He is small by the standards of his peers and in their company appears frail as well. There is an air of the delicate about him—never in the vulgar sense of dainty, but of fineness and precision. He is shy, with mournful brown eyes, and is often by himself. Normally he does not raise his voice, being the quietest man ever to come out of Brooklyn, and though Lenny Wilkens is tall in the general population, at 6'1", he leaves no impression on the casual observer. "He is never recognized in a crowd," his wife Marilyn says. "Lenny doesn't like for me to say this, but he just melts in."
Wilkens often is lost in that sense, too, on the court—somehow unobtrusive even though he is running the show from backcourt, handling the ball more than anyone else. He is pale-skinned and he perspires hardly at all, so that, as a game progresses and the bodies about him begin to glow pink or glisten sable under the lights, it becomes even more difficult to appreciate that the expressionless little dry beige guy whom Elgin Baylor nicknamed "Sweety Cakes" is the one in absolute command.
This year Wilkens comes on the court for the first time with more than just his usual de facto authority. There is the badge of authentic leadership, a whistle about his neck. As the new coach of the Seattle SuperSonics, Wilkens is—in no particular order, for all are absolute qualifiers—the quietest man among major league coaches, the only black one and the only playing coach. Certainly, all three factors could add to the task before him, and he recognizes that. (Indeed, the assignment has been made even more difficult because the Sonics, with no general manager and player-contract problems, are off to a poor start.) "I had to convince myself that I would be doing the right thing to accept the job," he says. "What happens if I don't win? There are a lot of people—not all malicious, but a lot of people—waiting for me to fall on my face. Do I need that?"
Of course, he took the job, for if Lenny Wilkens is a cautious man he is also analytical. It was not unlike 1960 when he was deciding whether or not to play for the St. Louis Hawks, who had drafted him. Wilkens did not feel that he was good enough for the NBA, but someone took him to see the Celtics play, and the Hawks happened to be the opponents. By the time the game was half over he had decided to sign, because he had seen the Hawk guards and he realized he could beat them. When Al Bianchi quit and Wilkens was offered the Sonics job last summer, he remembers thinking: "Let's face it, who else better is available? I know the players. One advantage. I've played the pros nine years and I've learned it as well as anybody else. After all, I went to a predominantly white college and I got good grades, so presumably I was as smart to start with as the next guy in the league nine years ago, and I've been running things from the backcourt all along. My biggest advantage, though, is the way I have played. It's been part of my life to look for the best man, to find the best situation and react. And that's coaching."
November 24, 1969
He blows the whistle at the first Seattle practice. "All right, let's spread out," he says. He selects his top rookie, Lucius Allen, a young man not especially noted for any predilection for physical culture, to lead the team in calisthenics. Then Wilkens runs the Sonics—and runs with them—in long, arduous layup drills, in fast-break exercises, in an extended scrimmage. He blows the whistle and assembles all his men in a corner of the gym. It is a very brief appraisal the Sonics hear. "I never saw so many forced shots," their coach says evenly. "Just because it is the first practice of the season is no excuse for that. Now the next time—force a shot and you're coming out. I mean it." Coach Wilkens adds, still softly, with no more inflection, "I'm not going to have this raggedy kind of basketball again."
"I love Lenny," says Tommy Davis, the baseball player who grew up with Wilkens in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant area. "He is a man and a true friend who can be depended upon, but it is not only that he is steadfast and honorable. I love Lenny for what he has achieved. He went in there with all those big guys and proved to them that he could do it—for nine years—on quickness and guts and dedication.
"We used to say of him that he was like the man who wasn't there—he wasn't there till you read the box score. He has improved since his silent days in high school. Oh, he's still not going to win any filibuster, but he will say the right things at the right time and he will gain the respect of every player on the squad because he's a good man."
Wilkens has always had to turn primarily to his colleagues for respect and even for recognition, since circumstance and his own demeanor have conspired to rob him of the celebrity that athletes of much less talent have enjoyed. Two years ago, for example, the NBA players voted him second only to Wilt Chamberlain for Most Valuable Player; nearly one-fifth of all the ballots had Wilkens ranked as the first choice. However, when the official all-league team was selected—by the press—Wilkens failed to win a place on either the first or second squad.
