Lenny Wilkens: Supersonic Miracle, 1979

[Here’s more about Lenny Wilkens, and a cool article it is right before his Supersonic Miracle wins the NBA title. Behind the keyboard is none other than former NBA player and poet laureate Tom Meschery. He knew and admired Lenny Wilkens well during their NBA days, making his perspective informed and very much worth the read. The story ran in Zander Hollander’s Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball, 1979. Enjoy.]

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In the fall of 1968, the frontpage of the Seattle newspaper sports section showed a photograph of Walt Hazzard (Abdul-Rahman). With back to the camera, garment bag dropped over his shoulder, walking slowly to the airplane that would take him away from the Northwest and to his new team, the Atlanta Hawks. On the same page, in another photograph, was a smiling Lenny Wilkens, the man who had a day before been traded to the Sonics for Hazzard. 

For the pro basketball fans of Seattle, the trade was a little bewildering. They were new to a sport in which trades are as common as sitting down to dinner, or, as it often happens, picking up a telephone. The Sonics were an expansion franchise one year old in the NBA, and Walt Hazzard was its only superstar, a man who had made the all-star team the previous season. No matter how respected Lenny Wilkens was around the rest of the league, there were many people in the state of Washington who asked the question, “Who is Lenny Wilkens?” Ten years later, despite thousands of words of praise, hundreds of stories written about him, it is still not a very easy question to answer. 

Win the NBA’s Western Division, go down to the wire for the championship of the world with a bunch of players who were 5 and 17 until you took them over, be named CBS Coach of the Year, and every sportswriter in America begins to try all over again to find out who you are. 

List Wilkens’ attributes: modest, hardworking, talented, soft-spoken, gentle, persistent, fast, fast, fast. A lefty, confident, intelligent, no outside shooter. The way all the parts of the body make up the whole. Family man, team man, businessman, man’s man. It has all been said before. It might be easier to take the articles written about Lenny, place them in a row, chronologically, lifting the accolades, and using them willy-nilly. 

It’s plausible to do this because criticism of Lenny Wilkens has been so rare, it is virtually non-existent. And praise has been heaped on him with such regularity from the very beginning of his career that there seems to be few adjectives left that don’t sound redundant. Also, in the aftermath of this deluge of adulation, it does no good to buffer his fine qualities by seeking out the rare censure. As if by adding bad to good, like a missing ingredient in a formula, we somehow arrive at a more complete and honest analysis of a person. 

In today’s sports world, where expose is as common as the slam dunk or the designated hitter, writing about a good man poses a unique problem. How to do it without making him out to look like the idiot of Dostoevski? Newspapers sell because ballplayers and owners squabble with each other, and players shed teams as regularly as their underwear. The tacky side of sports appears to be popular. Therein, Lenny Wilkens is an enigma, possible but very probable. 

Worrisome as all this is to the writer, it is no problem to the members of the Seattle SuperSonics. For Freddy Brown, chafing under the totalitarian rule of previous coach Bill Russell, Lenny’s quiet certitude was a reprieve from a career starting downhill. For Dennis Johnson, it meant the role of leadership and a chance to be finally noticed. For Gus Williams, the opportunity to play his beloved running game and to know he could talk to his coach openly. Lenny was also responsible for resurrecting forward J.J. Johnson from his grave in Houston. 

The beat goes on. Paul Silas, frustrated in Denver and wanting to finish in the NBA as a winner, came closest to his dream this year on a team that was a winner, even though in the end it lost to Washington in the championship series. Finally, the Sonics’ center, Marvin Webster, who was the hub of the team, was a spoke too sick or too confused to turn before Lenny Wilkens helped him find his niche in pro basketball. 

And it does not stop with the 1978 Western Division champs. Players from other teams and other times who were touched by Lenny Wilkens in a meaningful way, either as teammates or as a coach, owe him a debt. 

For example, back in 1969 when Lenny was player-coach of the SuperSonics, he traded for Dick Snyder. Dick was in the Phoenix Suns’ doghouse. His life as a pro was over. In three months, directed by Wilkens, Snyder was a healthy athlete again. So much so that when he was traded three years later to Cleveland (Lenny was himself traded to Cleveland), Dick was confident enough to continue being a truly fine NBA guard. 

Thanks to Wilkens, Austin Carr of the Cleveland Cavs learned poise and the tricks of the trade. It is no secret in the league that Bill Fitch, the Cavs’ coach, adored Lenny and was grooming him to take over as his replacement, if and when he became solely the general manager. 

