Wilkens, Lenny 1937—

views updated May 14 2018

Lenny Wilkens 1937

Professional basketball coach

A Rough Beginning

Quiet Success as a Player

Became a Coach

Long-Deserved Recognition


On January 6, 1995, Lenny Wilkens became the National Basketball Associations (NBA) all-time leader in coaching victories. Wilkenss milestone--a phenomenal 939 wins in 22 seasons as an NBA coach-places him at the top of a list that includes such basketball luminaries as Red Auerbach, Dick Motta, and Jack Ramsay. What is most remarkable about Wilkens, however, is the fact that he has achieved in such spectacular fashion while never quite becoming a national superstar. As Newsday reporter Shaun Powell put it, Wilkens is not larger than life; he is grounded to earth . He wins quietly. He loses quietly. Whenever he moved from one team to another, he tip-toed . There is very little about Wilkens that screams. Not his tone. Not his gestures. Not even his neckties.

Indeed, Wilkens has only one NBA championship to his credit, having spent his career coaching such second-tier teams as the Cleveland Cavaliers, Seattle SuperSonics, and Atlanta Hawks. Few underestimate his abilities, though, especially since he has crafted playoff-caliber teams from franchises that were expected to crash and burn. I used to kid that I was the NBAs best-kept secret, Wilkens told Newsweek.But Im in control. I know what the hell I want to do.

A Rough Beginning

Dignified is the word most often associated with Wilkens. In a league that too often values flash over substance, the impeccably attired coach who drills his players incessantly on their assignments is a genuine role model, remarked Mark Starr in Newsweek.This ability to maintain a professional demeanor in a volatile sport is part of the secret to Wilkenss longevity as a coach. His other major strength is empathy-he himself was a professional basketball player who made the Hall of Fame at the end of his 15-year playing career. I relate to people, Wilkens told Newsday.I know what young players are going through. I understand their backgrounds. I didnt come from anything either, so Ive been there.

Leonard Randolph Wilkens was born October 28,1937, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York. Almost from birth he faced extreme difficulties, the kind of character tests that force children to grow up quickly. Wilkenss father was black; his mother was white. He often faced the taunts of other children and-

At a Glance

Born Leonard Randolph Wilkens, October 28,1937, in Brooklyn, NY; son of a chauffeur and a candy factory worker; married Marilyn; children: Leesha, Randy, Jamee. Education: Providence Col lege, B.A., 1960. Military service; US.Army, 1961-62, became second lieutenant.

Athlete, coach St Louis Hawks, basketball player, 1960-68; Seattle SuperSonics, player-coach, 1968-72, head coach, 1978-85, general manager, 1985-86; Cleveland Cavaliers, basketball player, 1972-74, head coach, 1986-93; Portland Trail Blazers, player-coach, 1974-76. U.S. Olympic basketball team, assistant coach, 1992, head coach, 1996; Atlanta Hawks, head coach, 1993-,

Selected awards Inducted into Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, 1990; named 1994 coach of the year by Basketball Weekly, The Sporting News, Basketball Digest, and National Basketball Association (NBA). Participated in nine NBA All-Star games as player, four as coach.

Addresses: Office Atlanta Hawks, One CNN Center, Suite 405, South Tower, Atlanta, G A 30503.

even more disturbing-the rude stares and insolent remarks of racist adults. Wilkens was still a preschooler when his father, a chauffeur, died suddenly. Leonard, as the oldest of four children, was called upon at the tender age of five to be the man of the family.

The Wilkens children grew up in a Brooklyn tenement, supported only by the wages their mother earned by working in a candy factory. Whatever emotions the young Leonard felt, he kept them to himself while working hard in school and staying out of trouble. I couldnt have sympathy, Wilkens toldSports Illustrated.I couldnt trust. I couldnt get involved with people because then Id have to feel. What scared me so much was seeing no one going out of their way to help my mother and family after my father died. Seeing people look down their noses at us. You realize that no one really cares. So how do you get through? You start building the wall. You never let anyone know whats inside. It sounds awful now to say Id never cry.

Quiet Success as a Player

Wilkens took his first job, delivering groceries, at the age of seven. In his spare time he played basketball with various youth leagues in the Brooklyn area. Once Wilkens learned the mechanics of the game, he became a star player. A priest named Tom Mannion, a longtime family friend, persuaded Wilkens to play for the Boys High School team as a senior. There Wilkens made enough of a mark to win an athletic scholarship to Providence College, a Catholic university in Rhode Island.

One of six blacks in a school with 1,200 students, Wilkens often felt the slights of racism. He learned to get even by perfecting his basketball game, honing his skills until he became an effective point guard and a brilliant defender. There were people looking at me like I was some kind of insect, Wilkens recalled of his college years. People who assumed that because I was from Bed-Stuy, I was carrying a knife or gun. One drop of black blood in this country and youre tainted. If I let that hurt me, who has the anxiety? Me. I was not going to let anyone hurt me or make me feel anxious. Id learned something by then. If I could control myself, I could makeihem feel anxious. Majoring in economics, Wilkens earned his bachelors degree in 1960. In his senior season at Providence, his basketball team reached the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) finals, and he was named tournament Most Valuable Player. Even so, he was passed over for the U.S. Olympic basketball team.

