Lenny Wilkens is second all-time in career wins as an NBA coach. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images

The Lenny Way

By Jon Cooper

No one had to tell Lenny Wilkens that it’s better to give than to receive.

For Wilkens, giving always came first, whether it was in his basketball career that spanned close to 50 years, or through his foundation, which has been in existence for more than 40.

In 15 seasons as a point guard, the 76-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., native, was one of the game’s premiere distributors — a nine-time All-Star and 1971 All-Star Game MVP with the St. Louis Hawks, Seattle Super Sonics and Cleveland Cavaliers. His 7,211 assists rank 12th in NBA history.

In his 32 years as a head coach, his teams won 1,332 games, second-most ever, and he brought the 1979 NBA Championship to Seattle, an accomplishment for which its citizens still thank him.

Wilkens, one of three men to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach — joining John Wooden and Bill Sharman — has become as revered for the work he’s put in on behalf of children through the Lenny Wilkens Foundation. 

The Hawks organization and fans in Atlanta are showing their gratitude by honoring him on Feb. 22 as part of the Hawks Heritage Night, a yearly fixture celebrating the history of the franchise.

“I certainly I feel honored,” Wilkens said. “I spent a part of my career there, certainly it was a good time. The team made progress. We had good fans.”

“He should be honored,” said Hall of Famer and current Hawks broadcaster Dominique Wilkins. “That’s the history of our franchise. We like to bring back people that have been significant in this organization. He was a great player and a great coach. He’s in the Hall of Fame for both. That should tell you something.” 

Wilkens played the first eight years of his career in St. Louis, which drafted him sixth overall in 1960. He led the Hawks to a Western Conference championship, five Conference Championship appearances, a pair of division titles, and seven playoff appearances. St. Louis missed the playoffs in 1962, when Wilkens played only 20 games, after being called up for Reserve duty.

“People had confidence in him,” recalled Hall of Fame forward Bob Pettit, a teammate for five seasons. “You always knew where you stood with him. He would take the young players under his wing and help them and if they were smart they’d listen to him. Obviously, he’s been very active in the community and helping people less fortunate. I’m not the least bit surprised. That is something he would do.”

“Lenny was the captain,” added Lou Hudson, a teammate for two seasons. “Whenever he’d get that crooked smile then you knew he was serious. He was one of those guys who led through example. He was going to do it so he wanted you to do it, too. He was pretty much the coach of the floor.”

Wilkens, would literally be coach on the floor, serving as player-coach for three seasons in Seattle (1969-70 through ‘71-72) then his final NBA season of 1974-75 with Portland before calling it quits as a player in 1975 to concentrate solely on coaching.

It came as little surprise that he’d become one of the greats.

He coached Atlanta to 310 wins, third-most in Hawks history, with a .572 winning percentage, fourth-best (minimum 50 games) and brought home the franchise’s most recent division championship, 20 years ago in 1993-94. That season Atlanta went 57-25, a 14-game improvement from ’92-93, won the Central Division, tied for the best record in the East and reached the Conference Semifinals, losing to Indiana in six games.

Wilkens won his lone Coach of the Year Award that season, despite leading nine teams to 50-win seasons during his career. 

“Stuff happens,” he said, with a laugh. “When I coached Seattle, I took over that team and they were 5-17 and I got them to the Finals, I didn’t get Coach of the Year. Then the next year, when we won the Championship I didn’t get Coach of the Year. So those things happen. But you’ve got to move on.”

Lenny's impact on the league certainly played out on the court, but off of it as well. In particular, people like Dominique have even greater admiration for what Lenny did for African-Americans in the NBA.

“It’s guys like Lenny who paved the road for us,” said Wilkins. “You’re talking Lenny, Dr. J., Wilt Chamberlain, Willis Reed, Bill Russell. Those guys set the stage for us to be successful. They paved the way for us.”

“He’s a class act. He’s a very polished individual, a very smart individual, who brought that image and that persona to the game of basketball,” said Duane Ferrell, who played for Wilkens in ’93-94 and is the team’s current Player Relations and Programs Manager. “He was very modest about his accomplishments, everything he achieved throughout his career. He understands his place in basketball and the legacy that he’s left, but he’s a very humble individual.”

Wilkens coached six more seasons in Atlanta, earning two more 50-win seasons, and retired after resigning as New York Knicks coach during the 2004-05 season. 

Since then his primary focus, working with his wife, Marilyn, has been on his Seattle-based Foundation, which is in its 44th year providing health care and opportunities for young people.

As he did as a player and coach, Wilkens has earned respect for his generosity and genuine caring.

“One time, I asked him, ‘All of these wonderful awards and all of the playing you’ve done, what are you most grateful for?’” recalled Brigid Graham, President of the Foundation. “His answer was ‘That I can make a difference with children.’ He’s very genuine when he says things like that.

“It never surprises me, the honors,” she added. “We have a celebrity event every year in August. We call it “The Friends of the Celebrities.’ Every time I call any of these people for this — last year we had Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, people from Sonics teams and the Hawks — every time I call them the answer is, ‘Whatever Coach wants me to do.’”

Offering a helping hand is something that Wilkens, who lost his father at age five, has always wanted to do.

“I always felt like if you can give back to the community you should,” he said. “In college I was part of Big Brothers and when I came to St. Louis, there was a place called The St. Joseph Home for Boys. My wife and I would have kids over for Thanksgiving and Christmas and stuff like that. When I was in Cleveland, I worked with a program called ‘Shoes For Kids’ and when I came to Seattle I got involved with Big Brothers, with the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic. Those were things I felt I could contribute to. So it just seemed to be a natural.

“A lot of young people out there, all they need is encouragement,” he added. “They need somebody to believe in them. They need someone to let them know they can dream and dream big. I always tell young people ‘Broaden your dream.’”

Jon Cooper is a freelance writer based in Atlanta. 

Second photo by Mitchell Layton/NBAE/Getty Images