Lenny Wilkens — A giant on the basketball floor
Don’t let his size fool you – he was a giant on the basketball floor.
A diminutive six-foot-one-inch, Lenny Wilkens – a Hall of Famer – retired as one of the great playmakers in basketball history.
And one of the great coaches.
Yet, his basketball career needed a huge kick-start.
“I only played a half-a-year of high school basketball at Boys High,” he told the Eagle. “I made the team as a freshman. I was the last man on a 15-man squad.”
Wilkens didn’t go out for the team the next two seasons.
“I dropped off the team,” he said, “to work and help support my family.”
In fact, Wilkens admits it was baseball – not basketball – that was his first real love.
But it was Tommy Davis – yes that Tommy Davis — of Los Angeles Dodgers fame – who encouraged Wilkens to once again try out his senior year.
“Tommy really pushed me,” he said, “I just didn’t think I was good enough to play.”
But Lenny Wilkens pushed, and practiced and played on those tough Brooklyn playgrounds near his home at 237 Reid Avenue in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of the borough.
Finally – he was a member of the Kangaroos’ basketball squad as a senior – albeit only playing half the season.
“I was a mid-year graduate,” he explained, “and missed the PSAL playoffs.”
But he still managed a basketball scholarship to Providence College.
“A priest friend of mine – Father Thomas Mannion, convinced then Providence College coach Joe Mullaney to offer me a scholarship,” he said.
That was in the Fall of 1956.
In fact, Mullaney was in Madison Square Garden to see those PSAL playoffs – minus Lenny Wilkens.
“He (Mullaney) talked to me,” Wilkens said, “and invited me to play in the Long Island Flushing Y Tourney.”
Wilkens played. His team won. He walked off with the MVP trophy,
He led the Friars’ freshman team to a perfect 23-0 record in 1956-57. In his three varsity seasons Wilkens averaged 14.9 points-per-game, but it was his court knowledge and defensive skills that began to attract attention nationwide.
As a junior, his 15.7 game average helped Providence to the National Invitation Tournament semifinals. As a senior, Wilkens led the Friars to the NIT championship game, which they lost to Bradley University, and earned tournament MVP honors.
Next – another crossroads.
The St. Louis Hawks selected Wilkens in the first-round of the 1960 NBA Draft. ” I wasn’t sure I wanted to play in the NBA,” he said.
In fact, he didn’t see his first NBA game until after he had been drafted.
That didn’t matter – during his 15 years as a player he scored 17,772 points (16.5 ppg) and handed out 7,211 assists. He ranks among the all-time leaders in assists, games played, minutes played and free throws made. The nine-time All-Star was also the MVP of the 1971 All-Star Game in San Diego.
Add an additional four more all-star appearances as an NBA coach.
“I always liked running the show,” he said, “controlling the tempo.” In fact, Wilkens said as a high school performer for the Kangaroos, his coach – Mickey Fisher – said, “I had great court vision.
“I didn’t know what that meant back then,” the soon-to-be 85-year-old Wilkens admits.
Records and stats aside – perhaps the greatest claim to fame for Lenny Wilkens – he has been inducted three times into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame – first in 1989 as a player, as a coach in 1998, and in 2010 as part of the 1992 United States Olympic Dream Team, for which he served as an assistant coach.
In 1996, he was named to the NBA 50th Anniversary Team and in 2022 he was also named to the list of the 15 Greatest Coaches in NBA History, being the only person to be in both NBA 75th season celebration list as a player and coach. He is a 2006 inductee into the College Basketball Hall of Fame.
His legacy? Easy
“I enjoyed both playing and coaching,” he said. “It’s hard to separate the two.”
We won’t. In fact, we can’t.
He coached the Seattle SuperSonics eight seasons (1977-1986), winning his — and Seattle’s – only NBA Championship in 1979.
During the 1994-95 season, Wilkens set the record for most regular season coaching wins in NBA history – a record he held when he retired with 1,332 wins.
“I remember it well,” he said, “it was in Atlanta.”
The date – January 6, 1995 – his 22nd season as a head coach, and he became the winningest coach in NBA history notching his 939th to surpass Boston Celtics’ legend Red Auerbach’s 938.
The milestone came when his Hawks defeated Washington, 112-90 – with Auerbach present.
“As a tribute to Red,” Wilkens said, “I took a few puffs on a cigar after the win. It was kinda funny,” he remembers, “as my assistant Dick Helm was carrying around a cigar with him for about a week.”
Wilkens reached another milestone on March 1,1996 when his Hawks defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers, 74-68, making him the first coach in NBA history to record 1,000 regular season NBA victories.
He’s the only head coach in NBA history with more than 2,000 games under his belt.
And for all those games, who are his Top Five?
“I’d probably go with the Big O (Oscar Robertson), Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor,” he said.
That’s only four.
The fifth spot – easy – Lenny Wilkens.
Not too shabby for a kid who placed baseball ahead of basketball.
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