Constructing the paradigm of athletic reputations begins early, and Wilkens is still suffering from his original sin—that he had no high school publicity on which to build. He had made the Boys High team—last man on a 15-man squad—as a freshman but did not go out for the team the next couple of years and, in fact, started cutting classes and generally drifting until his widowed mother put her foot down and refused him permission to quit school and join the Marines. Wilkens took a certain renewed interest in academics at this point and set his sights on going to the City College of New York. Tommy Davis was the all-city star at Boys High and he knew Lenny from way back, in stick-ball mostly, when Davis and the Decatur Street Boys used to come up against Wilkens and the Bainbridge Street Boys. Davis prevailed upon Lenny to come out for the Boys High team again. Still, Wilkens was a midyear graduate and played only half the schedule, missing out on all the city tournaments and publicity. But a few people had seen just enough to tell Joe Mullaney, then the coach of Providence College, and Lenny accepted a Providence scholarship in the fall of '56.
Unheralded, just reaching 6 feet then, he established himself as a good college player in his sophomore year. But the next year Johnny Egan, now with the Lakers, moved up to the varsity, and everybody in New England had known for years that Egan was "the next Bob Cousy." Providence had a good team and went to the finals of the NIT, Wilkens winning the MVP as a senior, but mostly he played second banana. No matter what he did, he remembers, one Providence paper always wrote: "Wilkens played his usual standout game."
Egan now says: "I think it was enough for Lenny that the guys on the team appreciated him." Another teammate, Tom Folliard, recalls: "I used to play opposite Lenny in scrimmages. It was really embarrassing. I mean, I was just a dummy for him. If he wanted to steal the ball, he did. If he wanted to block my shot, he did. It got so bad that after a while I'd begin wondering about my own ability, but every time I'd reach that point Lenny would let me beat him, and my confidence would rise again. He seemed to know exactly how far he could push me. He'd never say anything, he'd just lead by example."
At his best Wilkens averaged only 15 points per game for the Friars, but his defense—skills he had acquired in New York at Madison Park and Riis Park, playing against older, bigger boys who wanted only to shoot—began to attract attention. He was the Hawks' first pick in 1960 and was invited to play in the college East-West game, a special honor that year because it was announced the game would be used as a prime test for choosing the players who would compete for Olympic berths. Wilkens arrived at Madison Square Garden for practice the day before the game to find photographers already shooting pictures of the players who had been selected. He shared the game's MVP award with Jerry West, but there was no reprieve. He was shut out of the Olympic Trials.
The '60 U.S. team went on to Rome—West, Robertson, Lucas—the most famous amateur unit in history. Wilkens went to a Hawk rookie camp and, favoring a bad ankle, probably would have been cut but for the fact that he had a no-cut clause in his $8,000 contract. He did not make the starting team till mid-season and came back in '62, after spending much of his second season in the Army, to find that he had made such an impression on the Hawks that they had eight other guards in camp. The Hawks did not offer him a contract, just paid him the same salary as before, even after he made the All-Star Game in midseason. At the end of the year he was, technically, a free agent, but he was too naive to realize the situation and take advantage of it. And, although he was an All-Star, Wilkens generally went unnoticed, for his job was to set up for the Hawks' bulky, sluggish front line of Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagan and Clyde Lovellette. "It was pattern ball, not really my game, but you had to adjust to it," Wilkens says. The pattern was not for the guards to shoot, which makes it all the more impressive that Wilkens is now the 30th leading scorer of all time. (He averaged 22.4 last year—his best—and undoubtedly will pass Lovellette and Hagan on his move up the ladder in the next couple of years.) He is seventh on the alltime assist list. All of his achievements with the Hawks were recorded with a singular absence of fanfare. Indeed, it is ironic that the only time Lenny Wilkens ever stayed in the public eye for longer than an absentminded blink was last fall, when he went through the only controversy of his life.
