Five or six times a summer, for a dozen years, the jerk went about his task. He would button his shirt up to his neck, hitch his pants up to his ribs, conceal an egg inside a box of popcorn, grab an open can of soda and walk onto a stage in front of a thousand people. It was time for the "movie skit," the one that brought down the house each Wednesday on Parents Night at a basketball camp outside of Seattle.
He would sit beside a man already seated on the stage, whose legs were crossed, whose eyes were staring impassively at an imaginary movie screen. The jerk would begin to convulse with laughter at the "film," and then, a moment later, to sob. Slowly, noticing that the expression of the man beside him never changed, he would begin to grow vexed. He would nudge the man in the ribs to get him to laugh, sob on the man's shoulder, wave a hand before his eyes. And still not a muscle on the man's face would move, delighting the audience, exasperating the jerk. While turning his wrist to glance at his watch, the jerk would spill his soda on the man's legs. Slipping the hidden egg into his hand, he would sneeze, causing the yolk to ooze through his fingers like phlegm. And still the man never flinched, never budged, kept staring at the film.
The years went by, the campers howled, but the jerk—a high school principal named Steff Steinhorst who had performed this act for years before working the basketball camp—began to take the man's impassivity as a personal challenge. Sooner or later he had been able to make all his partners crack except this one. He began to play a game within the game, mumbling strange utterances that the audience couldn't hear, thrusting his face inches from the man's and contorting it wildly. He filled his soda can with frigid water to make the man jump when he spilled it; he produced a can of shaving cream and sprayed ridiculous curlicues on the man's nose, his cheeks, his ears and brow.
It was hopeless, of course. Because the man beside him wasn't acting. Because the man beside him was Lenny Wilkens.
December 5, 1994
One evening in the next month or so, Lenny Wilkens of the Atlanta Hawks will win his 939th game and pass Red Auerbach as the winningest coach in NBA history. Testimonials and tributes must be prepared, feature stories about him written and taped. But there's no need to panic yet, I tell you. There's still time. Someone, somewhere, somehow is going to step forward, clear his throat and tell the first Lenny Wilkens anecdote.
"You know, I can't remember a single one," says Bob Pettit, Wilkens's former St. Louis Hawks teammate. "But that doesn't mean there aren't any. Probably would be one if I thought."
"Anecdotes? Gosh . . . just give me time," says Wilkens's agent, Lonnie Cooper. "I'll come up with one before we're through."
"God help you," says Jack McCallum, who used to cover the NBA for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. "I've got none."
"Wait, I remember one," says former Atlanta Hawk forward Kevin Willis, who was recently traded to the Miami Heat. "He was getting out of the team plane once. And the wind was blowing, see. And it blew his hair out of place. He reached up and pushed it back. What happened then? Well, not much. Just went back to being Lenny."
"I've called all over the league," says Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Ailene Voisin. "Nothing . . . nothing. . . ."
"But, you know, it would make a wonderful novel," says Tom Meschery, Wilkens's former assistant coach and a published poet. "You take a very private character with the great sense of integrity and dignity of Lenny Wilkens, and you send him through 35 years in the NBA, with all the absolute silliness that goes on, with all the venal owners and the superstars with huge egos and the fans and the media and the p.r. in a sport that's turned into show biz, and see if he can hang on to it. Might not have any anecdotes, but it'd be a great novel."
Lenny Wilkens got drunk once. He was 23. It was 1961. He had just been told that because of the crisis over the Berlin Wall, he would have to remain on active duty as an Army lieutenant a year longer than scheduled, and he was angry. Four or five cold ones at the Officer Club, then six or seven Scotch-and-sodas. The world started spinning. But no anecdote really happened. Eyewitnesses have verified this. Wilkens gulped air out the car window on the way back to the barracks and got even quieter than usual. Refused anyone's help, crawled to his bed, hung on for dear life, refused even to admit the next day that he was hammered but hasn't risked more than two beers since. Disappointing, but it offers hope.
"You know, Lenny did this book awhile back, called The Lenny Wilkens Story," says his wife, Marilyn. "I call it a nice bar mitzvah book. No sex in the airplanes. He doesn't kill anybody. Nothing much happens, to tell you the truth. But wait till I write my book. Gonna be major folks running for caves because when Lenny and I started out, we were both nice and quiet people. Lenny's still nice and quiet, but after 32 years with him in this league, I've turned into a raving lunatic."
