Wilkens, Leonard Randolph ("Lenny")
WILKENS, Leonard Randolph ("Lenny")
(b. 28 October 1937 in Brooklyn, New York), coach with most wins in National Basketball Association (NBA) history and one of only two men to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach.
Wilkens was the oldest of four children of Leonard R. Wilkens, a chauffeur, and Henrietta Cross Wilkens, a factory worker. Growing up in the tough neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant with a white mother and black father (who died when Wilkens was five years old), Wilkens struggled early in life with both poverty and bigotry. The young Wilkens learned his work ethic from his mother, a lesson he credits his Catholic education for reinforcing and honing. However it was learned, the lesson took, and the six-foot, one-inch Wilkens developed into an exceptional point guard on offense and defense.
Wilkens began as a street ball player, learning his game on the local blacktop rather than in organized leagues. He credits his playground education for his basketball acumen: "Back then, especially in the areas that I played, if you couldn't play, they wouldn't let you on the court.… It wasn't just slam dunk. It wasn't just three-point shots. We played, and we wanted to stay on the court."
Although Wilkens attended basketball powerhouse Boys High School in Brooklyn and made the squad as a freshman, he played only half a season of high school ball, believing he did not have the skills to start. In lieu of organized high school leagues, Wilkens opted for pickup games and a league run through the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO). His CYO coach Father Thomas Mannion convinced Providence College in Rhode Island to give Wilkens a try, and after his graduation from high school, he began his freshman year in 1956 on a scholarship. Mannion's eye for talent proved keen as Wilkens led the Providence freshman squad to an undefeated season. In three years with the varsity squad, Wilkens averaged 14.9 points per game, helped the Friars to a semifinal game in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) in 1959, and was named Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the NIT final in a losing effort in 1960. He graduated with a B.A. in economics in 1960. Wilkens married Marilyn J. Reed on 28 July 1962; they had three children.
The NBA's St. Louis Hawks drafted Wilkens in the first round in 1960, although Wilkens initially balked at a career as a professional athlete, in part because the $8,000 annual salary was not enough to live on. Once he saw he could hold his own with the level of competition in the NBA, however, Wilkens joined the Hawks, helping them to the NBA finals in his rookie season. All told, he played seven seasons for St. Louis and was named an All-Star five times. His career was interrupted for military service; he served in the U.S. Army from 1961 to 1962 and became a second lieutenant. His best year statistically came in the 1967–1968 season, when he averaged twenty points per game and was runner-up to Wilt Chamberlain for the league's MVP.
The following season, St. Louis dealt Wilkens to the expansion club Seattle SuperSonics, who were entering only their second season. Two seasons later, he was approached by Dick Vertlieb, the Sonics general manager, who asked if he would like to take over some of the team's coaching duties while remaining on the squad. From 1969 through 1972, Wilkens continued to excel on the court while learning the basics of coaching. At the beginning of the 1972–1973 season, the team management asked Wilkens to choose between his coaching and playing duties. Wilkens decided it was too soon to end his playing career and handed over the coaching reins. Tom Nissalke, the new coach, promptly traded Wilkens to the Cleveland Cavaliers, another expansion club.
Being dealt to yet another dreadful expansion team did not sit well with Wilkens, who initially refused to report. He relented, however, and ended up representing Cleveland in the 1973 All-Star Game. After two seasons in Cleveland, Wilkens returned to his role as player-coach, this time for the Portland Trail Blazers in 1974.
Although Wilkens retired as a player in 1975, an even more impressive phase of his career was only beginning. Wilkens remained in Portland as head coach after retiring for one season. He returned to Seattle in 1977 as head coach. The Sonics had started the year 5–17, but when Wilkens took over, he crafted what many believed was a talentless squad into a tight unselfish squad that worked well as a team. The Sonics turned their season around, and Wilkens led them as far as the NBA finals. The following season, Wilkens's squad won the championship. Says Wilkens of his so-called miracle in Seattle, "I heard general managers and other people say it was the worst team ever. And when I turned it around, all of a sudden everyone said, 'Well, we always knew they had talent.'"
Wilkens remained with the Sonics until 1987, when he took a job with the Cavaliers, another team from his playing days. Although he had considerable regular-season success with the Cavs, Wilkens could not get his squad past the powerhouse Chicago Bulls in the playoffs. He resigned after the season ended in 1993.
Other teams immediately began clamoring for his services, and Wilkens went back to the franchise he began his playing career with, the Hawks (who had by this time relocated to Atlanta). Wilkens continued his coaching success with the Hawks, posting a record of 310–232 over 7 seasons and being named NBA Coach of the Year in 1994. In 1995 he surpassed the Celtics' Red Auerbach as the coach with the most wins in NBA history (939 in 22 seasons). Wilkens became head coach for the Toronto Raptors in 2000. He lives in Seattle in the off-season with his wife, Marilyn.
As well as a fifteen-year Hall of Fame playing career and an equally luminous thirty-year coaching career, Wilkens is in his fifth decade in the NBA. The intelligence and unselfish play that made him a standout as a point guard formed the basis for an even more impressive coaching career that has seen Wilkens win the NBA championship, lead the United States to Olympic gold in 1996, and amass more victories than any other coach in basketball history.
Despite his low-key demeanor, Wilkens is an outspoken critic of what he sees as the systematic "blackout" of coaching opportunities for other African-American coaches. Although his own coaching career is an unparalleled success, Wilkens notes that even in recent years, the NBA seems to grant few coaching opportunities to African Americans. "If you're black and not successful right away, then it's tough." As one of the first African-American coaches in the league, Wilkens hopes to use his example to open up opportunities for others.
Wilkens wrote two autobiographies, The Lenny Wilkens Story (1974), with Paul S. Eriksson; and Unguarded: My Forty Years Surviving the NBA (2000), with Terry Pluto. He is also the subject of numerous articles, including a feature story in Ebony (Apr. 1999), and a piece in the "NBA Legends" section of http://www.nba.com.
Matthew Taylor Raffety