Richie Guerin came to the Hawks in 1963. A year later Owner Ben Kerner decided Guerin should be his new coach. He asked Wilkens what he thought of the idea. Wilkens enthusiastically approved the promotion of his backcourt partner. Later Guerin made Wilkens team captain. When he first joined the Hawks, Wilkens had been closest to Hagan, for they possessed similar tranquil temperaments. Now he began to spend time with the extroverted Guerin, talking shop. It was Guerin who first suggested that Wilkens might himself become a coach—long before any team had crossed the coaching color line. And Wilkens began trying to prepare himself for that eventuality.
In 1967 Guerin was selected to lead an NBA summer tour of South America for the State Department. He could choose two Hawks to accompany him. Wives were also invited; it made a nice vacation. Guerin says the first Hawk he approached with an invitation was his captain, Wilkens. He says Lenny replied that he had a job arranged with Monsanto that summer and was not interested in the tour. Wilkens maintains such a conversation never took place, that not only did Guerin never approach him with an invitation but that, moreover, a conspiracy of silence was established by those in the know to keep word of the trip away from those who were not going. The first he ever heard of the tour, Wilkens says, was after a game at Memphis late in the season when Bill Bridges came up to him in the airport and told him that he and Gene Tormohlen—now Guerin's assistant—would be going with the coach. Then, Wilkens says, the curtain of silence was drawn again.
Only after he got back from South America did Guerin find out that Wilkens was upset. Immediately, Guerin says, he offered his apologies. Even now, Guerin insists, "I did tell Lenny about the trip, but I believe it is quite possible that the talk we had could have slipped his mind in the heat of the season." Wilkens says he was never mad that he and Mrs. Wilkens were not invited; he remains annoyed only at what he feels was the hush-hush manner in which the affair was handled.
In training camp that fall, 1967, the Hawks were simmering. Wilkens muttered something about Bridges after he made an error in practice one day, and the comment was passed on to Bridges. The word was spread that Wilkens had declared he did not want Joe Caldwell moved into the backcourt because he might draw attention away from Lenny and rob him of his All-Star status. The team was floundering in exhibitions, split with resentment.
Before a game in San Francisco, Guerin summoned Wilkens to his hotel room, chewed him out and took away his team captaincy. About the same time Wilkens called a player meeting and tried to clear the air. He apologized to Bridges and he denied ever making the remark about Caldwell, demanding—without success—that whoever had started the story stand up and repeat the statement to his face. The Hawks went out and swept their final exhibitions. Guerin gave Wilkens his captaincy back; the team won its first seven games, 16 of the first 17 and captured the Western Division title for the first time in seven years.
No team, however, was so successful on court and such a spectacular disaster in other areas. On the night the season opened in San Diego, Mrs. Guerin invited all the players' wives over for dinner and the radio broadcast of the game. Somehow, the subject of the South American trip got on the agenda, and before long Marilyn Wilkens, a beautiful and strong-willed woman, walked out. Mrs. Paul Silas and Mrs. Zelmo Beaty left with her. Offcourt relationships were uneasy all year. The season ended with a Lenny Wilkens Night—he got a green Cadillac—and Kerner later sold the team to Atlanta. Wilkens was never to sign to play there.
He was insulted right off the bat, Wilkens says, when the new Hawk management chose a lunch counter in a meat market as the place to open negotiations with the NBA's runner-up for MVP honors. Things went downhill from there, and even some word of the South American dispute leaked out. Bridges, who first said that Wilkens should have gone on the trip, that it was all a "great misunderstanding, and...I personally feel it has affected me tremendously on the court," soon was declaring that Wilkens "was a fellow who has to have everything." Kerner inserted himself into the melee at about this point and announced that Wilkens had always been insanely jealous of Guerin. Kerner also got in his licks with Red Auerbach, who was hanging around like a bounty hunter, hoping to pick off Wilkens straight up in a deal for Larry Siegfried. Kerner said Auerbach should be fined $5,000 for "tampering," since he had declared earlier that Wilkens was a "superstar" and this had gone to Lenny's head, hence he wanted all this money and therefore all this trouble, etc. The Hawk management offered a bizarre solution to the problem: it suggested giving Wilkens two-thirds of his base pay, the final third to be sent him after the season if his "attitude" was deemed to have been satisfactory.