Let's gaze at him for a moment, this man stalking history in padded slippers. A 57-year-old grandfather with hair flecked gray at the temples, skin amazingly smooth, in his typical pose—standing in front of the Hawk bench. Hands tucked under his folded arms just in case a gesture breaks out, lips pursed in a thin flat line in case his mouth gets any ideas of its own. His team, off to a sorry 4-8 start, is testing him. He begins to pace, and once in a while he'll even kick at something, or do this little bicycle pedal in midair after a painful call, or smash his clipboard against his thigh, but no one seems to see it because . . . well, it's Lenny and it can't be happening.
How did he do this? How is a man rarely mentioned among the game's great coaches about to become its winningest coach—at week's end he was nine games short of breaking the record—with hardly anyone realizing he's even close? ("I'll be durn," says Pettit.) How does he play 15 seasons, make nine All-Star teams, rank sixth in assists in NBA history and then have the league's marquee player, Shaquille O'Neal, respond to his low-post tip during All-Star weekend last season by saying, "Coach . . . you played?" How docs he make it into his 50's before two of his closest friends, neighborhood pals since childhood, discover that his mother is white?
Let's begin during his Providence College years, late 1950s. He's a skinny lefthanded kid. one of six blacks in a Catholic school of 1,200 males wearing blazers to class each day. There has to be an anecdote here. He's at a cotillion. He's very quiet. Perfectly mannerly. But he's making one debutante's mother nervous.
She asks what his family name is. "Wilkens," he replies. She asks what his father's profession is. "My father's dead." He lets the silence build. He lets the woman squirm. My daughter, she finally says. She's dating someone, you know. She's accounted for. He says nothing. He waits a few minutes. The band begins a tune. He walks straight to the woman's daughter and asks her to dance.
The daughter regards him. Sometimes, when the white girls from sister colleges come on buses to Providence for weekend dances, they refuse to dance with him, and he returns to his dorm room early. But he never cries. Not since he was four. Never.
The woman's daughter nods. The son of the late black chauffeur and the white Irish Catholic candy-factory worker from Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant wraps his left hand around her right one, his right arm around the small of her back, and leads her across the dance floor. He has no interest in her. No one knows what he's doing except him and the mother.
He has staked it out already, that small spit of land with deep, heaving ocean on either side: the middle ground. It's a place where a man never pushes anyone but never lets himself be pushed. A place where he trusts almost no one but is completely trustworthy himself. A place where he's never openly happy or sad, where no scenes ever happen, where no one's dignity is ever lost, where fools are taught lessons that none but the fools' eyes see. A land where he's neither black nor white, where he's a human being and his race is Lenny Wilkens. It's a very slender piece of earth, the middle ground. It's going to be very difficult to hold.
He has gifts, which always helps. Bedford-Stuyvesant has dozens of better shooters, higher leapers, faster runners, flashier dribblers. But he has phenomenally quick hands on defense and eyes that see everything on a court—sharp photographs instead of blur. And one more thing: He has made it his life's business not to let feelings migrate to his muscles, to his nerves. One minute left. One-point game. Give him the ball.
Catholic school is perfect for him. There's a regimen to it that makes it calm, almost dependable, a lodge against the storm outside. Put on the blazer. Attend the Mass. Repeat the prayers. Besides, priests keep secrets. In these early years, when he's just gaining his footing, he can ask questions of them, reveal a little of himself. That's why it stings so badly when a Providence priest calls him in. One of the white fans who cheers for Lenny at games, upon discovering that Wilkens has begun dating his daughter, has asked the priest to terminate the relationship, and now the man in the black robe is saying, uh . . . well, uh . . . you know, Lenny . . . uh, maybe you really shouldn't, uh. . . .
Lenny's insides are shaking. His gaze is steady. "You're supposed to be a man of God," he says, "How can you say that? Does God see color?"
No, Lenny, gosh, of course not. "There were people looking at me like I was some kind of insect," he will say nearly 40 years later. "People who assumed that because I was from Bed-Stuy, I was carrying a knife or gun. One drop of black blood in this country, and you're black. One drop, and you're tainted. If I let that hurt me, who has the anxiety? Me. I was not going to let anyone hurt me or make me feel anxious. I'd learned something by then. If I could control myself, I could make them feel anxious."
