After a Hall of Fame career as one of the great playmakers in basketball history, Lenny Wilkens turned to coaching and led his teams to more wins than any other coach in NBA history when retired (Don Nelson surpassed Wilkins in 2010).
As a player, Wilkens was diminutive in stature, but his list of accomplishments made him one of the giants of the game. His reserved demeanor belies his achievements while his self-effacing manner is reflected in his coaching style: a game plan based on unselfish offensive and defensive play that creates powerhouse teamwork.
"I've always believed you need balance," he explained to the Boston Globe. "It's not that I don't want a star -- I'll always take a star -- but even if you have a star, it's important to surround him with the right kind of complementary players."
Wilkens' formula has succeeded beyond even his dreams. On January 6, 1995, in his 22nd NBA season as a head coach, Wilkens became the winningest coach in NBA history, notching his 939th coaching victory to surpass Boston Celtics legend Red Auerbach's 938. The milestone victory came when Wilkens' Hawks defeated Washington 112-90 at the Omni in Atlanta, with Auerbach on hand.
"Red is a legend, so this is a huge achievement," said Wilkens, who took a few puffs from a cigar in tribute to Auerbach. "When I started coaching, all of us looked at Red and thought his record was something that would stand forever. The satisfaction is that only one person can be No. 1 at the time. Only one guy can be at the top. It's nice to be there, for however long. I got there, and no one can take that from me."
Wilkens reached another milestone on March 1, 1996 when his Hawks defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 74-68, making him the first coach in NBA history to record 1,000 regular season NBA victories. After 30 seasons as an NBA head coach, Wilkens left the bench with his last stop being with the Toronto Raptors in the 2002-03 campaign. He had coached 2,046 regular season games, 164 playoff games and four NBA All-Star Games, making him the only head coach in NBA history with more than 2,000 games under his belt.
He trailed only Major League Baseball's Connie Mack (53 years) and John McGraw (33) and the National Football League's George Halas (40), Curly Lambeau (33) and Don Shula (33) for the longest tenure as a head coach in a major professional sports league.
Among his coaching trophies are a 1979 NBA championship with the Seattle SuperSonics and a 1994 NBA Coach of the Year Award with the Atlanta Hawks. These accomplishments and others often overshadow his equally impressive feats as a player. In 15 seasons as a 6-1 point guard for the St. Louis Hawks, Seattle SuperSonics, Cleveland Cavaliers and Portland Trail Blazers, Wilkens accumulated 17,772 points, 7,211 assists, and nine trips to the NBA All-Star Game.
For his exploits on the court Wilkens was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1988.
Ordinarily, a player and coach with Wilkens' remarkable record would garner considerable media attention. Yet despite his tremendous success as both a player and a coach, Wilkens has not achieved the celebrity accorded some other NBA greats. His gentlemanly manner and humble disposition have not changed in 30 years, observed Jack Ramsay, who posted 864 coaching victories in the NBA ranks. "He's poised, calm and patient, always under control, accepting the good and the bad equally," Ramsay told the Miami Herald in 1993.
Wilkens' career in basketball almost foundered at the start. Despite making the Boys High School team in Brooklyn, N.Y. as a freshman (the last man on a 12-man squad), Wilkens did not go out for the team the next two years because he didn't think he was good enough to play. He honed his skills instead in various Catholic Youth Organization leagues.
Tommy Davis, a close friend from their Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood who would eventually star for the Los Angeles Dodgers, encouraged his buddy to try out for the high school team during his senior year. As a midyear graduate Wilkens played only half the schedule, missing the city tournament and the resulting publicity. But his CYO coach, Father Thomas Mannion, convinced Providence College coach Joe Mullaney to offer Wilkens a scholarship for the fall of 1956.
Wilkens established himself quickly at Providence, leading the freshman team to a 23-0 record in 1956-57. In his three varsity seasons Wilkens averaged only 14.9 points, but the defensive skills he had acquired as a teenager in New York began to attract attention. He contributed 15.7 points per game as a junior, helping Providence to the National Invitation Tournament semifinals. As a senior in 1959-60 Wilkens led the Friars to the NIT championship game, which they lost to Bradley University, and earned tournament MVP honors. He was also a first-team selection to two All-America squads.
The St. Louis Hawks selected Wilkens in the first round of the 1960 NBA Draft. Even then he wasn't sure he wanted to play in the NBA. He didn't see his first NBA game until after he had been drafted. After attending a Celtics-Hawks matchup he decided he could play better than the Hawks' guards he saw on the floor. So Wilkens went to training camp and, sure enough, earned himself a spot in the starting lineup.
