Lenny Wilkens: Player Lenny Wins Coach’s Crop, 1971

[Back in the 1970s and those grinding days of traditional journalism, periodicals always faced a significant lag time between putting their next issue to bed editorially and putting it out in the mail and on the newsstands. Because of this multi-day or week wait, periodicals always ran the embarrassing risk of missing out on breaking news involving one of their latest stories—and looking behind the times and, well, just plain stupid. 

That’s the case with this article about Seattle player-coach Lenny Wilkens. Penned by Seattle Times columnist Hy Zimmernan, the article ran prominently in the January 23, 1971 edition of The Sporting News, but it makes no mention of Wilkens 10 days earlier being named MVP of the 1971 NBA All-Star game. Neither does it mention that Wilkens was now stuck in the middle of breaking NBA news: ABA star Spencer Haywood had just signed to play for Seattle. The other NBA teams famously cried foul, and it was Wilkens’ job to navigate his troubled team through a gauntlet of arenas that viewed his men in green as an even lower life form than wrestling villain Moon Dog Mayne. 

Wilkens navigated the gauntlet gracefully, thanks to his native Brooklyn street-smarts, high character, and careful philosophical nature. This TSN article, though missing the important breaking news from back then, captures Wilkens’ extremely well, while also showing what a mess the expansion Sonics were, pre-Haywood. If you like Wilkens, Zimmerman’s piece is still very much worth the read 50 years later.] 

It is said, proverbially, that the jockey never finishes ahead of the horse. Make an exception of Lenny Wilkens. 

Though his Seattle Sonics ran short of the NBA playoffs last spring, and though they will be hard put to arrive there this time around, Wilkens, in less than two seasons, has established himself as a class coach in a demanding sport.

And Lenny is both horse and rider, a player-coach. And he is one of the few Black coaches to head a professional sports team. That is quite a load, physically and emotionally, and Lenny is one of the smaller structures in the NBA, a shade over six feet.

But he shoulders it all gracefully. Both hats are a good fit, with the coaching cap sporting the feather of philosophy. You know, on the Sonics this season, one has to be philosophical. Off to a golden getaway and with reasonable expectations of a division title, the club lost its core, Bob Rule, in the fourth game.

The center, prong of the attack and leading Sonic scorer and rebounder, tore an Achilles tendon. He is still out. Wilkens, in recall of the sad night, said: “It gave me a sickening feeling. It was heartbreaking, a fog. I felt Rule had arrived, and we could go places. And right now, we had lost him.”

More trouble was ahead for the Sonics and Wilkens. Don Smith, forward acquired from Milwaukee, soon after was immobilized by pericarditis, an ailment involving a membrane protecting the heart. Then, Wilkens himself tore a hamstring muscle. Don Kojis suffered a hairline fracture of a finger and others fell victim to various wounds. 

But the brave little Sonic band continued to give battle. And on a memorable November night in Seattle’s Coliseum, Lenny’s limping forces surprised New York’s Knicks, 93-91, in a display of basketball skill that swept the town. 

The Sonics, despite their low estate in the standings and despite the emaciated economy of the Seattle area, have been running fourth in attendance among the 17 NBA teams with a 9,000 average. And no small part of that attraction is the charisma of the coach.

Lenny Wilkens has conquered Seattle and is one of the most-popular sports figures in the area. He describes it: “Anywhere I go, people stop me and compliment me on the Sonic spirit. I’m very happy here.”

To everything, Wilkens, who studied philosophy at Providence College, applies philosophy. Lenny, who lives with his wife and two children in a pretty Seattle suburb, said: “I have wonderful acceptance here. The best part of it is that my neighbors like Lenny Wilkens because he is Lenny Wilkens, and not mostly because he is an NBA coach.”

How might it have been in Atlanta? Lenny was with the St. Louis Hawks when the team was transferred to the Southern city. The Sonics got him for Walt Hazzard, and he never reported to Georgia. Lenny said: “There were stories I wasn’t keen on going to Atlanta because I’m Black. They weren’t true. I’m a professional athlete. I go where I play. My problem at the time was contractual, not geographical or racial.

“You always get stories. When I took over as coach here, there were those who said that some of the Black players around the league would lay down so I could win. Something like that is a slur on the whole league.”

Hazzard had been an extremely popular Sonic, and some Seattle noses were out of joint over the trade. Wilkens admits to a lot of pressure in his early Sonic playing days, back in 1968. That was nothing to his dual role, which Wilkens admits, “can be heavy and disturbing. Last year, we had a couple of fellows who thought they should be playing when they weren’t.

“They caused trouble on and off the court. It began to affect my play because I was thinking too much about it. I decided then that, on the floor, I would be Lenny Wilkens, the player, nothing else. We began to win, and the trouble lessened.”

Then there was the night of January 6, 1970, in Detroit, after a 129-128 loss to the Pistons, when Lenny fined every Sonic, including himself, $100 for what he called a miserable performance. “Some of the guys,” he said, “had broken elementary rules of training. I fined the innocent with the guilty. Basketball is so much a team game; I wanted the innocent ones to ride the guilty.”