Their assumptions about him as a man, even their admiration of him as a player, are a box. Quietly he goes about finding ways to slip out of the box. His SAT score? Close to 1,300. His major? Economics. His goal? Top third of his class. In economic theory his freshman year, the professor begins asking the class questions in alphabetical order, to see who has done their homework. Names are being skipped, Lenny notices. Guys he knows, ballplayers, trackmen. Slowly it occurs to him—this class is a free ride for athletes. The professor skips Wilkens. Lenny's hand shoots up. "You missed me," he declares. "I want my question."
He agonizes over the two boxes on the forms he must fill out. One for Negro, one for Caucasian. He knows which one they expect him to stay inside. He gets an idea. He draws his own box, writes "African-American" beside it and checks it, a couple of decades ahead of his time.
Father St. George, the French teacher at Providence with whom Lenny shoots hoops, calls Lenny into his room one day. He offers a seat to the fatherless boy from Bed-Stuy, lays a record of an opera on the turntable and asks him to listen. The music washes over him. Nothing else happens. Nothing else needs to. In a world that often tells him he's worth something less, this small gesture says, you are worth something more.
The rest of Lenny's life, he'll take private delight in the confusion that enters people's eyes when he slips Maria Callas or Placido Domingo into the tape player. But that's not really an anecdote, I know.
He's named MVP of the National Invitation Tournament his senior year, 1960, when the NIT is still the NCAA tournament's big brother. He's selected to two All-America first teams, invited to the East-West All-Star Game and promised in a letter that performances in that game will determine invitations to the trials for the '60 U.S. Olympic team. He sees a group of players lining up for photos the day before the game—those are the guys going to the Olympics, he's told. He walks away. Says nothing. Scores the last eight points for the East the next night in a one-point victory, is named co-MVP with Jerry West. West, Adrian Smith, Allen Kelley and Lester Lane, all white, go to Rome as guards for the U.S. Lenny stays home.
He has three options now. Providence's administration holds him in such high esteem that it offers to hire him to teach economics in a year and a half, as soon as he gets his master's degree. The Tuck Tapers, a New York team in a high-powered AAU industrial league, offer him $9,500 to both play ball and work for the company that sponsors them. The St. Louis Hawks pick him No. 6 in the first round of the NBA draft.
The Hawks are his least likely choice. He has never seen an NBA game live, never even had a TV set in his home until his last year of high school. A Tuck Taper representative asks him to dinner, and Lenny invites a buddy who agrees to come if Lenny can talk the rep into wrangling tickets to the Celtic-Hawk NBA Finals game being played that night in Boston. The rep scores the tickets. Bad move. The electricity in Boston Garden that night gets Lenny's competitive juices sizzling. The fact that neither of the Hawk guards seems able to score from 20 feet or penetrate worth a lick begins to melt away his natural caution. He signs with the Hawks for an $8,000 salary and a $1,500 bonus.
It's not until he arrives in St. Louis in the fall of 1960 that he learns that the city's prevailing breeze, for a black-white man, blows south. He's ordered to go to the kitchen door of restaurants for food. He's asked to leave the greasy joint across the street from training camp. In another restaurant, he's forced to stand and wait while a black man working in the kitchen is sent out to study Lenny and determine whether he's black or white. Lenny's losing the middle ground. He must do something. But he can't make a scene. He peers, one day, at the window of a downtown cafeteria. There's a whites-only sign. There's a picture of him in a Hawk uniform. It's enough to make him flirt with an anecdote. He enters. The place goes silent. He cats without saying a word and walks out.
He wins a starting job midway through his rookie year, loses most of his second season to active service in the Army. He and Marilyn, his bride from the Bronx, decide to buy a house in a St. Louis suburb named Moline Acres. Suddenly, a new weed starts sprouting in front yards throughout the neighborhood—a metal stem crowned by a large rectangle bearing seven thick letters: FOR SALE. The Klan, it turns out, still meets in the area. The Wilkenses' next-door neighbor, for the next four years, gets out of his car backward so he won't have to look their way. Like a hawk. Lenny watches his family when they go outside. One evening the Wilkenses find their collie, Duchess, frothing at the mouth in the fenced-in backyard. They rush her to the vet. Too late, the vet says. She has been poisoned.