He scored 11.7 points per game as a rookie, fourth on the team behind Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagan and Clyde Lovellette. The Hawks won the Western Division title and advanced to meet the Boston Celtics in the 1961 NBA Finals, which they lost in five games.
St. Louis had a frustrating season in 1961-62, as injuries and other circumstances caused a severe drop to a 29-51 record and a fourth-place finish in the Western Division. Veteran guard John McCarthy missed 65 games with a leg injury, Lovellette missed 40 games, and Larry Foust sat out 23. Perhaps most damaging, however, Wilkens couldn't avoid a prior military commitment; he played in only 20 contests while commuting from Fort Lee, Virginia. In those 20 games he averaged 18.2 ppg and 5.8 apg. The Hawks missed the playoffs in 1962 for the only time in the eight years that Wilkens spent with the team.
Wilkens returned to regular NBA duty in 1962-63 and continued his development as a confident and savvy playmaker. He tallied 11.8 points and 5.1 assists per game that year and made his first appearance in the NBA All-Star Game. He guided the Hawks to six consecutive playoff appearances beginning in 1963, but St. Louis wouldn't return to the NBA Finals. A five-time All-Star during those six seasons, Wilkens had his finest campaign in 1967-68, averaging 20.0 ppg and 8.3 apg and finishing runner-up to Wilt Chamberlain for the NBA Most Valuable Player Award.
However, following that season the Hawks traded Wilkens to Seattle for Walt Hazzard. The expansion Sonics were entering their second season in 1968-69, and Wilkens helped them to a respectable 30-52 record by averaging 22.4 ppg and 8.2 apg.
Prior to the 1969-70 season Seattle general manager Dick Vertlieb asked Wilkens to become player-coach. As Wilkens remembered in the Boston Globe almost 25 years later, "We went around and around. I told him no at first. I finally decided, what the heck, I had nothing to lose; I'd try it and see if I liked it. Everyone always said I was like a coach on the floor, anyway."
In his first year as player-coach, Wilkens described the dual job as "a novelty." By his third year the Sonics had posted a 47-35 record to go over the .500 mark for the first time in franchise history. He continued to shine as a player, leading the league in total assists in both 1969-70 and 1971-72. But as the novelty wore off Wilkens began to feel the strain.
"I began to realize that I had to do a lot more to coach successfully," he told HOOP magazine. "After a while, we had started to do more things within the league, with trapping and double-teaming, becoming more sophisticated. And we were finding that young players were coming in and they didn't really know the game. So that required a lot of teaching, and helping them to understand situations, and I began to realize after awhile that I couldn't do both."
Nissalke had a long-term vision for the team, and that vision did not include Wilkens, who at age 35 would be the oldest starting point guard in the NBA. In a move that drew the ire of loyal Sonics fans, not to mention Wilkens himself, Seattle traded Wilkens and Barry Clemens to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for Butch Beard. On the day the trade was announced, 200 Sonics ticket holders signed a petition that stated unequivocally, "If Lenny goes, I stay home."
The Cavaliers were entering their third season in the NBA and had averaged only 19 wins in their first two campaigns. At first the disillusioned Wilkens refused to join the team, and when he finally did Cleveland already owned an 0-6 record.
Before Wilkens's arrival, Cleveland's set offense usually consisted of five men who stood around until the time on the 24-second shot clock had nearly expired, at which point someone would toss up a questionable shot. However, with Wilkens directing the action the attacks became crisper, even if the art of shooting eluded the team.
"We're still using basically the same offense we've had since the team's first year," coach Bill Fitch commented to Sports Illustrated in his assessment of Wilkens' contribution, "but now if it breaks down, Lenny will make a play. A playmaker isn't a guy who simply runs patterns for you. He's the guy who can make things happen when the set things haven't panned out. When the clock gets down to five or six seconds, he'll go to one of the basics -- one-on-one, pick and roll, pass-and-cut. And he'll make them work."
Wilkens represented the Cavaliers in the 1973 NBA All-Star Game during a season in which he averaged 20.5 ppgand 8.4 apg. He concluded his playing career with the Portland Trail Blazers during the 1974-75 season, once again seduced by the dual role of player-coach. But this time he knew that his on-the-job training as a guard was no substitute for his role as teacher, which demanded a great deal more of his time. "I realized I would have to start focusing more on the coaching end of things to be successful at it," he told HOOP.
During Wilkens' 15 years as a player in the NBA, he scored 17,772 points for an average of 16.5 ppg and handed out 7,211 assists. He ranks among the all-time leaders in assists, games played, minutes played and free throws made. The nine-time All-Star was also the MVP of the 1971 midseason classic in San Diego.