Wilkens received several offers after graduation, including more than one to play professional basketball. He chose to join the NBA after the St. Louis Hawks picked him sixth in the first round of the 1960 draft. Though being drafted that highly in the 1990s guaranteed multimillion dollar contracts, the Hawks won his services with a salary of $8,000 and a signing bonus of $1,500.

Wilkens became a starter as a rookie and threw his energy into his basketball game. Off the court he was considered aloof by teammates and fans alike. His natural reticence was heightened by the abundant racism he and his new wife, Marilyn, encountered in the suburb of St. Louis to which they had moved shortly after he joined the team. Asked about those days by Sports Illustrated, Wilkens said: I was learning to watch people, to read eyes and body language. I never let anyone know what I was thinking or feeling. I worked at that. I really didnt care if people misread me. If J read them and they misread me, its to my advantage.

Became a Coach

Within two years Wilkens had established himself as a perennial all-star, one whose considerable reputation rested upon his ability as a team player rather than a star in his own right. In ten years between 1963 and 1973 he was voted to nine All-Star teams, and in 1968 he finished second in the NBAs Most Valuable Player voting to Wilt Chamberlain. That same year the Hawks moved to Atlanta. When the new team owner could not negotiate a satisfactory contract with Wilkens, the enigmatic player was traded to the Seattle SuperSonics, a second-year expansion team with little chance of becoming a playoff contender. What seemed like an outright banishment became a golden opportunity for Wilkens. As the 1969-70 season began, Wilkens was asked to be player-coach for the struggling SuperSonics.

Wilkens had never coached a game before, but he began to implement the fundamentals that had made his own playing career so successful-emphasis on defense, passing, and executing assignments correctly. Under his guidance, the SuperSonics turned in a 47-35 record in the 1971-72 season, their first-ever winning year. The following season found Wilkens with the Cleveland Cavaliers as a player only, but in 1974 he moved to the Portland Trail Blazers, again as a player-coach. He was released in 1976, and for some time contemplated finding another line of work altogether. Instead, he returned to Seattle as head coach midway through the 1977-78 season.

The SuperSonics were 5-17 when Wilkens took over in 1977. By seasons end the team had compiled a 47-35 record and made it all the way to the NBA championship finals where they lost to the Washington Bullets in seven games. Despite leading the team through its dramatic turnaround, Wilkens was overlooked in Coach of the Year balloting. The following season, the SuperSonics not only reached the NBA finals, but also won the championship by beating the Bullets in only five games. Again, for reasons that more than one observer considered racist, Wilkens was not honored with the Coach of the Year award. Sports Illustrated contributor Gary Smith wrote of Wilkens: Hes a man fated to exist in the NBAs outback. And some will wonder if its Lenny whos drawn to obscurity, or obscurity to Lenny.

The dedicated coach was not quite as unfamiliar as all that. After coaching the SuperSonics for eight years and serving as general manager for another season, he joined the Cleveland Cavaliers as head coach in June of 1986. He spent seven seasons with Cleveland, transforming the franchise from one that won only 29 games in 1985-86 to a playoff qualifier with more than 50 victories in five of his last six seasons. Wilkenss misfortune in Cleveland can be summed up with one name: superstar player Michael Jordan. The Cavaliers met Jordan and his Chicago Bulls four times in the Eastern Conference playoffs and were eliminated each time.

In 1993 Wilkens decided to retire from the Cavaliers even though he had another year remaining on his contract. He was not idle long. The Atlanta Hawks signed him to a five-year, $6.5 million contract as head coach, thus extending his career into a third decade. In Atlanta he continued his largely-unheralded winning ways, taking a franchise that was expected to have a mediocre year at best and transforming it into a playoff contender with a 57-25 record and the Central Division championship. Finally, as the 1993-94 season came to an end, Wilkens gained the honor that had eluded him for so long-he was named Coach of the Year.

Long-Deserved Recognition

Another major milestone occurred early in 1995 when the Hawks brought Wilkens his 939th career victory, surpassing by one game the legendary Red Auerbach, who led the Boston Celtics in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Wilkens now holds records for having participated in more games as a player and/or head coach than anyone else in league history as well as contributing to more victories than anyone in NBA history. The coach says he wants to win 1,000 games before he quits. At the end of the 1995 season, he was only 32 games away from that goal with several years remaining on his contract. The satisfaction is that only one person can be number one at a time, Wilkens told the Washington Post after breaking Auerbachs record. Its a great thing to win a championship, and I hope to do that again. But its great to be on top of an individual thing. I may not be there very long, but I got there.

Other honors have helped to elevate Wilkenss visibility as well. In 1990 he was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame for his exploits as a player. In 1992 he travelled to Barcelona, Spain as assistant coach for the U.S. Olympic mens basketball team. The Dream Team, as it was popularly known, marched unscathed to the gold medal.