He can't relax his guard. He's not cold to those he meets, he's not warm. He's the hardest of all people to know. He's room temperature. He won't go out with his teammates for a couple of beers after a game, rarely even eats with am of them until Zelmo Beaty joins the team in 1962 and becomes his friend. Aloof, smug, stuck-up, some people decide. That's fine with Lenny. "I was learning to watch people, to read eyes and body language," he says. "I never let anyone know what I was thinking or feeling. I worked at that. I really didn't care if people misread me. If I read them and they misread me, it's to my advantage."
The Reverend Dr. Paul Smith, a Presbyterian minister and civil-rights activist, moves onto Lenny's block, the second black man in Moline Acres. He sees Lenny washing his car a few days later, decides it's time the two brothers meet. Lenny notices him approaching and repositions him-self, keeping his back to Smith. The reverend sidesteps to make eye contact—again Lenny puts his back to him, and then a third time. It's Lenny's sense of humor. Lenny's sly way of saying yes, we're the two freaks here, but black or white, don't you dare assume a single thing about me. "Listen, Hamburger, I know you see me," Smith finally says. Lenny can't help cracking up, and the two men become friends for life. "The silent rebel" Smith calls Lenny. Wilkens marches in a civil-rights demonstration, makes a point about inequality to almost every civic group he addresses, spearheads the building of a clinic that treats 800 inner-city residents a month in Seattle, joins the board of directors of Big Brothers, raises funds for battered women and abused children, but as with everything in his life, few ever know. One day he has to sit there in a meeting with Jesse Jackson as a black activist declares that it's people like Lenny Wilkens who need to get more involved.
An opera house adjoins the old Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis, where the Hawks play. Before games sometimes, Lenny leaves the locker room and sits just off the stage in the dark, letting the music go deep inside him. His young wife wants to go there, where the music goes; she wants to know his dreams and fears. He never seems to need anything. He sleeps just three or four hours a night, won't cry, won't complain, won't even blink many years later when the creature bursts out of the crewman's stomach in Alien. He refuses to take aspirin, massages his own temples when a headache's clanging—God forbid he rely on anyone or anything else. Marilyn's his inverse, spontaneous as wind; she yells at him, teases him, tickles him, anything to bring his insides out. "You're a cold fish," she harrumphs, having failed again. But heaven help the man or woman who peeps one negative word about her husband.
By his fourth year in the NBA he's vice president of the Players Association and an established All-Star, flipping in that running hook, those little scoop shots, that left-handed push shot from the circle. Everyone knows he's going to go left, but he keeps going left anyway. "Nobody ever stopped me," he says with a shrug. He plays with the same quiet relentlessness with which he lives, never wasting a move, never gulping for air, never changing expression, hell, never even seeming to sweat, destroying his opponent with the same club he wields outside the arena—his invulnerability. "I sweat," he says. "But no one knew. It was just my feet. My sneakers were always soaked."
Richie Guerin, the Hawks' coach, stands before the team one day in 1967, advising the players how to vote for the NBA Rookie of the Year. The rules preclude voting for a teammate, Guerin explains, but if everyone on the Hawks votes for some other rookie instead of the obvious choice, Detroit Piston guard Dave Bing, maybe Lou Hudson of the Hawks can edge out Bing. Lenny rises. He knows that's how the game's played, but he won't play the game, he won't, he won't. "No," he tells his teammates. "Vote your conscience. Vote for the rookie you truly believe is the best."
Not an anecdote, perhaps. But perilously close.
He's a troublemaker, people running the Hawks start whispering when the team is sold and moved to Atlanta in 1968 and Lenny doesn't leap on the first plane. He's selfish. Among NBA All-Star guards, Oscar Robertson is making 100 grand, West 75, Hal Greer 60, Wilkens 35. He has just finished second to Wilt Chamberlain in the MVP voting.
The Hawks' former owner, Ben Kerner, has advised the new owner, Tom Cousins, to offer Wilkens $40,000 and wait for Lenny to buckle. Lenny doesn't. Camp opens. Finally they offer $50,000, with $25,000 to be added at season's end—if his attitude pleases Richie Guerin. Lenny says no.
Banish him! To Seattle, the NBA dungeon, a second-year expansion team, they send the selfish assist king. Marilyn howls. Lenny says little. To explain his feelings to people would mean he needs their good opinion. To explain his feelings would mean ceding topsoil from the middle ground. He averages a career-high 22.4 points for the Sonics, and then, just before the next season, general manager Dick Vertlieb makes an odd suggestion Would Lenny, at 32, become player-coach? Hell, he's like a coach on the floor anyway. He has been studying Auerbach for years, is so observant of detail, so precise, that his wife, before she finally gets her driver's license, can't sneak out in the car to visit friends when he's on a 10-day road trip without his catching her. "The wheels," he says on his return, "they're at a little different angle from when I last parked the car."