In Portland, where he coached in 1974-75 and 1975-76, two players in particular, Lionel Hollins and Bill Walton, can thank their lucky stars that they were first coached in the NBA by Wilkens. Despite enormous pressure and criticism from fans and media, Wilkens gave Lionel Hollins 32 minutes a game, plus the leadership job of the Blazers. Hollins played hard but made many rookie errors. Often, he was booed. So was his coach. The player took it badly, the coach stoically. He knew Lionel Hollins was the guard he wanted. He also knew that that “baptism by fire” was the essential ingredient in order to have Lionel ready for the following season. When the insults from the stands became difficult for the rookie, Lenny reassured him by telling him, “Pay them no mind, Lionel, next year they’ll love you.”

The following year, Wilkens was no longer coach of the Trail Blazers, who went on to become NBA champions, their great season saved in countless must situations by the superlative play of a seasoned Lionel Hollins.

In the case of Bill Walton, Lenny’s influence was more subtle. Walton came into the league totally unprepared for its rigors. Underweight, confused, beset by doubtful and scornful critics, Bill threatened to quit basketball many times. It was a situation beyond belief, a coach’s nightmare. It is doubtful if any other coach beside Wilkens would have had the patience to continue risking his career or credibility without taking at least one public stand criticizing Bill Walton during those two years. It was not what Lenny did that helped Bill the most, it was what he didn’t say that kept the pressure from being more than it was.

Exit Lenny Wilkens from the Portland Trail Blazers. Enter Jack Ramsay, plus a healthy Bill Walton. That’s history. But for the sake of history, remember only this: during the 1975-76 season when Walton was fit, the Blazers under Lenny Wilkens won six in a row, 11 out of the 14 games, and were closing in on a playoff berth with players half the caliber of the following year.

****

Boys High in Brooklyn is approximately 3,000 miles away from Seattle, WA. It is light years away psychologically. A constant rain washes buildings and sidewalks clean in Seattle. Trees are everywhere, even in the poorest neighborhoods. When the sun shines, its brilliance is blazing. Over the city rises the white purity of Mount Rainier. Climb to the top of Rainier, and you can see six other peaks of mountains cloaked in clouds as far away as Portland in Oregon. 

It is not surprising that New Yorker Lenny Wilkens, arriving in Seattle in 1968, quickly forgot that trees grow in Brooklyn. He had found a home in the Northwest. Not like the home of his parents surrounded by concrete, not the temporary home of his college days in Providence, RI, where he starred at Providence College, or in St. Louis (with the St. Louis Hawks), where it was still possible, even in 1961, to be asked to leave a restaurant because he was a Black man. 

Seattle took to Lenny fast, as fast as he could find a hole between nine men to the basket. It was a mutual admiration society that became fully realized when Seattle honored Wilkens as “Man of the Year” in 1971.

What did some of the people say that night honoring Lenny Wilkens? They said he had to overcome many obstacles, starting with race prejudice and poverty. In his sport, what did he have to overcome? Lack of height and strength. And the fact that Lenny Wilkens did not start playing high school basketball until the last half of the senior year, a very late start indeed.

The audience listened when Lenny stood up and talked about pride. Pride is an essential word in his vocabulary. It is, perhaps, the one weak spot in a personality that appears to be so well put together. It might have been the reason why, in his last year in Portland, he continued to work so hard to rehabilitate an ornery Sidney Wicks instead of trading him quickly.

There was also a time when pride cost Lenny money. It was in St. Louis during contract talks following a typically fine Lenny Wilkens season. No agents then. Player and owner sat across the negotiating table alone—Ben Kerner vs. Lenny Wilkens. There was a stalemate over an extra $1,000 that Lenny wanted. Days of haggling ended one afternoon with Lenny screaming at Kerner, “Does a lousy thousand dollars mean so much to you?”

Ben’s answer came with such Sophoclean speed. “Does it mean that much to you?”

“No, damn it,” Lenny blurted back.

Kerner smiled, handing Lenny the prepared contract out of his desk drawer, minus the thousand dollars.

Comical as it seems in hindsight, this first encounter with an owner of a pro basketball team was only a foreshadowing of the many problems Lenny Wilkens would have in the future with management. This is also ironic since Wilkens has always been a staunch basketball man and model representative of the NBA. Still, after the St. Louis Hawks deserted to Atlanta, Lenny has had a series of confrontations with owners of teams that he’s played for and/or coached. Seattle, Portland, back to Seattle. Cleveland was the only exception.

Of all the teams, the problems with Seattle’s owner Sam Schulman are the most dramatic and poignant because of Lenny’s popularity and success in his adopted city.