Shortly after the Olympics Wilkens had a brush with serious illness. Wilkens ripped an Achilles tendon during a pickup basketball game in Barcelona. As the injury healed, blood clots from his leg found their way into his lungs, forcing him into the hospital and seriously jeopardizing his life. I think that was the first time I realized my own mortality, Wilkens told the Akron Beacon Journal.I was always healthy. Now I see how fragile it is. I felt vulnerable.

Since his recovery Wilkens has tried to relax more and has taken an immense enjoyment in his career and the achievements of his various teams. The most recent team under his direction will be the 1996 U.S. Olympic team that will play in the games in Atlanta. Wilkens was named Olympic head coach at the end of the 1995 NBA season. His longevity as a coach is all the more remarkable considering the obstacles presented by his race. Wilkens was only the second black man hired to coach an NBA team, he has outlasted numerous competitors, both black and white. Wilkens finds it amusing that some of the players he coaches are not even familiar with his career as a player. For Wilkens, however, recognition has never been as important as winning. According to Mark Starr inNewsweek, the winningest NBA coach in history has earned the respect of two decades worth of NBA players by being patient, by being demanding and by asking no more of his players than he asked of himself . Nothing can detract from Wilkenss historic accomplishment. He has proved himself a man for all seasons, not just any one.


Akron Beacon Journal, February 17, 1993, p. 1C.

Black Enterprise, April 1995, p. 20.

Chicago Tribune, December 2, 1994, p. 3.

Detroit Free Press, January 7, 1995, p. 4B.

Jet, May 15, 1995, p. 47.

Los Angeles Times, January 7, 1995, p. 6C.

Newsday, October 30, 1994, p. 28.

Newsweek, November 21, 1994, p. 103.

Sports Illustrated, December 5, 1994, p. 68-78.

Upscale, June/July, 1995, p. 94.

Washington Post, May 17, 1993, p. 6C; January 21, 1994, p. 8C; January 7, 1995, p. IH.

Mark Kram

Wilkens, Lenny

views updated Jun 11 2018

Lenny Wilkens

Basketball coach, basketball player

As coach of the Seattle SuperSonics, Portland Trail-Blazers, Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Toronto Raptors, Lenny Wilkens has scored more wins (1,332) and losses (1,155) than any other coach in the NBA. Wilkens is known for his quiet, sensible, and optimistic coaching style. His career was marked by consistent records rather than by championship cups. It was also fraught with NBA politics but, after more than forty years in the NBA, Wilkens wrote in his autobiography, Unguarded, "I still want to win."

Early Life

Leonard Randolph Wilkens Jr. was born October 28, 1937 in Brooklyn, New York to Leonard R. Wilkens, an African American chauffer, and Henrietta (Cross) Wilkens, an Irish Catholic woman. He was the second of four children. Wilkens' father was rushed to the hospital in 1943, treated for a "locked bowel," and died from a bleeding ulcer. In Unguarded, Wilkens described recollections of a man he barely knew, a sense of injustice over his father's death, and a yearning for his father to have shared in his successes. Wilkens' mother was left to raise four children on her own. At his father's wake, Wilkens' aunt took him aside and told him, "You're going to have to be the man of the family now." He was five years old.

At home, both his father and mother's family loved Wilkens. Outside, the kids called him "half-breed." People glared at the single white mother and her darker children. Understandably, race has always been a complicated issue for Wilkens. Though he is equal parts Irish and African American, he identifies himself as black. He is proud of his roots, especially because his heritage is all he ever had of his father. Still, he questions a system that defines a person by the color of his skin. "There is a racist theory in this country, that if you have a drop of black blood in you, then you're African American," Wilkens wrote in Unguarded. "The truth is that I'm as much Irish as I'm black, but I've never heard anyone say 'Lenny is Irish.'"

Left with no reliable income, the Wilkens' family struggled to get along between welfare and Henrietta's low-paying jobs. Each child was afforded one pair of ten-nis shoes per year. Within a month Wilkens wore his out playing basketball, and covered the holes with pieces of linoleum. The Wilkens moved often, each apartment more dismal than the last. Still, Henrietta was a fastidious housekeeper and the children worked to keep the house, and themselves, tidy. Wilkens started working at age nine.

Basketball, the Church, and a Father Figure

Wilkens found a father figure in Father Thomas Mannion. Wilkens attended Holy Rosary School and was an altar boy. Wilkens learned Latin, the language of the Mass, and enjoyed church life. He especially enjoyed eating breakfast with the nuns after Mass, as they served bacon, eggs, pancakes, and waffles—a real departure from the breakfast he was accustomed to at home, which was "Oatmeal. Oatmeal. And more oatmeal," he wrote in Unguarded.

Despite his rough neighborhood, Wilkens kept out of trouble. He knew better, because his mother would hold him accountable. Involvement in the Catholic Youth Organization and Police Athletic League basketball teams helped. Father Mannion was always around and, like Wilkens' mother, tolerated no foolishness.

Wilkens was not a team player on the basketball court. It was clear to Father Mannion that Wilkens had no understanding of basketball as a team sport. The priest bought the boy his own basketball to practice with. Wilkens spent countless hours with Mannion, dribbling and running drills. Wilkens also played baseball, stick-ball, and softball. He did not start playing high-school basketball until his senior year at Boys High in Brooklyn.

