Q&A with Lenny Wilkens
Last Thursday, prior to the Suns playing host to the Los Angeles Clippers at US Airways Center, one of the NBA’s most successful coaches, Lenny Wilkens, spoke at the team-organized symposium in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Wilkens also spent an hour with Suns.com to discuss the significance of Dr. King, lessons he took from a Hall of Fame playing and coaching career, memories of coaching Charles Barkley in the Olympics and his take on new Suns interim head coach Lindsey Hunter - who he coached in Toronto.
SUNS.COM: One thing people may not realize here in Phoenix is that you have a tie to the Suns’ new Interim Head Coach Lindsey Hunter. After coaching him for a year in Toronto, what were the indications he showed as a player that maybe led you to believe he would be doing what he’s doing now as a coach?
WILKENS:The one thing is that he had an incredible work ethic, and that I knew was going to take him a long way. He knew the game, there was no getting around that. So it was an enjoyable year, but he wound up getting hurt. I had seen him play, so I knew what his ability was. I just wish I we had him longer while he was healthy.
SUNS.COM: Recently he earned his first win as a coach. You had over 1,300 of them in your coaching career, but can you remember what it was like before that first game? Did you have the time to recognize the moment, were there nerves?
WILKENS: Well, I had nerves. There was no question about that, but once the game starts you settle in. When the game was over, I bet that Lindsey, in his own quiet moment, said to himself, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’ That’s what I did. I wish him the best, and I’m happy for him. He was a hard worker and when you see somebody work like he worked, you feel good when they continue to do well.
SUNS.COM: As for why you’re here today, when you’re asked to speak at a symposium honoring a man such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. what are some of the thoughts that run through your mind?
WILKENS: Well, when you get asked a question like that, you realize very quickly that he was an icon. I started to remember all of the things he was involved in. You know, he got people to begin to understand that others should be judged by the content of their mind and not the color of their skin.
He had a huge impact, not just on our country but on the world. I feel very blessed, very fortunate to have lived during certain times, because I actually played cards with him once. We played hearts. I was in Birmingham, and the guy that I knew through spending time together in the service had known him through family ties.
So just to kill some time – and we had time because we were there for an exhibition game – we sat and played cards with Dr. King.
SUNS.COM: When did you meet Dr. King?
WILKENS: It was right before the March (on Washington). And, of course, that march was one of the most incredible moments of my life. Just to see all of the people there, and it was people from every walk of life, and to hear him speak was just amazing. To hear him talk about his dream was just magnificent.
To get to see all of that, I’ve been very fortunate over the years. That opened the door for a lot of people, and it’s not just for black people. Everyone started to be judged differently. They would take a look at you and take the whole measure of a person, not just look at what color your skin was.
That was what he wanted to accomplish, so for me it was huge to see where we came from as a country. And even where we came from as a league. I think basketball was a forerunner in sports, because they started hiring people in management positions before anyone else.
All you have to do is look at the history of it.
SUNS.COM: Over your years in the league, as a player and a coach, how did you view the change in regards to race relations?
WILKENS: In St. Louis after my first year there (1961), everything opened up and you could eat there. You still couldn’t live anywhere you wanted to live there, but all the restaurants around Kiel Auditorium were open to us very quickly.
In the league, you get to meet people, and what I noticed was that opportunities started to present themselves. In particular, in the front office we began to get some chances. When I look back, Bill Russell and myself were probably some of the first few player-coaches.
So in order to help run the franchise, make trades, evaluate talent and do things of that sort people could begin to see that we were capable of making these decisions.
SUNS.COM: Over your time in the league, you’ve witnessed a lot of change and a lot of growth. Are you proud of the way the league has changed over the years?
WILKENS: I really am. You know, I sat in on negotiations between players and management when we had nothing. The players had a great leader in Larry Fleisher, who was our legal counsel. The thing about Larry is he knew about “win-win.” I thought that was magnificent, because that is what you need for growth on both sides.
So I was fortunate to sit in on those negotiations, and I sat in on a few rules committee changes, too. So I had some influence there.
Watching the league grow has really been amazing. I remember when I first started playing I think there were eight teams in the league. The next year there was nine, because Chicago came in. Then there were three more, and it kept growing. To see how it has grown, I mean just look at the facilities we have today. Hey, I hate to tell you what we played in at times.
SUNS.COM: When you look back you can see a Hall-of-Fame career, a stint as the NBA’s all-time leader in coaching wins, an NBA title and an Olympic gold medal as a coach. What do you think back on first?
WILKENS: What I really think is just that I was blessed. Really, I mean I just had good people in my life, who were always encouraging. I thought winning a championship was huge, but also coaching the Olympic team. I was an assistant in 1992 for the “Dream Team” and the head coach in 1996. That was different because you’re representing your country on an international stage.
Those were huge highlights. But then going into the Hall of Fame was really big, because that’s not something I ever dreamed about as a kid. And then on a trip to Africa, I was able to meet (Nelson) Mandela (in 1993 as part of the NBA’s “Project Teamwork” trip to South Africa). That was such a special moment, and it just allows me to think how fortunate I was over the years.
SUNS.COM: You were around so many greats, but those Olympic teams in 1992 and ’96 were incredibly famous. Obviously one member of those teams is especially important to Phoenix fans, so what did you think of Charles Barkley?
WILKENS: I happen to like Charles a lot. People always say that he’s brash, says what he thinks. Now, he might not always be right, but he doesn’t say anything to hurt anybody. I can remember the year that I was the head coach for Team USA (1996), I was going to give them off a day. But we played “turrible,” so I made them practice. And Charles talked to the whole team and told them it was his fault because he had been out the night before.
He was just great. I’ve always had great relationships with him. When you talk about guys like Charles and Magic Johnson, it was just a lot of fun.
SUNS.COM: That was such a fun era for basketball, so when you look back at those times for the teams you coached for who stands out?
WILKENS: When you think about the Olympic teams, those were just the best players. And I had a chance to coach those players? Come on, that was special. My favorite player – and I’ve coached a lot of guys who have been a blast to be around – had to be Larry Nance. He was a guy who kept the locker room loose, he got everybody ready to play, he gave all the guys on the team nickname and was just a great teammate.