After retiring as a player in 1975, Wilkens stayed on with the Blazers to coach one more season, guiding a team led by Bill Walton to a 37-45 record in 1975-76. After that campaign Portland replaced Wilkens with Jack Ramsay, who would become the most successful coach in that team's history.
Wilkens returned to Seattle in May, 1977 as director of player personnel. But 22 games into the 1977-78 season, with the Sonics at 5-17 under Bob Hopkins, Wilkens moved into the head coaching role. He then engineered a remarkable turnaround, guiding the team to the NBA Finals that season and then to an NBA championship the following year by defeating a favored Washington Bullets team led by Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld. Using a team-oriented philosophy, Wilkens crafted a championship club out of a competent but unspectacular unit that included Gus Williams, Dennis Johnson, Jack Sikma, Fred Brown, John Johnson and Lonnie Shelton.
"I still remember when I took over that team," Wilkens recalled in 1994. "I had heard general managers and other people say it was the worst team ever. And when I turned them around, all of a sudden everyone said, 'Well, we all knew they had the talent.'"
Wilkens remained in Seattle as head coach and director of player personnel through the 1984-85 season, guiding the Sonics to the playoffs in six of eight years. In 1985, following a 31-51 campaign, he relinquished the coaching duties and became the team's vice president and general manager.
After one year in the front office Wilkens was lured back to the bench by the Cleveland Cavaliers, who hired him as head coach for the 1986-87 season. Wilkens joined the Cavaliers with a promising crop of newcomers that included rookies Brad Daugherty, Ron Harper, John "Hot Rod" Williams and Mark Price. During the next seven seasons Wilkens took a team that had finished 29-53 in 1985-86 and molded it into a perennial Eastern Conference power. He logged three 50-win seasons, including a franchise-record 57 victories in 1988-89 and 1991-92, and reached the conference finals in 1992.
During his tenure in Cleveland, Wilkens received his most cherished honor: in 1989 he was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Wilkens enhanced his place in basketball history during the summer of 1992 when he worked as an assistant coach on the U.S. Olympic basketball team. He joined head coach Chuck Daly and fellow assists Mike Krzyzewski and P.J. Carlesimo in leading the original Dream Team to the gold medal in Barcelona.
The 1992-93 campaign was one of chart-climbing for Wilkens. He began the season ranked No. 5 on the all-time victory list of NBA coaches and ended it in the No. 2 spot with 869 wins, only 69 behind Red Auerbach. But the season ended in familiar frustration. After winning 54 regular-season games Cleveland was bumped from the playoffs by the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls for the fourth time in six years. Wilkens had developed the Cavaliers into a solid, fundamentally sound team, but he could never lead them past the Bulls and into the NBA Finals. He resigned after the playoffs.
Other teams came calling almost immediately, and by June, Wilkens signed on to coach the Atlanta Hawks for the 1993-94 season. With typical efficiency, Wilkens' team-oriented strategy began to work, quickly taking Atlanta to new and higher levels. The Hawks, who had finished 43-39 the previous season, set a team record for scoring defense (96.2 points allowed per game) behind a stifling backcourt of Mookie Blaylock and Stacey Augmon. They finished the campaign at 57-25, matching the best record in franchise history and winning their first Central Division title since 1987.
In 1994-95, the Hawks recovered from a sluggish start to go 42-40 and earn a spot in the playoffs, where they were eliminated by Indiana.They improved by four wins in 1995-96, a season in which they acquired Christian Laettner in midseason, and stunned favored Indiana in the first round of the playoffs before bowing to Shaquille O'Neal, Penny Hardaway and the Orlando Magic in the conference semifinals. And they continued to build in Wilkens' defensive mold by signing free agent center Dikembe Mutombo, the NBA's shotblocking king, in the summer of 1996.
For Wilkens, however, the summer of 1996 will be remembered for the time spent coaching the Dream Team to Olympic gold. Despite some slow starts and close first-half play, Team USA won each of its games by at least 18 points and defeated Yugoslavia 95-69 in the gold medal game.
The Hawks, featuring a stifling defense led by Mutombo and Blaylock, improved by 10 games to 56-26 in 1996-97 to finish second behind Chicago in the Central Division. Atlanta then defeated Detroit 3-2 in a spirited first-round playoff series before bowing to the eventual champion Bulls in five games in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
It was the fourth 50-plus win season in the past six years for a team guided by Wilkens. He was enshrined in the Hall of Fame as a coach in 1998 but continued to coach through the 2002-03 season.