He has never coached a game—high school, college, pro. He takes the job, loses his first six games, preaching ball movement, selflessness. The seventh game, he says the hell with it, heaves in 38 and makes Coach Wilkens a winner.
But he's in deep, just like anyone else trying to play and run a team, only the pressure's thicker because he's the league's second black coach (the first one having been the Celtics" Bill Russell), and besides, everyone knows great players can't coach. He can't always see what has just gone wrong on the weak side, can't always tell when a forward or center needs a blow or when a matchup crisis is building, can't admit—because he's the airtight vessel, Lenny Wilkens—that he needs anyone's help. Should he scream when the bottom starts dropping out, like almost every coach he ever had? Does he have to open his chest and spill out emotions he buried as a child?
"His entire face would look like a hand closing into a fist—his forehead, his eyes, his jaw," says Meschery, who was Wilkens's assistant at Seattle and later at Portland. "It's a miracle he doesn't have ulcers. There were times as his assistant when I'd think, God, Lenny, I wish you would just rip into these guys, go bananas. Sometimes it's good to show anger because it brings things to a head. But Lenny couldn't.
"He's such a good person, such a dignified man. But not the kind of coach who'd call his assistant in and ask what he thought. We led very separate lives. After practice on the road, he'd go his way and I'd go mine—he had friends in every town. He's a man who had to make himself, who had to answer the question, 'Who am I?' all by himself. That was the most difficult question there was, and once he had answered that, he probably thought he could answer any question. What saved Lenny countless times is that he's a very, very bright man. He could usually get away with relying just on himself."
Those first few years as a player-coach, he doesn't look black or white when he emerges from the locker room after a loss. More like yellow, his wife says. One yellow night he overhears his wife telling friends to forget going out for dinner, that he looks too distraught. He draws the line that night. "I couldn't let basketball eat up my life," he says. "It just wasn't fair to the people I loved. How could I be gone for two weeks on a road trip, then come home and do that to my wife? In the scale of life, what's important? My belief in God. My family. And being accountable for who I am. If these three things are in place, all other things are attainable."
He begins to sit in a side room after a game for 10 minutes to let it hiss out of him. Then he walks out to greet his wife, three children and friends as a human being for a few hours, waiting until everyone falls asleep to chew it to death. He rises at dawn and goes to Mass a few times a week, keeps a rosary in his briefcase. He won't rant. He'll teach by asking questions, by finishing declarations with " . . . all right, guys?" He won't embarrass players in front of each other, the media, the fans. He'll promise that at the top of each season, and he'll keep the promise, build a credibility that will make his expression of disappointment scald his players. He won't blow smoke up a talented player's tailpipe, play on an insecurity like a fiddle. Won't fling a phony arm around a shoulder, stroke a sulking ego, give an emotional pregame speech, schmooze with a visiting reporter. He'll be the silent rebel, refuse to play the game. It will be his strength and weakness as a coach. He'll lose some players that way, some games, some jobs—room temperature just won't germinate some plants. But an aura will slowly wrap itself around his shoulders, an air of trust, a confidence that life will treat him fairly in the end if he never strays from these inner rules. That's what he'll offer a team. Sanity inside an insane place. Dignity inside the asylum.
He loses his player-coaching job in Seattle after three seasons, gets shipped to a third-year expansion team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, as a player only. His first game back in Seattle, the Sonic crowd roars for the Cavaliers the entire game, in tribute to him. He's a man fated to exist in the NBA's outback—from St. Louis to Seattle to Cleveland to Portland (again as player-coach) to Seattle to Cleveland again. In these years he'll never coach a superstar, unless you count the two years Bill Walton hobbled about on damaged feet for Portland. He'll coach in the shadows, be handed teams in the same division as the Los Angeles Lakers during Showtime, the Pistons during their Bad Boys back-to-back title years, the Chicago Bulls during their Michael Jordan three-peat. And some will wonder if it's Lenny who's drawn to obscurity, or obscurity to Lenny—or if they met one night over beers (one each) and cut a private deal?
"You're . . . I know you . . . you're . . . ," people stammer in hotel elevators. "That's it—you're Lenny Wilkens!"
