By Jon Newberry
A point guard is commonly referred to as a team's "floor general." A head coach is often credited for "leading the troops" into battle on the court. It is no coincidence that Lenny Wilkens, a Hall of Fame point guard and coach, is also a veteran of the U.S. Army.
As we celebrate Veterans Day, and honor all who have served, the Hawks flashback to 1961, when their second-year point guard was called into active duty during the Berlin Crisis.
Wilkens had an impressive rookie campaign in 1960-61, playing a large part in the team's run to the Western Division championship and a showdown with the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals. Lenny had begun the season seeing limited action on the court, but quickly earned a spot in the starting lineup.
"The first guy I won over was Bob Pettit," Wilkens would later say when interviewed for Greg Maracek's book, Full Court: The Untold Stories of the St. Louis Hawks. "I knew if I made sure he was going to get the ball as much as possible, I would be accepted by the club."
The team set a new franchise record for wins that season, and prospects looked good for a repeat the next year behind the young point guard, Pettit, and a third future Hall of Famer, Cliff Hagan.
Then, in the summer of 1961, Wilkens was called into active duty. He had been a member of the ROTC program while attending Providence College, and was required to report to Fort Lee in Virginia that May.
"I could have gone overseas during the Berlin crisis," Wilkens said in a 1999 interview with the Academy of Achievement, "but they knew that I had played one year of pro ball and they tried to get me to play for the base team. I wouldn't. I had this phobia that guys who played in the service lost something and never played as well when they came back. They gave me troop duty, which was fine because I enjoyed it. It was a lot of responsibility but I didn't mind."
While Wilkens served in Virginia, the Hawks floundered. By the All-Star break they were 15-31. At that point the NBA reversed an earlier ruling and decided to allow teams to play individuals that were serving in the military as long as they were free on a weekend pass. Elgin Baylor, an Army reservist, was the highest profile player that was effected by this ruling, as he was currently serving at a base in the state of Washington.
"So I finally agreed to play for the base team," said Wilkins, "if they would let me go join the Hawks on any weekends the base team didn't have to play. The military service was interesting. I played basketball for them but I also had some troop duty, which I thought was a great experience."
Wilkens was limited to just 20 games that season as the Hawks struggled. While the franchise lost a year of productivity from Lenny, the leadership skills and values he developed during his year and a half in the U.S. Army benefited his future endeavors as a player and coach.
"I think it helped tremendously," commented Wilkens, "because I was used to working with people, insofar as demanding discipline and helping them to be successful. Those were skills I was able to apply in a lot of things I've done. I think the military was good for people at the time because -- it did -- it taught discipline and it taught that we had to work together to be successful. The other thing it taught me was organization, too. It helped. Whatever organizational skills I had, they just were enhanced because of being in the military."
It is hard to argue.
Almost 50 years later, Wilkens has been inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame as both a player (1989) and as a coach (1996).
He played 15 more seasons after serving in Virginia, six more with the St. Louis Hawks, and earned nine trips to the All-Star game.
After coaching stints with the Trail Blazers, SuperSonics and Cavaliers, Lenny returned to the Hawks in the summer of 1993, becoming the 24th head coach in franchise history. In his first season at the helm in Atlanta, the Hawks tied a franchise record with 57 wins, a 14-win increase from the previous season. Wilkens was rewarded by being named the 1994 NBA Coach of the Year.
With the Hawks in 1995, Wilkens reached a pair of coaching milestones, first passing Red Aurbauch as the NBA's winningest coach and then becoming the first NBA coach to reach 1,000 career wins.
Overall, Wilkens posted a 310-232 record in seven years as the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, earning six trips to the postseason and one Central Division title.