And he followed with more philosophy: “Anyone can have a bad shooting night. But when the reflexes are nil, you know there is something else wrong. A body can do only certain things. It won’t respond, if not ready.”

Last fall, Wilkens put his squad through a rigid regimen. All were ready at the bell; then came those injuries. All the casualties, except Rule, now are back, so Wilkens philosophizes about his club’s playoff chances: “Some other team may get injuries. It is a long season yet. We are still alive.”

So much alive that, on December 22, the Sonics beat the Knicks, 119-108. True, the world champions were without Willis Reed and Bill Bradley, but few beat the New Yorkers even under such circumstances. Going into the game, the Knicks had lost only 10 times.

Lenny nags his team (“You have to be unselfish”), drives it, leads it. And, in the role of coach, his artistic contributions sometimes are forgotten. Then, he has a huge night, like the recent evening on which he scored a personal high of 41 points against Atlanta, and focus is returned to the man’s inordinate artistic abilities.

At press time, he led his Sonics in scoring average with 20.8 points. But never mind the statistical stuff. Listen to Jack McMahon, who was San Diego coach when the Sonics acquired Wilkens: “This is a truly class player. We tried to get him.”

Said Fred Schaus of the Lakers: “Wilkens is one of the all-time greats ever to play guard in this league. Even Jerry West has trouble handling him.”

Tom Meschery, a Sonic teammate: “Wilkens is one of the five best backcourt men ever to play this game.”

Lenny, a kid from a rough New York neighborhood, began to play his game in the Bedford-Stuyvesant sector of Brooklyn, where he lived around the corner from [baseball star] Tommy Davis and played with him. However, Lenny, on the short side, skipped high school basketball until his senior year and played only half that season. It was enough to earn him a scholarship at Providence. 

Wilkens, now in his 11th NBA season, also hit it rich. His double take from the Sonics is in excess of $70,000 a year. And good things reached him early. In his rookie season in St. Louis, he was involved in one of his biggest thrills, “playing in a championship series against the Boston Celtics.”

The Hawks did not win it, so a goal still stands—“to win the championship, either as a player or as a coach.” If the injuries absent themselves next year and if the Sonics are judicious in the draft . . . 

Ever parallel to his goal ran an ambition—to coach. Even when he still was a comparatively new Hawk, Wilkens began preparing himself, in the event opportunity befell him. He said: “I began watching every coach, his strategy, what is considered essential to a team. And I formulated some opinions.

“I looked around at the other clubs, and I saw that the good ones had strong rebounders. The other important thing was defense. You know, everything else, even shooting, will take care of itself. A guy wouldn’t be in this league if he couldn’t shoot. And a good defense will pop loose some shooting chances.”

So, coaching lay in the back of his mind. Then, one summer night in 1969, it moved to the front. Al Bianchi separated from the Sonics, and the club sought a new leader. Lenny recalled: “One night, I had dinner with Dick Vertlieb (then general manager), and he seemed to be picking my brain. He asked me what I thought about coaching, players, strategy. I knew—or I felt—that I was being considered.

“I was excited but apprehensive, too, because I still was a player. The excitement was greater than the apprehension. I liked Seattle so much that to be a coach there would be even sweeter. I was afraid to build my hopes too high, though.”

The fear proved without foundation. He was invited to fly to Los Angeles, where, after a conference with Sonics’ owner Sam Schulman, Lenny was named coach. And Vertlieb said of it: “I began considering Lenny for the job the day Bianchi resigned.”

And the day Lenny started, he was an inspiration to his team, as nondescript as it then was. Wilkens, faced with myriad problems, recalled: “The paramount problem was to change the attitude of the club. They were defeatists.

“There is nothing like respect on a basketball team, toward the coach, toward one another. And I tried to set an example. The big thing Bill Russell did as coach of the Celtics was to be an example, to give 100 percent every night. My fellows know that I’ll give up the ball, that I’ll pass. That makes it easier for them to do the same.

“That night I fined the team, it wasn’t because we lost by one point. But I’m not one of those who’d rather lose by 20 points. I want to be in every game all the way. I take some defeats very hard. But the one who really suffers, I guess, is my wife Marilyn.”

Marilyn suffers at every game, but never is she embarrassed. Unlike some NBA coaches, who emote on the sidelines, chew towels, and pitch epithets at the referees, Lenny, in the brief periods he spends on the sidelines, contains himself and is relatively sedate. He has a reason: “I play as well as coach, so the referee sees me. I don’t go for that screaming anyhow.

“Oh, I’ll holler now and then—I have to protect my players—but I’m too easy for the referee to spot, so I cool it.”

This, then, is no bench jockey. Meet him, and you would not expect him to be. Lenny Wilkens, a handsome sort, smiles readily but speaks restrainedly, in a low voice, in sincere tone. So, you don’t take it amiss when he says simply: “I feel I’m making it as a coach.”

The overwhelming consensus is that he already has made it.

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