College - Providence '60
The highlight-reel path that led Lenny Wilkens to the Hall of Fame now brings him back home.
Wilkens, the winningest coach in NBA history, returned to his native New York on Jan. 15, 2004, when he was formally introduced as the 21st head coach of the Knickerbockers. And he wasted no time writing the latest chapter in his illustrious career.
Guiding the Knicks to a 23-19 mark following his appointment, Wilkens led New York to its first NBA Playoff berth since 2002. It marked only the second time in Wilkens’ long career that he had taken over a team following Opening Night (also Seattle in 1977-78). And as the Garden crackled with post-season excitement once again, the man at the helm could take pride in accomplishing a feat that had seemed so daunting just a few months earlier.
“It’s always difficult in mid-stream because the die is somewhat cast,” says Wilkens. “Everybody was saying we couldn’t make the Playoffs because of the position we were in, but we were able turn it around. What I tried to do during that time was really try to be careful and not overload them. To change things as we went along, and not come in and have a radical change, because then you take five steps backwards. So we started changing things gradually while trying to utilize our talent. And things panned out for us.”
Now, in 2004-05, Wilkens will guide his hometown team from Day One. And the advantages will be obvious.
“Starting at the beginning when you’re going to training camp and everybody’s on the same page, that’s a lot easier. Not that anything is easy, because you’ve still got to go out there and win games,” says Wilkens, 67. “But it’s much better because we’re all on the same page about what we want to do defensively, what we’re gonna execute, what’s expected of people, all those things are pretty much set. So you come out of training camp with everybody on the same page.”
Now in his 32nd season as an NBA head coach, Wilkens owns a career coaching record of 1,315-1,133 (.537). In addition to being the League’s all-time winningest coach, he has also coached in more games (2,448 regular season games as head coach) than any coach in history. His career Playoff mark of 80-98 (.449) - which includes the 1979 NBA Championship with the Seattle SuperSonics - stamps him as the sixth-winningest Playoff coach in League annals.
Wilkens’ first game as Knicks head coach was a 108-88 victory over Seattle at the Garden on Jan. 16, 2004. Less than a month later, on Feb. 7, 2004, he recorded his 1,300th career triumph as the Knicks won at Miami, 76-64.
Prior to joining the Knicks, Wilkens had been at the helm of the Toronto Raptors for three seasons (2000-01 through 2002-03). He piloted the Raptors to an overall 113-133 (.459) mark and led Toronto to post-season berths in two of his three seasons, including a first-round triumph over the Knicks in 2001.
The Brooklyn native’s career has been studded with honors. Wilkens has been enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player (1988) and coach (1998), sharing that unique double honor with John Wooden and Bill Sharman.
During the NBA’s Golden Anniversary celebration in 1996, Wilkens was not only named one of the 10 Greatest Coaches in NBA History, but one of the League’s 50 Greatest Players as well. He earned a pair of Olympic gold medals as an assistant coach with the original 1992 “Dream Team” in Barcelona and as head coach of the American squad at the 1996 Games in Atlanta.
Wilkens took over the reins of the Knicks after serving as head coach of the SuperSonics (1969-70 through 1971-72, 1977-78 through 1984-85), Portland Trail Blazers (1974-75 through 1975-76), Cleveland Cavaliers (1986-87 through 1992-93), Atlanta Hawks (1993-94 through 1999-2000) and Raptors (2000-01 through 2002-03). In his first four coaching seasons, he was the player-coach of the Sonics and Blazers.
In his first game as an NBA head coach, player-coach Wilkens saw his Sonics lose to the Knicks, 126-101 at the Garden on Oct. 14, 1969, on Opening Night of the Knicks’ eventual World Championship season. More than three decades later, the symbolism of finally coaching in his home town is not lost on Wilkens.
“At first it was sort of like being in the Twilight Zone, you know,” says Wilkens with a smile. “But I think maybe I’ll grasp it more this year. I’ve had lots of people call, lots of friends that I grew up with. And the thing about it is, they’re all big Knick fans, and they all seem to be excited for me. That’s a nice feeling. And, of course, when you’ve grown up in this area, everybody knew Madison Square Garden and knew the Knicks. I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Wilkens has led his teams to nine 50+ win seasons, two divisional championships and two appearances in the NBA Finals. After piloting the Sonics to the Western Conference crown in 1978, he led Seattle to the NBA Championship in 1979.
In 1994, Wilkens was named NBA Coach of the Year after leading the Hawks to a 57-25 mark, the best record in the Eastern Conference. Wilkens has also served as a head coach in four NBA All-Star Games. He became the NBA’s winningest coach on Jan. 6, 1995, when he piloted the Hawks to a 112-90 win over Washington for his 939th career win, surpassing Red Auerbach’s 938.
In the four major professional team sports, Wilkens’ tenure of 32 years as a head coach/manager is surpassed only by baseball’s Connie Mack (53 years) and John McGraw (33) and football’s George Halas (40), Curly Lambeau (33) and Don Shula (33).
One of the greatest point guards in NBA history, Wilkens averaged 16.5 points and 6.7 assists over a 15-year playing career with the St. Louis Hawks (1960-61 through 1967-68), Sonics (1968-69 through 1971-72), Cavaliers (1972-73 through 1973-74) and Blazers (1974-75). A nine-time NBA All-Star and MVP of the 1971 Game at San Diego, he is ninth on the all-time NBA list with 7,211 career assists. His jersey no. 19 was retired by the Sonics in 1979.
After graduating from Brooklyn’s legendary Boys High, Wilkens averaged 14.9 points in a standout college career at Providence, earning Sporting News All-America second team honors as a senior in 1960. Wilkens graduated from Providence with a degree in economics. In 1988, he received an honorary doctorate in humanities from his alma mater, and has also been awarded honorary degrees from Seattle University (in 1995) and Brooklyn’s St. Francis College (in 2004).
Wilkens has served as vice-president of the National Basketball Players Association (1961-69) and as president of the NBA Coaches Association. His autobiography, Unguarded: My Forty Years Surviving in the NBA, was published in 2001.
Born in Brooklyn on Oct. 28, 1937, Lenny and his wife Marilyn have three children, Leesha, Randy and Jaime, and two grandchildren, Ashley and Nicole. They make their off-season home in Seattle.