Wilkens balked at Father Mannion's talk of college. With his economic and social background, going to college, he wrote in his autobiography, "sounded about as realistic as going to the moon." But he followed Mannion's suggestion to keep his grades up, just in case. After graduation, he worked at Montgomery Ward and hoped to save money to attend City College of New York. A basketball scholarship was the furthest thing from his mind.

Wilkens remained amazed by the series of events that led him to college. Father Mannion wrote a letter to the athletic director at Providence College, in Rhode Island, recommending Wilkens for a basketball scholarship. Wilkens tried out for the team but heard nothing. Later, he was voted tournament MVP at the Flushing YMCA Tournament. The father of Providence's coach happened to be in the stands and noticed Wilkens, and mentioned him to his son. The coach remembered Mannion's letter and meeting Wilkens at the tryouts. In a matter of days, Wilkens was accepted to Providence with a full basketball scholarship. He had no designs on the NBA; Wilkens just wanted to keep his grades up at Providence, where there were just two black faces in the freshman class. Wilkens rose to the challenge, working hard and excelling in the classroom, on the court, and with the ROTC.

Wilkens was allowed to develop his game at a reasonable pace at Providence, and this atmosphere helped him shine. He averaged 21 points per game, and his freshman team scored a record 23 wins and no losses. The next year, he led his team in scoring and was the only sophomore selected to the Eastern Conference Athletic Conference All-Conference team.

Wilkens found the national spotlight at the National Invitational Tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York City. He shone in a game against a top-seeded St. Louis team. "The most credit for cutting the Missouri Valley down to size must go to Leonard Wilkens," sportswriter Louis Effrat wrote in the New York Times. "Aside from his 30 points, Wilkens' alertness, his ball handling and his steadying influence paid off in the end." Gene Roswell wrote in the New York Post, "Wilkens, a defensive genius, has a simple basketball strategy, 'Never let the other fellow's right hand know what your left hand is doing.'" In his senior year, the team lost only four games, and Wilkens was being hailed as a "defensive specialist." Still, he entertained no thoughts of the NBA. He had never even watched an NBA game.


Born in Brooklyn, New York on October 28
Father dies from undiagnosed bleeding ulcer
Drafted to play for the St. Louis Hawks
Marries Marilyn Reed
Becomes point guard for the Seattle SuperSonics
First season as player/coach
Traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers
Signs four-year player/coach contract with Portland TrailBlazers
Takes a job with CBS Sports
Becomes general manager of Seattle SuperSonics, then coach
Coaches SuperSonics to NBA championship; receives honors from CBS Sports and Congressional Black Congress
Returns to sole position as general manager of SuperSonics
Takes coaching position with the Cleveland Cavaliers
Travels to Spain as assistant coach of U.S. Olympic basketball team; undergoes Achilles' tendon surgery, and nearly dies from blood clots
Begins coaching Atlanta Hawks
Beats Red Auerbach's record number of career coaching wins
Wins gold medal as head coach of U.S. Olympic team
Takes coaching position with New York Knicks
Resigns from Knicks under questionable circumstances

Wilkens played in the East/West All-Star Game with his sights set on trying out for the 1960 Olympic team. Wilkens did not make the Olympic team but a number of lesser players, who were white, did. It was the first time Wilkens felt he had been held back by the color of his skin. The New York Times printed a scathing story about the slight and a number of national coaches came out in support of Wilkens, but it was in vain.

Wilkens was in an accounting class when the St. Louis Hawks drafted him as a point guard. After class, he had no idea why people were congratulating him. He planned to turn down the offer, get his M.A., and teach economics. He changed his mind when he compared the average economist's salary, $6,000 at the time, to the $8,000 a year the Hawks were offering him. Wilkens went to St. Louis, but was unprepared for what he found there.

First Taste of Intolerance

When Wilkens went to St. Louis in 1960, he suffered repeated bouts of discrimination; he had trouble finding an apartment to rent, and was denied service in certain restaurants. Wilkens was shocked by the new world he had entered. He and his young wife, Marilyn Reed, bought a house in a St. Louis neighborhood only to watch their neighbors put up "for sale" signs; someone even poisoned the couple's dog.

After watching the first part of the season from the bench, Wilkens finished the year in the starting lineup, setting a team record for the highest shooting percentage by a guard. Wilkens began to hear two incredible words from veteran players: "Nice game."

Life in the modern NBA is very different from Wilkens' early days as a pro player. There were no private jets, no decadent parties, none of the luxuries today's NBA stars take for granted. There were often no lockers in the locker rooms, just a nail to hang clothes on. Locker rooms and showers were always too hot or too cold, Wilkens remembered. They had to wash their uniforms in tiny hotel sinks. They ate coffee and doughnuts for breakfast. Wilkens had to work a desk job during the summer breaks to earn money. Still, he wrote in Unguarded, "That was all part of the almost blue-collar world of the NBA back then."

The year 1968 was a low point in Wilkens' career. With seven years in the NBA and four All-Star games under his belt, he left the Hawks. His final season was plagued by politics and infighting. The team won fifty-six games and Wilkens finished second to Wilt Chamberlain in the MVP voting, but management refused to offer him a salary competitive with that of his fellow players. The fledgling Seattle SuperSonics, headed into its second season, offered him $75,000 a year for two years. So Wilkens and his wife got a fresh start in Seattle.

