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Shaun Powell

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Lenny Wilkens dealt with racism during the turbulent 1960s to eventually become an NBA champion.
Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Hall of Famer Wilkens: Fighting racism, breaking barriers


Posted Feb 15 2012 1:13PM

Lenny Wilkens is in the Hall of Fame as a player and a coach. Let that soak in for a second. Is there anything else he could've accomplished in basketball?

Actually, yes. He was also a pioneer on the floor and the bench as one of the first African-American stars in an age when he wasn't universally welcomed as either a player or coach. Wilkens came of age in the 1950s, played professionally in the 60s and coached in the 70s. America was changing in those decades, learning how to connect to blacks, relate to blacks, even live next door to blacks. And yes, root for blacks in sports.

It was a bumpy transition for most, even Wilkens, son of a black father and Irish mother who was born and raised in Brooklyn.

"I never had any problems in Brooklyn, in terms of race," Wilkens said. "That all started when I left Brooklyn."

As a player, Wilkens had a quick move to the hoop and almost always went to his left -- and few could stop him. He was a nine-time All-Star and member of the NBA's 50th anniversary team. As a coach, he won a championship in Seattle, had terrific teams in Cleveland and Atlanta and passed Red Auerbach as the all-time winningest coach while with the Hawks.

Now 74 and living the easy life in Seattle, Wilkens made a recent stop in Atlanta, site of his landmark victory, and spoke with NBA.com. Here's his story, in his words.

Born in Brooklyn

My dad died when I was five, and we were raised by my mother. She was a tough lady, with very strong principles. She didn't take any nonsense so there was no way we could get into any trouble, not with her in the house.

We were mixed race but that was normal in my neighborhood. We had people from all ethnicities. The Germans ran the delis, the Greeks opened the first supermarkets, everyone had something they did to make the neighborhood special and a true community. Anyway, when you're poor, you don't know any different. And everyone in our neighborhood, black and white and whatever, was mostly poor.

There wasn't much tension or trouble. Except from the gangs. And they weren't too bad to me. When they saw me and other kids who were involved in sports coming their way, while they sat on the steps smoking reefer, they'd shoo us away. "Get out of here, you don't belong here." That's what they told us. They didn't want us around them, to become one of them. They told us to get lost. They protected us.

My hero was Jackie Robinson. I grew up playing baseball with my best friend, Tommy Davis, who later played in the major leagues, and I didn't live too far from Ebbets Field. I'd go to the games, sit in the bleachers. It was only 50 cents in those days so I could afford that. I loved Jackie because of everything he stood for, because of the man and the ballplayer he was. He had integrity and he wouldn't let anything that anyone said or did stand in his way. And he was a family man, I liked that about him, too. Even though I was young, it still registered with me, those principles. I wanted to be just like Jackie.

Fighting stereotypes at Providence

I had a class where they posted the marks outside of class. I wanted to be the best in my classes. I didn't just go to school to play ball. I majored in economics because I wanted to know what I'd be able to do with money if I ever got some. There was this professor. He was asking questions and calling on students to answer them. I noticed he kept skipping over a few students row by row. Then I figured it out. He was skipping the athletes in class because he figured they didn't know anything. Sure enough, he comes to my row and skips over me. So I immediately jumped up and said, "Hey, you missed me." The whole class started laughing. They knew what was going on, too.

Racial shock in St. Louis

When I first got to St. Louis as a rookie with the Hawks in 1960, I knew things were different right from the first training camp. We stayed at the Sheraton downtown, but when we went across the street for something to eat, they wouldn't serve us. I kind of knew it was like that because I went to Providence College and we played a game in St. Louis once, so I was prepared. Still, it angered me.

I'd get mail. I thought it was fan mail. I saw Cliff Hagan and Bob Pettit, who were the stars of our team, going through their mail and reading it and smiling and so I ripped open my mail. I didn't know. I found out very quickly it wasn't fan mail.

My teammates didn't help me out at first. They were a product of their times. But it had more to do with me taking somebody's job. Only after they saw I could play and help the team, everything was fine. Pettit and Hagan went out of their way to make sure I was OK. I thanked them for that, because it was tough on me in St. Louis, a place that didn't welcome me.

You've got to understand, I grew up in Brooklyn. You threw a rock at me, you were going to get one thrown back at you. I don't know how others put up with it. I couldn't. I couldn't do what Jackie did. It would've been a disaster if that had been me.

When Dr. King died in 1968, no one on the Hawks talked about not playing the next game. But if we all decided we wouldn't play, then we weren't going to. We were that close-knit. We had grown up together in the 60s and been through a lot.

My family moved to a place called Moline Acres, just outside St. Louis on the north side, and bought a house. Within days, "For Sale" signs went up all over the neighborhood. We had a puppy and one time I left it in the backyard while running some errands. I came back and the dog was frothing at the mouth. I was upset. I was defiant.

There was this carport next to our house, and I was outside with my little girl in the front yard and noticed our neighbor would always back his car in the carport, just so he didn't have to look at us. I was so mad. So I was out there in my front yard every evening at 6, when he'd come home, just so he'd have to back his car in. My wife thought I had gone crazy. Eventually the signs came down once our neighbors discovered we were like everyone else. But some still wouldn't speak.

Coaching in the NBA

The year I passed Red, we knew it was going to happen, sooner or later. In the games leading up to it, I thought my players were trying too hard. They were very aware of it, perhaps more than they should've been. Once it happened, I got a call from Red. He told me he was happy that it was me who broke the record. You never know how people might feel about that sort of thing, so it was nice to hear. I have a lot of respect for Red and what he did for the Celtics, in terms of winning and also bringing black players on the team.

Over the years, guys have thanked me for what I did in the game, and also for helping them. If I saw a young player struggling, I didn't care what team he was on. I'd do something to help him relax. Players today appreciate the players in the past more than you think. Most of them are aware of who came before them, although I did get a laugh when Shaq had to ask his father if I played the game.

People ask me what was more special, passing Red or winning a championship, and without question it was winning the championship. Because it showed all the things I believed and I knew. It all materialized. It was first supposed to happen in Portland, where I coached in the 70s. When I was there, I put that team together. I drafted Bobby Gross and Lionel Hollins. Then I was fired. When they got Bill Walton and did win, I felt good. But I got a chance to do it again when I went to the Sonics in the front office. I traded for Marvin Webster and got Paul Silas and picked Jack Sikma. And then I coached those guys. We won a title when nobody really picked us to win. For me it was vindication.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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