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Lenny Wilkens

By Todd Spehr·

One wonders how many basketball talents have slipped through the cracks or never gained the opportunity they deserved. Lenny Wilkens easily could have been one of those talents. He received a scholarship offer from Providence only after the father -- the father! -- of the coach, Joe Mullaney, was blown away by seeing Wilkens perform in a postseason high school All-Star game. Despite a fantastic collegiate career, Wilkens only decided to make a go of professional basketball after seeing a game in the 1960 championship series between the Boston Celtics and St. Louis Hawks, and deciding, in classic understated Wilkens style, that he too could compete at that level. And in his rookie season, one that initially saw him watching more than playing, it was at a practice session that he boldly confronted his coach, Paul Seymour, one of the most intimidating characters of that era, and told him he should be playing more.

Nine times an All-Star, at retirement the second-best assists man ever, and one of the leftiest lefties to ever go left, Lenny Wilkens always bet on himself -- and basketball was better because he did.

Wilkens’ first eight professional seasons were spent in St. Louis, and his arrival was as the Hawks were gradually descending as a power in the league. His rookie year concluded under the bright lights of The Finals, which proved to be St. Louis’ last trip (and fourth in five seasons) and Wilkins’ only championship appearance. Here we listen as Wilkens discusses his adaptation to the professional game, settling in St. Louis, and working alongside one of the greatest forwards ever, Bob Pettit.

The degree of difficulty always seemed to be high for Wilkens. He was thrown the ball as a rookie and was expected to guide a talented and successful group of veterans in St. Louis. Barely a month after his first season ended, he was summoned for military service at Fort Lee, Va., as a second lieutenant. The 1961-62 season was best defined by a series of weekend passes to play ball and some be-back-to-base-by-midnight instructions for the occasional weekday appearance for the Hawks. He wasn’t discharged until the second week of the 1962-63 season, and, remarkably, made his first All-Star appearance in that same campaign.

Gaining notoriety as a backcourt star in the ’60s was most difficult when occupying the same orbit as Oscar Robertson and Jerry West, even Sam Jones and Hal Greer, but Wilkens did so with consistency and class. In 1968, in leading the Hawks to the best record in the Western Division, he was the runner-up in Most Valuable Player voting, an achievement of distinction when considering the star power in the league at the time. But perhaps the most arduous of tasks Wilkens took on was that of player-coach, which he did for three seasons in Seattle (starting in 1969-70, when he promptly won his only assists title) and later in Portland.

Wilkens candidly discusses some of the disappointments and challenges from his playing career in this insightful interview.

We don’t know why this exists, but it does: Footage of Wilkens joining the SuperSonics in 1968 and then becoming player-coach in 1969. We see him at practice, playing, working the phones, pushing papers -- you know, being a player-coach! Enjoy it for no other reason than it is random. But before that, a note on player-coaching: Wilkens, when on double-duty during the 1974-75 season with the Blazers, was among the last to attempt this fascinating fad in professional basketball. Only Dave Cowens, in the 1978-79 season, did so for an extended period after Wilkens. The results of player-coaches were mostly mixed; Bill Russell stood at the high-end, while others found the multi-layered task just too demanding. Wilkens did so commendably, and it laid the foundation for a record-setting coaching career.

If it happened today, Wilkens would likely have been the subject of a tribute video during the first timeout and most assuredly a warm applause. But this was 1972, Nov. 12 to be exact, and Wilkens was treated to far greater rewards when returning to Seattle for the first time since his controversial trade before the season. Seattle had given Wilkens a decision to make prior to 1972-73: Coach or play. He had decided that, on the heels of a career-best 9.6 assists per game (he was, after all, fourth all-time in assists when that season ended), the answer should have been obvious.

Seattle’s loss was Cleveland’s gain and as the Cavaliers made their first visit that season something most unusual happened: The home crowd swayed. Wilkens received a three-minute standing ovation when introduced, and it may not have ended had it not been for the Sonics’ public address announcer, whose introduction of the home team was met with boos. Signs were found all across the Seattle Center Coliseum supporting Wilkens, and one local writer was moved to claim it as one of the “most nerve-shattering sports spectacles of all-time.”

We aren’t sure about that, but what we do know is Wilkens scored 22 points, grabbed nine rebounds, and passed for nine assists in a Cavs triumph. He would later pen an article for a publication on this game as most memorable above all others in his career, and -- you guessed it -- we have the footage.

It may not have been the game Wilkens chose as his most memorable, but it’s highly likely it was his best: The 1971 NBA All-Star Game in San Diego. The event marked one of the league’s first grand celebrations, as it was celebrating its 25th anniversary in style. A banquet featuring the 10 players selected as the greatest to-date came before a game completely loaded with soon-to-be legends. To that point, has there ever been a greater collection of talent under one roof than in San Diego in 1971? With that as the backdrop, Wilkens scored 21 points to claim Most Valuable Player honors. It was not a typical Wilkens game. Yes, he was penetrating with the same effectiveness and with that lethal left paw; however, in this contest he was thinking score-first, finishing at the rim with either hand as opposed to dishing off at the last instant once the defender was drawn, as was his wont.

No known broadcast tape of this All-Star Game exists. Yet using films of the mid-season classic that were made at the time and now reside in the vault, we have been able to piece together all nine of Wilkens’ field goals from the game, plus a long look at him proudly holding that MVP trophy.

Lenny Wilkens went on to become one of the greatest coaches in NBA history, doing so with the same characteristics -- poise, intellect, thoughtfulness, calculation -- that made him one of the best point guards of his era. In addition to induction into the Hall of Fame as both player and coach, in 1996 when the league announced its list of greatest players and coaches, he was found on both. When those lists were revised in 2021 amid an expanded duration of greatness covering 75 seasons, indeed, he remained on both. It’s a fact that will only grow more impressive with time.

Wilkens’ success on the sidelines, as weighty as they became, should always be viewed as a by-product of his wonderful playing career. And it is there that we finish. He was initially a coach on the floor in a metaphorical sense, and then did so literally. And there has never been a figure in the game who has mastered both playing and coaching to that degree for that long. And for that, Wilkens deserves to be remembered.