From Player to Coach

Wilkens had no designs on coaching, but within a year of starting with the SuperSonics, he became the second black player/coach in the NBA. Dick Vertlieb, the team's general manager, hand-picked Wilkens for the job, citing his maturity, talent, judgment, the respect other players had for him, and his knowledge of the league. In Unguarded, Wilkens looked back on the change, saying, "No matter … how ready you think you are for your first coaching job, I have news for you: You're never ready." Wilkens started as player/coach in August 1969, his second season with the SuperSonics.

The new coach had a rough start. He struggled to balance his two roles and found himself yelling at the players, though he had always detested coaches who yelled at their players. It took Wilkens until the midpoint of the season to get comfortable in his dual role. The team started winning games and finished the season with 36 wins and 46 losses, slightly ahead of the previous year. In his second season as coach, he did better still, with a 38-44 record. At the end of Wilkens' third coaching season, the SuperSonics enjoyed its first winning season, with a 47-35 record. Instead of launching into the next season as player/coach of the SuperSonics, Wilkens found himself inexplicably traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Despite his increasing success with Seattle, Wilkens was traded solely as a player for the Cavaliers, which was then the worst team in the NBA. No one in the league could make sense of the trade, least of all Wilkens. The SuperSonics had dumped him into "the black hole of the NBA," according to Cleveland radio announcer Joe Tait in Unguarded. During his year with the team, its record improved slightly. When Wilkens returned to Seattle with the Cavaliers to play against the SuperSonics, fans chanted and raised signs: "This is Lenny's country," "We love you, Lenny," and "Come home, Lenny." He was gone, but not forgotten.

At age 37, knowing he was approaching the end of his playing career, Wilkens wanted another shot at coaching. He signed a four-year player/coach contract with the Portland TrailBlazers, a team that needed "all the help it could get," according to Wilkens in Unguarded. The 1974–75 year was Wilkens' final season as a player, and he brought the team's record from 27-55 to 38-44, despite a disjointed team fraught with injuries. When the team's record failed to improve the next year, with Wilkens working solely as a coach, the TrailBlazers let him go. Freed from his contract, the Wilkens family moved back to Seattle, where they were happiest. Wilkens took a job with CBS, working on their pro-basketball telecasts. After a year, he was hungry to coach again.

In another unexpected turn, Wilkens was approached to return to the SuperSonics as general manager. The team had failed to beat his 47-35 season since he left. Wilkens jumped into his new "front office" position, trying to build the best team, picking and trading players. But Wilkens' 1977–78 SuperSonics were a disaster. In a desperate attempt to save the team mid-season, Wilkens added "coach" to his job title. He coached his discouraged team with the confidence he had earned from nearly twenty years in the NBA, and ended up matching his own record season with the SuperSonics, 47-35. To every-one's surprise, the team made it through the playoffs and into the finals against Washington.

After a seven-game finals series in 1978, the SuperSonics and their fans were primed for the 1978–79 season. The pressure was on Wilkens, who had never coached a team that was expected to win big. Though the team had no stand-out, superstar players, Wilkens noted in Unguarded: "Our team was special. Our team had its own blend of a balanced attack." The Sonics faced Washington again in the finals, but this time came away with the championship title. Wilkens was snubbed by the NBA for its Coach of the Year award, but received honors from CBS Sports and the Congressional Black Congress.

Wilkens' formula heading into the next season was simple: "We've found the secret. Let's not change it," he wrote in Unguarded. Instead, the team was hit with what he called "Championship Fallout." Players wanted more money, more recognition, or were just getting old. They won fifty-six games that season and made it to the finals but were stopped in their tracks by Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers, a team on its way to becoming a dynasty. In the next three seasons, the team slipped to 48 wins, then 42, then 31. They did not even make it to the playoffs in 1983–84, Wilkens' last season as coach. Wilkens spent the 1984–85 season working strictly as general manager.

Wilkens was eager to coach again and needed a change of scenery, so he took an offer to coach the Cleveland Cavaliers. In his seven years coaching the Cavaliers, Wilkens turned their dismal record into a respectable one. Unfortunately, few teams had a chance against then-rookie Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls. "We won a lot of games," Wilkens wrote in Unguarded: "We played for fans who appreciated our players and our style of play. Yet I still think about what could have been."

Another Shot at the Olympics

"I wanted to be the head coach of the first Dream Team," Wilkens wrote in Unguarded, mainly because of his missed chance at the 1960 Olympics as a player. Instead, head coach Chuck Daly named Wilkens assistant coach of the 1992 Olympic basketball team. Wilkens felt slighted, but sucked up his ego and took the job. The team was made up of NBA pros, including Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Larry Bird. It was "the greatest basketball team the world has ever seen," Wilkens wrote, and they took home the gold medal. After the Olympics, Wilkens underwent surgery to mend a torn Achilles' tendon and suffered blood clots that nearly killed him. He later admitted it was a bad idea to return to coaching for the 1992–93 season. The team won fifty-four games that season and lost to the Bulls in the playoffs. But Wilkens was exhausted and needed a fresh start.

