When Lenny Wilkens enters KeyArena as Head Coach of the Toronto Raptors and looks skyward, he can see a visual representation of his impact on the Seattle SuperSonics. At the north end of the arena, left to right, he sees his retired jersey (#19, one of just four jerseys retired by the team); the jerseys of two players he coached (#32, Fred Brown, and #43, Jack Sikma); and banners for the 1977-78 Western Conference Championship and 1978-79 Western Conference and NBA Championships he coached the Sonics to. In addition, it could be said without hyperbole that none of the other banners, perhaps not even KeyArena, would exist without Wilkens’ influence. In the 36-year history of the Sonics, no single person has done more to establish the team than Wilkens. There have been better players, better front office personnel, and perhaps even a better coach. But no one can come close to the combination of the three that Wilkens provided.
Lenny Wilkens was an All-Star three times in four seasons as a Sonics player.
At first, it was just Wilkens the player. A five-time All-Star with the St. Louis Hawks, Wilkens was dealt to Seattle in the first trade in Sonics history for guard Walt Hazzard. A New York native who had played his entire career in the east, Wilkens knew little about the budding city (or team) out west he had been traded to. He did know that his dreams of a championship would have to be put on hold. “At that time, I was going from a team that was a contender to a team that more than likely wasn’t going to make the playoffs, so I wasn’t enthralled by it,” Wilkens recalls. Still, Wilkens came, played hard, made the All-Star team, and led the Sonics to a seven-game improvement.
That improvement and a 30-52 team wasn’t good enough for Coach Al Bianchi, who resigned after the season. His replacement? None other than Wilkens, who at age 32 would become player-coach. Despite having to split his attention between playing and coaching, Wilkens maintained his All-Star form for the next two years while also helping the youthful Sonics draw closer to a .500 record and a playoff berth. They broke through the former barrier during the 1971-72 season, winning a team-record 47 games. In the hotly-contested Western Conference, however, that was not enough to grab a playoff spot as the Sonics limped to the finish following injuries to several players, including star Spencer Haywood.
After the season, Sonics President Sam Schulman issued Wilkens an ultimatum: Choose either playing or coaching. Despite a record as Coach of 121-125, Wilkens resigned the position. He promised his loyalty to his replacement. “I thought I would give my full support to the coach, and I figured anyone who knew me would know that,” Wilkens says now. However, management did not believe him. On Aug. 23, 1972, Wilkens and Barry Clemens were traded to Cleveland for young point guard Butch Beard. Wilkens still bristles thinking about the way the trade came about. “I had heard rumors I was going to be traded. I asked our front office about it. They denied it, so I took them at their word. And then, my father-in-law called me and told me I had been traded to Cleveland the day before they told me.”
The move turned out to be a catastrophic mistake. Without Wilkens’ leadership on and off the court, the Sonics slipped to 26-56, and his replacement, Tom Nissalke, was fired after 45 games. Wilkens’ return to Seattle was an emotional evening. Sonics fans booed their own team – 4-10 at the time – and cheered Wilkens, giving him a two-minute standing ovation pre-game. The memory is much happier for Wilkens, who calls it “wonderful”. Cleveland won 113-107 and Wilkens had 22 points, nine rebounds, and nine assists. Wilkens made the All-Star team; Beard lasted only one season in Seattle, traded, in a strange twist of fate, for Hazzard.
After there was Wilkens the player and Wilkens the player-coach, there was Wilkens the front office executive. He was named director of player personnel on May 13, 1977. He had previously served as coach of the Portland Trail Blazers before being fired at the end of the 1975-76 season. That summer, Wilkens oversaw the acquisition of guard John Johnson, Paul Silas, Wally Walker, Gus Williams and Marvin Webster. The additions seemed like they would be enough to return the Sonics to contender status, but they instead got off to a miserable 5-17 start to the season. Coach Bob Hopkins was relieved of his duties and replaced with Wilkens, bringing about yet another era, Wilkens the coach.