The Schulman-Wilkens story is a modern pro sports classic. It typifies what many coaches go through dealing with the new breed of owners in the NBA—these men who are a strange mixture of personalities, to say the least. To say the best, they have kept professional basketball alive in the financially complicated world of big-time sports. Perhaps they are driven by ego and pride to own teams and players. Perhaps they are closet jocks. Possibly they’re civic-minded. For whatever reason, they exist to be blessed and cursed, depending on, as the expression goes, the eye of the beholder.

In the case of coaches, they are probably cursed more than blessed. It is with absolute terror that most coaches sit down with their owners to try and explain the complications of their sport. In basketball, the majority of owners can’t tell the difference between a pick-and-roll and a backdoor play. They do, however, know winning from losing, and usually rely on that eccentric barometer to judge the qualifications of their teams’ coaches.

Sam Schulman is not the exception, although he has tried, in his own way, as hard as any owner in the NBA to have a winner in Seattle. It had escaped him until this year, but he had one, or at least the beginning of one, back in 1971-72 when the Sonics made a substantial drive for the Pacific Division championship. The team lost because that year two of Seattle’s leading players, Spencer Haywood and Dick Snyder, were injured toward the close of the season.

What followed that year remains as mystifying as ever. Instead of being delighted with his team and coach, Schulman thrust his coach (Lenny Wilkens) and his star player (Lenny Wilkens) into the untenable position of having to choose between coaching duties or simply being a player. Maybe Sam knew something about Lenny’s pride in his skill as a player. If he didn’t, then he surely knew the difference between a player’s and a coach’s salary. Sam Schulman wanted Lenny out.

When Lenny opted for playing a few more years, Sam got what he wanted. Shortly afterwards, the Sonics traded Lenny to Cleveland. Great day for Cleveland, and the beginning of many dismal years for Seattle Sonic teams—until finally this last season, the year when the Sonics, coached by Lenny Wilkens, reached the final round of the NBA championship. Some say he could have got them there a lot earlier if he hadn’t made so many side trips along the way.

In defense of Sam Schulman, he must have had to do a bunch of pride-swallowing when he rehired Lenny Wilkens as coach, and Lenny Wilkens had to do as much gulping as Sam to go back into a relationship that had caused him so much grief in the past. Two proud men, by way of a very circuitous route, find themselves together again, perhaps for a long time. Or perhaps as long as there are more wins on the scoreboard than losses.

So, if pride is a weakness for Lenny, it is also the strength through which he operates. The hundreds of people who listened at that Man-of-the-Year Night learned about the hours of practice and the dedication it takes to finally arrive at the highest strata of the NBA. If it did not occur to them before, it was made plain only few people in the world can be called great at one thing they do in their lives. Along with Bob Cousy, Jerry West, and Oscar Robertson, Lenny Wilkens was one of the premier guards ever to play professional basketball. 

What is so astonishing is the years that this incredibly great athlete remained in obscurity. For years, except for local fans or basketball aficionados, Lenny was only a fine playmaking guard. His drives twisted giants down to his 6-foot-1 size, and he earned his spot on the All-Star squad in nine of his 14 seasons (he was MVP of the 1971 All-Star game). But it is only mildly surprising in our negative society that it took this past season’s coaching success to set the typewriters working again.

Hopefully, Lenny’s SuperSonic miracle will spoil the idea that only the hard-boiled, tough pragmatist can coach in the NBA or anywhere else for that matter. How many times do coaches unthinkingly abuse their authority simply because the idea of a coach is so universally “tough guy”? It’s as if the rules of conduct for coaching have been passed down like a bad inheritance from one family to another. It is not likely that any other human being has such a consistent influence over young minds and bodies in this country as the man, or woman, labeled coach. No teacher, no minister, businessman, merchant, or rock star has that captive an audience. The entire concept of sports in America rests in the collective attitudes of the coaching circles.

Up to now, few young coaches have been able to find enough models of the successful coach who is not ulcered, biting bullets, or living in past glories. Perhaps they can, from now on, look to Lenny Wilkens. He is big-time, high class, a winner. He is also sincere, unspoiled by success, and will never be treated for depression over the loss of one game. “There are no winners or losers in this series,” Lenny said during the playoffs. ”All the guys have worked really hard.”

Looking back on 1978, one cannot understand the Sonic team without visualizing the Sonic coach—with that easy half-smile on his face sitting at one head table or another being feted by mayors, dignitaries, friends, and fans. The praise Lenny received in the past and the praise he is hearing again today are not hollow. Especially now that the words are not confined to a few hundred miles of the Puget Sound, we must begin to know that Durocher was wrong: good guys can finish first. 

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