After a bidding war between the Los Angeles Clippers, Indiana Pacers, and Atlanta Hawks, Wilkens signed a five-year $1.5 million-per-year deal with the Hawks. They won fifty-seven games during the 1993–94 season, which was respectable. It meant the most to Wilkens, because he broke legendary Boston Celtic's coach Red Auerbach's record of 938 career-coaching victories. He was voted NBA Coach of the Year, and was in a position to clinch his dream of coaching the 1996 U.S. Olympic team.

Wilkens had won more games than any coach in history and by many counts was underappreciated for it. When he was asked to coach the 1996 Olympic team, he was awash with emotion; he was proud and knew he had earned it, but he wished his father could be there to see it. He also felt pressure to win.

The 1992 Dream Team's Johnson, Jordan, and Bird had retired. The 1996 team leaders were John Stockton, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, and Shaquille O'Neal. "Not exactly a bad team," according to Wilkens, but a team that faced bigger challenges: they had little time playing together, were "flat" during exhibition games, and were mobbed by fans during the Games in Atlanta. Wilkens held the team together, and was relieved to win the gold.

In his seven years with the Atlanta Hawks, the team remained stuck in a "rut," which consisted of a respectable fifty wins per season, and a run at the playoffs each year. Unable to clinch a championship, Wilkens was forced to resign. "When you're a coach," Hawks' general manager Pete Babcock said at a press conference (as quoted in Unguarded), "you become a lightning rod for what happens in an organization. It doesn't mean it's fair or right, but it's the reality of the situation."

In early 2004, at age 66, Wilkens was hired by New York Knicks' president Isaiah Thomas. After several seasons in what the New York Times called a "downward spiral," Thomas was thankful to have someone with Wilkens' experience on his team. Thomas told Jet, "I thought it was the perfect fit." A year later, Thomas had different thoughts, and Wilkens resigned from the Knicks. Many believe Wilkens' lackluster performance with the Knicks was a symptom of family problems: His mother was seriously ill in a Brooklyn nursing home and his wife, Marilyn, remained in Seattle when he took the job in New York. Team management insisted that Wilkens was not forced out, despite rumors to the contrary. Some suggested the move would point to Wilkens' retirement.



Wilker, Josh. The Head Coaches. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1998.


Beck, Howard. "Wilkens Resigns, Taken Down by Knicks' Downward Spiral." New York Times (23 January 2005): 8.1.

"Thomas Revamps Knicks, Hires Wilkens as Coach." Jet (2 February 2004): 51.

                                  Brenna Sanchez

Wilkens, Lenny

views updated May 08 2018

Lenny Wilkens


American basketball coach

With 1,268 victories in his first twenty-nine seasons as an National Basketball Association (NBA) coach, Lenny Wilkens is clearly the winningest coach in professional basketball history. Wilkens began his coaching career more than three decades ago in Seattle where he served as player-coach for the Super Sonics from 1969 until 1972. He pulled the same double duty with the Portland Trail Blazers during the 1974-1975 season but hung up his uniform at season's end and stuck to coaching the following season with Portland. In the years since, he has served as head coach for the Supersonics (1977-1985), Cleveland Cavaliers (1986-1993), Atlanta Hawks (1993-2000), and Toronto Raptors (2000). During his years as player and coach in the NBA, Wilkens has collected one Coach of the Year Award, an NBA championship ring, two Olympic gold medals, and been named one of the fifty top players and ten top coaches in NBA history.

Born in Brooklyn

He was born Leonard Randolph Wilkens Jr. in Brooklyn, New York, on October 28, 1937, son of an African American father and white mother. His father, Leonard Sr., worked as a chauffeur, while his mother, Henrietta (Cross) Wilkens, worked in a candy factory. His father died suddenly when Wilkens was still a preschooler, and he suddenly found himself "the man of the house" at the tender age of five. Making life even more difficult for the young Wilkens were the taunts of schoolmates about his interracial origins. Ignoring the taunts as best he could, Wilkens worked hard in school and stayed out of trouble. He took his first after-school jobdelivering groceriesat the age of seven. Of the pressures he felt as a child, he later told Sports Illustrated : "I couldn't have sympathy. I couldn't trust. I couldn't get involved with people because then I'd have to feel. What scared me so much was seeing no one going out of their way to help my mother and my family after my father died. Seeing people look down their noses at us. You realize that no one really cares. So how do you get through? You start building the wall. You never let anyone know what's inside. It sounds awful now to say I'd never cry."

In his spare time, Wilkens began playing basketball with local youth leagues and found he had a real talent for the game. He was encouraged by a priest named Tom Mannion to play basketball for Boys High School as a senior and made so positive an impression that he was offered an athletic scholarship to Providence College, a catholic school in Rhode Island. In his senior year at Providence, the school's basketball team made it

into the finals of the National Invitational Tournament (NIT), where Wilkens was named Most Valuable Player of the NIT. Although he received offers to play professionally for a number of basketball leagues, he chose to enter the NBA draft in 1960. There he was picked sixth in the first round by the St. Louis Hawks, whose general manager, Marty Blake, had first spotted Wilkens at the NIT finals. Wilkens wasted no time in firmly establishing himself as an invaluable team player. In the ten years between 1963 and 1973, he was voted to nine All-Star teams. In 1968 he finished second to Wilt Chamberlain in voting for the NBA's MVP Award.