"No," he says, not a muscle in his face betraying him. "I'm not. I just look like him."
He takes the Sonics' coaching job a second time in 1977, two years after his playing days are over. Seattle is 5-17 when he walks in. He moves Dennis Johnson, John Johnson and Jack Sikma into the starting lineup, talks veterans Paul Silas and Freddie Brown into roles coming off the bench. Bingo! It's a swarming Sonic team that'll rip your teeth out to get a loose ball, that'll knock you over and then walk away when you reach up for a lift off the floor; a team critics will forget 14 years later in Cleveland when they say that the Cavaliers are the inevitable product of a low-key, passionless coach. In '77-78, the Sonics go 42-18 under Wilkens, make it to the Finals before losing to the Washington Bullets. Lenny doesn't win Coach of the Year. He'll admit it, eventually: This one hurts. They win it all the next year, beat the Bullets in five in the Finals. Again, no Coach of the Year. Check whichever box you will:
His one night at the pinnacle, what does he do? He stays in the Sonics' bus as his players go whooping off to enter the team's hotel in Washington, D.C. A party's about to burst out upstairs, the national media and hordes of well-wishers are waiting in the lobby. Lenny directs the driver to pull the bus to the rear of the hotel, walks to the kitchen door where restaurant owners once sent him to eat and slips, unnoticed, up to the room of two Army buddies and a lifelong friend from Bed-Stuy. He spends the night talking and sipping a little from their champagne.
It's during a critical late-season game that the tap on his arm occurs. With the Sonics up two on the Lakers with three minutes left, Lenny's 13-year-old son, Randy, asks his dad, as the ball's flying upcourt, if he can have a dollar for a hot dog. Here it is, the ultimate test of priorities, patience, integrity and facial muscles, the movie skit in front of 14,000 people. Lenny turns away from the game, pulls out his wallet and hands the kid a buck.
Dad . . . when did your father die? What did he die of?"
"Who wants to know?"
"It's our assignment, Dad. We're supposed to make a little family tree."
"Why do they want to know that?"
"I don't know. It's just homework."
It's Randy again. At home, this time. Lenny's eyes go dead. His lips go flat and tight. He stares at nothing. He says nothing. This is a warning. An anecdote alert.
When he passes Auerbach, when he closes in on Victory Number 1,000, his real goal, the reporters who come to ask about his past will know this warning, find themselves adrift in his silence, waiting for answers that won't come.
Somewhere in the silence are two little girls and a boy about to turn four, playing in a small wooden playhouse their father has built for them outside their tenement in Brooklyn. It's October 1941. There's a birthday cake, which the young father has already baked for their baby brother, who'll turn one year old in just two days.
Somewhere in the silence there's the father upstairs in the apartment bathroom doubled in half with pain, blood pulsing from an ulcer, and then an ambulance rushing to the tenement, the children running out of their playhouse to see him carried away. And when he comes back, he'll be in a box, and all the world will turn black—black suits, black robes, black curtains as a backdrop to the open coffin in their living room, tall lamps at either end. Lenny and his five-year-old sister, Connie, walk up to the box while the adults are in the kitchen preparing for the wake. They don't understand. They're talking to their father, combing his hair, touching his cheek, when their mother and aunt burst in, screaming, grabbing their hands, rushing them to the bathroom soap.
But the little boy won't cry. All through the long wake, sitting in the arms of a nun he barely knows, aching to break free and run, terrified to break free and run, begging inside for all of this to end. His mom, relatives, neighbors, everyone telling the boy, "You're the man of the house now. Everyone's depending on you." He can't cry. He can't let anyone down.
Somewhere in the silence are memories of uncles and aunts who won't invite him to their homes, who walk past him on the street without a glance, children who sneer at him and call him half-breed. Memories of a mother whirling on anyone who stares, fixing strangers with her gray eyes, What are you looking at? Yes, they're all my children! Running for the brown soap when she hears her own children breathe a word about color, rubbing the soap in their mouths so hard their gums throb.
A 25-year-old widow in a tenement with four children between the ages of one and five, grit and love her only skills. Four kids in one bedroom, two of them in each single bed, hugging each other for warmth because the heat from the coal stove doesn't reach that far. Henrietta in the other bedroom—just her, her and the Catholic church and a cord from an old steam iron for discipline, against the world. She has a font of holy water installed just inside the front door for her and the children to bless themselves when they enter. And crucifixes, pictures of saints in each room, a little altar on her dresser with a candle that flickers an eerie shadow of Christ's statue upon the wall. She turns white with terror at every thunderstorm, drops her children to their knees to recite the rosary, tells them God—boom!—is registering his disappointment with the world.