Fortunately, everything was resolved on the eve of the season when Dick Vertlieb, then Seattle's general manager, stepped in and traded Walt Hazzard for Wilkens. There was one last rub for Wilkens. Hazzard had been the best known and most popular sports figure in Seattle, and Lenny was greeted with resentment by fans and some coolness by a segment of his new team. It took several typical Wilkens performances—treading softly, moving the ball, making friends that way—before he was able to go home to his new house in Bellevue, in the suburbs, to Marilyn and their two young children, and assume again the position of the man who isn't there, except in the box scores.
Nine months later, when Wilkens agreed to step back into the spotlight as coach, very little speculation about the appointment was concerned with race. The chief question has been whether his quiet temperament and his unique status as star and coach will hamper him. That is as it should be, of course, because it just so happens that, far from being one of a kind, Wilkens perfectly fits the mold of NBA coach. Of today's 14 coaches, 11 are from the East Coast. Eight of that 11 learned the game at small Northeastern Roman Catholic colleges. Eight are still in their 30s and eight were guards. If Wilkens had not been on the scene, an IBM computer surely would have found him.
Aside from the predictable amount of hate mail that the Sonics received, Wilkens was accepted as coach without much fuss. At least in basketball—if not in baseball and football—the naming of a black coach is simply not startling anymore. The sport is dominated by black players, and on some teams—Seattle co-incidentally included—almost all of the regulars are black. Basketball has traditionally promoted its new coaches straight out of the playing ranks, and the recent fad of hiring white college coaches, for whatever reason, will not end the tradition.
Interestingly enough, Bill Russell's experience in Boston buried the simplistic notion that a black coach would, ipso facto, get along better with black players than whites. If anything, Russell had more trials with a couple of his Celtic brothers. In a sense, too, Wilkens' hiring was more significant than Russell's was. Russell, after all, was an exceptional case; if, instead of wanting to be coach, he had expressed a desire to be Miss Massachusetts, the Celtics would no doubt have arranged for it. The Sonics had no pressure on them. They also had the perfect white candidate right at hand in Forward Tom Meschery, the mustachioed poet, who shaved off his beard so journalists would be spared the temptation of referring to him as "the bearded bard of the backboards." Now working on a book of reflections in prose, Meschery plans on spending some time in the Peace Corps following his retirement from the NBA. After that he hopes to pursue an academic career. More outgoing than Wilkens and better suited to handle the public-relations requirements of coaching, Meschery is also popular in Seattle and he does not have to play as much as Wilkens must. He gave the Sonics a very easy way out.
General Manager Vertlieb passed over Meschery for the top job on purely technical grounds, deciding that since Wilkens was already the floor leader at guard he was the logical man to guide the team if the Sonics wanted a player-coach. (Vertlieb appointed Meschery as Wilkens' assistant.) "The matter of race never entered my mind." says Vertlieb, the kind of man whose words can be taken at full face value. "I always felt Lenny would be a success in whatever he tried. I just never thought of him as a coach until I needed a coach. And then I chose him because he was the best man to coach the Seattle Super-Sonics."
Wilkens and Meschery came into the Sonics' motel bar the night before the team opened practice. Earlier in the day, dragooned into another saloon where he had to address a group of sports-writers, Wilkens had sheepishly inquired of the waitress if he could have a root beer float. Now he settled for a Coke, but he did not finish it before he made his apologies and hurried off to bed. It must have been like the night before Christmas for him, but he left quietly, exhibiting no emotion.
"Oh, he doesn't show it and he won't," Meschery said, watching him go. "but he feels it inside. He feels the excitement. I sense it myself every year at this time—I'm a romantic when it comes to the game of basketball—and I'm sure he is, too. Neither of us needs the added involvement that we have this year.
"He knows what he's getting into, too, being a player-coach, but then he's too smart not to have learned the right things under Richie. He can make it known that he can be tough. That's no problem. He doesn't have to change. You can't change anyway, because you can't try to fool them. You can't con players. The important thing, the essence of coaching, is to be direct with the players and let them know where they stand, and Lenny can do that because Lenny is honest, and that is, above all, what you must be."
Meschery took another swallow of beer and brushed the foam off his mustache. "With Lenny," he said, "it's like sitting in the back row of an empty theater, straining to listen when the microphone isn't turned up loud enough. But then, you usually hear more when you have to try to listen."