Guarding Lenny Wilkens

[Anyone remember watching the great Lenny Wilkens play? Here’s NBA legend Archie Clark on the challenges of guarding then-number 14 in a red St. Louis Hawks jersey. Archie told me this a few years ago, and I wrote it up for the book Shake and Bake. Unfortunately, I had to cut Archie’s recollection to shorten the manuscript. But I always thought his answer was amazing, considering it came nearly a half century after Archie last guarded Wilkens.]

When we played the Hawks, I guarded Lenny Wilkins. Lennie stood about my height and, unlike the other Hawks, wasn’t a physical player. His job was to quarterback the team, and Lenny had become a real master at working the twenty-four-second clock and involving his teammates in the offense. The thing was, Lenny was a tough cover. You wouldn’t think so from watching him play. His weaknesses were obvious. For example, Lenny always dribbled with his left hand. He could crossover a little bit, but he used his left hand to do everything. Piece of cake, right? Overplay his left hand, and you’ve shut down his ability to dribble. 

Well, Lenny was a real heady player who learned the game on the Brooklyn playgrounds, and he knew how to slide away from pressure and create space. That made him real slippery to defend. He always had you chasing after him. The other thing that stood out about Lenny was he didn’t have a jump shot. He had a push shot that took him an extra second or two to set his feet and release. Again, piece of cake? Play up on his left hand and smother the shot. Well, if you came up on the push shot, he had the quickness to go right around you. And that’s what he did. Bait and switch. Everything about his game was deceptive, and some nights he could really have you grumbling.

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