In July 1962, two years into his stint with the Hawks, Wilkens married Marilyn J. Reed. The couple has three children: Leesha, Randy, and Jamee. When the Hawks moved to Atlanta in 1968, Wilkens was unable to negotiate an acceptable contract with the new owners, so he was traded to the Seattle Super Sonics. It turned out to be the start of a whole new career for Wilkens, who was asked to be player-coach of the struggling team at the beginning of the 1969-1970 season. Although he had never coach basketball before, Wilkens drew on the same fundamentals that had served him so well as a player. These fundamentals emphasized defense, passing, and the proper execution of all assignments. In 1971-1972, Wilkens coached the SuperSonics to a record of 47-35, their first winning season ever. During the 1972-1973 season Wilkens left coaching behind to concentrate on playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers, but he again pulled double duty as player and coach for the Portland Trail Blazers, beginning in 1974.

Released by Portland in 1977, Wilkens briefly considered leaving basketball altogether but instead returned to the Super Sonics as head coach midway through the 1977-1978 season. When Wilkens returned to Seattle, he took over a team with a dismal record of 5-17, but by season's end he had coached the team to a 42-18 record and into the NBA finals. The following season, the SuperSonics took the championship, defeating the Washington Bullets in five games. In his eight seasons with the SuperSonics, from 1977 until 1985, Wilkens compiled a record of 357-277 for a winning percentage of 56.3 percent. At the end of the 1984-1985 season, Wilkens stepped down as coach of the SuperSonics and became the team's general manager for a year.

Signs on as Head Coach of Cavaliers

In June of 1986 Wilkens signed on as head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team that had won only twenty-nine games during the 1985-1986 season. Wilkens engineered an almost miraculous turnaround for the Cavaliers, compiling a record of 316-273, for a winning percentage of 53.7, during his seven seasons with the team. In 1993, Wilkens, then in his late 50s, decided to retire from basketball. However, not long thereafter he received an offer from the Atlanta Hawks that was just too attractive to refuse. The Hawks signed Wilkens to a five-year contract, worth $6.5 million. As he had done before, he quickly turned things around in Atlanta, coaching the Hawks to a 1994-1995 record of 57-25 and the Central Division championship. At season's end, Wilkens was named NBA Coach of the Year.

Wilkens became the winningest coach in NBA history on January 6, 1995, when a Hawks 112-90 victory over the New Jersey Nets gave him his 939th win, topping the marks set by such legendary NBA coaches as Arnold 'Red' Auerbach , Dick Motta, and Jack Ramsay. Wilkens told New York's Amsterdam News that he dedicated his landmark win to Auerbach, the man he replaced as number one. "It was a testament to him. I still look upon him as do most of the other coaches in this league as 'The Coach.'"

Honored as One of NBA's Top Players and Coaches

When the NBA celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1996, Wilkens was the only man to be named both one of the fifty greatest players and one of the top ten coaches in league history. He's also one of only two men (John Wooden is the other) to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as both player and coach. Wilkens was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame as a player on May 9, 1989, and as a coach on October 2, 1998.

In 1996, Wilkens coached the USA Basketball Dream Team to a gold medal victory of 95-69 over Yugoslavia in the Olympic Summer Games held in Atlanta. Four years earlier, Wilkens had served as an assistant coach on the 1992 original USA Basketball Dream Team that captured gold in Barcelona, Spain. Shortly after his first Olympics coaching experience, he had a brush with life-threatening illness. During a pickup basketball game in Barcelona, Wilkens tore an Achilles tendon. As he recovered from the injury, blood clots from his leg traveled into his lungs, forcing hospitalization and jeopardizing his life. He later told the Akron Beacon Journal : "I think that was the first time I realized my own mortality. I was always healthy. Now I see how fragile it is. I felt vulnerable."


1937Born October 28 in Brooklyn, New York
1960Receives bachelor's degree in economics from Providence College
1960Joins St. Louis Hawks as player
1962Marries Marilyn J. Reed on July 28
1969Joins Seattle Super Sonics as player-coach
1972Joins Portland Trail Blazers as player-coach
1977Returns to Supersonics as head coach
1986Joins Cleveland Cavaliers as head coach
1993Joins Atlanta Hawks as head coach
1994Named NBA Coach of the Year by IBM
1996Coaches gold-medal winning U.S. team in Atlanta Olympics
2000Joins Toronto Raptors as head coach

Related Biography: NBA Scout Marty Blake

Marty Blake, director of scouting for the National Basketball Association (NBA), is the man most often credited with discovering Lenny Wilkens. Blake, general manager of the NBA's Hawks in both St. Louis and Atlanta for seventeen years, first saw Wilkens perform at the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) in 1960. He was impressed by the point guard from Brooklyn, although he admitted a few years ago he had no idea how far Wilkens would go in professional basketball. Blake was interviewed by Jeffrey Hawk of the Atlanta Constitution shortly after Wilkens was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a coach in October 1998 (he'd previously been inducted as a player in 1989). Blake told the Constitution : "But you couldn't know all this was going to happen. You knew he was going to be a great player. You knew he was a coach on the floor at Providence. I mean, he ran the show. There was no question who was in charge. You had a sense watching him that Lenny could someday become a coach, but all this? That was impossible to forecast."

