, was that I didn’t know what to do with my time. For so many years my time had been managed for me that it was a whole new world.”

Jamaal Wilkes, Up Close with Roy Firestone

Wilkes provided an excellent explanation of what retirement is like for athletes to those who may not truly understand the issues that come with it. Especially at the professional level, these athletes devote much of their lives to perfecting their craft, sometimes starting rigorous routines back in high school and maintaining them well into their adult lives. Finding ways to use that free time is the challenge these athletes face once they call it a career.

Jamaal Wilkes ended up going back to school at his alma mater UCLA

Wilkes initially made a name for himself in college at UCLA, so once he retired, it made sense for him to return to UCLA to finish up his degree. He wound up being a part-time student at UCLA, studying investments and financial services so that he could continue his work in the community in Los Angeles. Wilkes worked in real estate and financial services for 22 years after his NBA career wrapped up.

Jamaal had to put his academic career on hold to pursue a career in the NBA, and it was interesting to see him be able to pick it back up so quickly despite taking all that time off. Frequently, many athletes do their best to remain involved in their sport of choice rather than go back to college. Whether it be coaching, front-office work, or even media roles, these folks’ love for the game never wears off, and they can transition into positions that allow them to be involved in the game despite being unable to play it.

For Wilkes, that desire never seemed to transpire. He briefly was the vice president of basketball operations for the Los Angeles Stars in the American Basketball Association, but they folded after just one season. While Wilkes initially struggled to transition to his post-playing career, he ended up having another successful career in a completely different industry than basketball, showing how athletes can succeed in retirement if they take advantage of their numerous opportunities. 

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