The Sonics immediately won six games in a row, finished the season 47-35 – their best record since Wilkens was player-coach – and made the playoffs. Silas gives all the credit for the change in the team’s fortunes to Wilkens. “Lenny just brought a positive attitude to the ballclub. We had the talent already,” indicates the current New Orleans Head Coach. Wilkens also feels his positive attitude was key, saying, “When I took over, they were all down and everything, and I just thought they were better than they had played.” The new coach also changed the Sonics lineup, creating the starting five of Williams, Dennis Johnson, John Johnson, Jack Sikma and Webster.
In the playoffs, the Sonics ran through the Western Conference, beating Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers, the defending Champion Blazers (albeit with an ailing Bill Walton) and the Denver Nuggets to make the NBA Finals for the first time. Playing against the Washington Bullets, the Sonics took a 3-2 lead in the series but lost the final two games, including Game Seven at home. Still, Wilkens stayed optimistic. Not only was his team’s comeback remarkable even without a Finals victory – “They went from people saying they were one of the worst teams in the league to one of the better teams,” he points out – but Wilkens believed his team would get another chance. “I knew that we’d have the same guys back next year that, if we all committed to it, that if we got in that same situation again we’d be a much better team.”
While the lineup changed slightly, with Lonnie Shelton replacing Webster, Wilkens was right. With him at the helm for a full season, the Sonics posted their best record in team history, 52-30. They cruised past the Lakers for a second straight year before staging their own comeback from a 3-2 deficit in the Western Conference Finals against Phoenix. Their opponents in the NBA Finals would be, for a second straight year, the Bullets. Wilkens’ words proved prophetic as the Sonics cruised to a 4-1 victory in the series and their first NBA Championship.
As a coach, Lenny Wilkens is known for his patience and optimism.
A year later, the Sonics were even better in the regular season, setting another team record with 56 wins. October 19 was particularly sweet for Wilkens, as he became the first Sonics player to have his number retired. But in the playoffs, they ran into the unstoppable combination of Magic Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar, who would rule the Western Conference with the Lakers throughout the 1980s. Though the Sonics would still contend after re-signing guard Gus Williams, who sat out the 1980-81 season as the Sonics slipped to 34-48, their record declined every year after 1981-82. That culminated in a 31-51 record during the 1984-85 season. Afterwards, it was a return to Wilkens the front office executive as he took on the position of President/General Manager. He spent one year in the front office, overseeing the selection of Wichita State forward Xavier McDaniel in the 1985 Draft, before leaving the Sonics for the first time in nearly a decade to take the Head Coach job in Cleveland.
Wilkens has coached ever since, guiding the Atlanta Hawks and the Toronto Raptors since leaving Cleveland. He has enjoyed success in each location. The Cavaliers emerged as a consistent playoff threat in the early-1990s under Wilkens but were able to serve only as foil for Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, while Wilkens led the Hawks to a team-record 57 wins in 1994 and earned the NBA’s Coach of the Year honors in the process. He continued to lead the team to regular playoff success until Atlanta rebuilt during the 1999-00 season. The following year, Wilkens left for Toronto, where he got the young Raptors within one shot of the Eastern Conference Finals during his first season at the helm.
In his 30 years as a Head Coach – most in league history – and 42 years in the NBA in some capacity, Wilkens has experienced almost everything the league has to offer. He became the league’s winningest Coach on Jan. 6, 1995, passing Red Auerbach. He now has 1,276 victories during his distinguished career and has served as both assistant (1992) and Head Coach (1996) of gold medal-winning USA Olympic basketball teams. He has also been elected to the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and coach. Still, Wilkens keeps going at age 65. The reason was obvious when he and the Raptors visited Seattle earlier this season. “It’s a great game,” he told reporters at the time. “And when you see it working, it’s even more fun.” Despite injuries that have caused his Toronto Raptors to have a miserable season, Wilkens’ passion for the game is unquestioned.
In all the cities he’s seen, Seattle remains a special place in Wilkens’ heart. He still maintains his home here, and says he enjoys playing in Seattle because of the chance to come home. 17 years after Wilkens last was a part of the Sonics organization, he continues to receive loud ovations from the KeyArena crowd. And if he ever forgets his importance to the team and its fans, the remedy is simple: He need only look up.