Involved in basketball for more than half a century, Blake helped found the Continental Basketball Association in 1946. During his seventeen years with the Hawks, the team won eight division titles and in 1957-1958 beat the Boston Celtics to cinch the NBA championship. Earlier Blake had served as president of the Pittsburgh Condors of the American Basketball Association (ABA), which was later merged into the NBA.

Coaches Hawks to Eastern Conference Semifinals

During the 1996-1997 season, Wilkens, with the help of newly signed center Dikembe Mutombo , molded the Atlanta Hawks into one of the most effective defensive machines in the NBA. He coached the Hawks to an impressive 56-26 record and another berth in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Hawks handily stood off the Detroit Pistons in the fifth game of their first round match but fell to the Chicago Bulls in the fifth game of the second round. The Bulls went on to win the NBA championship. During the season of 1997-1998, Wilkens further distinguished himself by reaching a pair of milestones in his coaching career: On February 10, 1998, the longtime coach won his 1,100th career game at Milwaukee and eight days later coached his 2,000th regular season NBA game against the New Jersey Nets. The Hawks ended the regular season with a creditable record of 50-32 but lost to the Charlotte Hornets in the fourth game of the first round of the playoffs.

The Hawks ended the lockout-shortened 1998-1999 season with their seventh consecutive winning record (31-19) and battled their way into the second round of the playoffs, where they fell to the New York Knicks in four games. After a disappointing 1999-2000 season in which the Hawks compiled its most dismal record (28-54) since moving to Atlanta, Wilkens stepped down as head coach.

Agrees to Coach Toronto Raptors

Wilkens didn't stay idle for long. Less than two months after quitting as head coach of the Hawks, he joined the Toronto Raptors as head coach. Interviewed by the Toronto Star shortly after the announcement of his appointment, Wilkens said he welcomed the opportunity to coach a team on the rise. "I like the competition of the games; I like the last two minutes of the game when you're up one or you're down one. I'm a competitor; I like to compete." He dismissed concerns about his final season with Atlanta, calling it an "aberration." He elaborated: "It's over, it's behind me, and it's time to move on. I'm a guy who wakes up and says 'Good morning, God.' Not 'Good God, it's morning.'"

In their first season under Wilkens' direction, the Raptors compiled a record of 47-35, the best in franchise history. In the first round of the playoffs, Toronto faced off against the New York Knicks in a rematch from the previous year, when the Knicks overpowered the Raptors. This time around, the results were different, with the Raptors triumphing over New York in five games. Advancing to the conference semifinals, Toronto met the Philadelphia 76ers, led by Allen Iverson , the league's MVP. Raptors star Vince Carter and Iverson engaged in a classic scoring duel with each recording games of fifty points or more, but in the end Philadelphia triumphed in its seventh games against Toronto.

Awards and Accomplishments

1956-57Led Providence College freshman team to 23-0 record
1960Led Providence to NIT Finals
1960Named MVP of NIT
1963-71Named NBA All-Star
1969-70Led NBA in assists
1973Named NBA All-Star
1978-79Coached Super Sonics to world championship
1989Inducted into Naismith Hall of Fame as player
1994Named NBA Coach of the Year
1995Becomes NBA's winningest coach with 939th victory on January 6
1996Coaches USA Dream Team to Olympic gold
1996Named one of top 50 players and top 10 coaches in NBA history
1998Inducted into Naismith Hall of Fame as coach

Raptors Falter Without Carter

The Raptors were less impressive in their 2001-2002 season, barely eking out a winning record of 42-40. The season started on an extremely optimistic note, and the team had put together an impressive record of 29-21 during the first half of the season. But in the final game before the All-Star break, Raptors star Carter aggravated an existing injury to his knee and was unable to rejoin the team as it began the second half of the season. The loss of Carter clearly hurt the Raptors, whose record for the remainder of the season was a dismal 13-19. In the first round of the playoffs, Toronto faced off against the Pistons. The two teams split the first four games, but Detroit triumphed in the fifth game to take the match.

In the early months of the 2002-2003 season, Wilkens came under heavy criticism as the Raptors plodded to a disappointing record of 8-25 by the opening days of January 2003. But Wilkens showed few signs that the pressure was getting to him. He didn't become the NBA's winningest coach by shrinking from adversity. Interviewed by Doug Smith of the Toronto Star, Wilkens said: "Every year as a coach, I'm going to take stock of what I'm doing and we'll reevaluate how we do things and ask if there's a better way." And if there is a better way, Wilkens almost certainly will find it.


Address: Lenny Wilkens, c/o Toronto Raptors, 40 Bay St Ste 300, Toronto, ON, Canada, M5J 2X2.


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