And why shouldn't he? The whole world's at war, the Germans and Brits and Japanese and Russians with their mortars and tanks in Europe, Africa and Asia; the Pythons, the Stompers, the Chaplains, the El Quintos and Nits with their knives and zip guns in Bed-Stuy. Lenny reaches under the bed and peels another piece of linoleum off the floor to cover the hole in his shoe. He shoves his rosary into his pocket and his fear into his bowels, and he goes out into that world.
Somewhere in the silence there are memories of people shot in front of him, of gangs that he looks up and finds himself surrounded by, of times he escapes because they turn on a friend instead and rip his face open from eyes to chin, or because he happens to have a cousin in the gang, or because he just runs for it, block after block until his chest feels as if it will explode. "I couldn't have sympathy," he recalls. "I couldn't trust. I couldn't get involved with people because then I'd have to feel. What scared me so much was seeing no one going out of their way to help my mother and family after my father died. Seeing people look down their noses at us. You realize that no one really cares. So how do you get through? You start building the wall. You never let anyone know what's inside. Il sounds awful now to say I'd never cry."
He goes to work at age seven. Delivering groceries in a cart, scrubbing floors, washing windows, by puberty running the vegetable department in the local supermarket. The man of the house. Bringing home dimes and quarters, celery and carrots for the family's all-but-meatless stew. Chaperoning his older sister at parties, watching her so closely when she dances that she gets the creeps and won't go to the parties again. He knocks on a door one day with groceries, is stunned into silence when Jackie Robinson answers. Lenny's hero, the man who doesn't flinch at the slurs, doesn't blink at the bastards. There was still hope in Bedford-Stuyvesant in the late 1940s, still Robinsons and Campanellas strolling the streets, neighbors who say, "It's late, you need to get home," Boys Clubs and Police Athletic Leagues and CYOs that throw open their doors to children. And a strong young man named Father Tom Mannion of Holy Rosary who sets his feet between the Wilkens family and the abyss, who brings them clothes and encouragement, who notices Lenny's remarkable resolve and takes him under his wing.
Somewhere in the silence there's a boy who climbs on buses and subways, rides to the end of the line, gets out and walks around, exploring the limits, wondering if there's a place in the world where he won't have to keep a lock on his dresser drawer just to have one tiny parcel of privacy, where no one depends on him, where he might fling the model airplanes he makes from balsa wood into the sky without their smashing into someone or something. He dreams of being a pilot, alone, wrapped in air; in ninth grade he even enters a Manhattan school with an aviation program but leaves a few months later because two bullies keep picking on him, and his rage overwhelms him, and he keeps getting into lights. "I could get so angry back then," he says, shaking his head. "But you couldn't turn the other cheek where I grew up. You had to defend yourself."
His tears, he has learned to control. Anger, that's next. It undoes him each time he walks onto a basketball court. No one passes to him, so he launches a bomb in vengeance every time he touches the ball. The Heaver, they nickname Lenny Wilkens. Who's going to be in charge of this life, Lenny's brain or Lenny's guts? This sport will be his test, his own private proof. He begins dribbling around and around the chairs that Father Mannion sets up for him, shoveling pathways to practice on the snow-covered court at Holy Rosary. At 14 he decides he's ready for the weekend CYO games inside the Holy Rosary gym. The coach buries Lenny on the bench, finally lets him in—then sends in a replacement for him after two trips upcourt. What's this? Lenny refuses to leave! The coach screams. The ref shrugs. The game halts. He makes a scene. Finally, he leaves the game. Something has to change.
The Heaver becomes the Feeder. So smooth, so controlled, that Father Mannion begs him to forsake the CYO league and play for Boys High his senior year. So focused that Father Mannion will write to the Providence athletic director imploring him to give this serious young man whom nobody knows a scholarship.
And one day in September 1956, a young African-American, clutching the suitcase that Father Mannion bought him, takes a deep breath, steps onto a train for Providence, R.I., and removes himself from the realm of anecdote.
The final test remains, of course. That's the one where God rips Lenny Wilkens's Achilles tendon at age 54, wraps him in a cast from heel to thigh and then sends blood clots from the immobilized leg into both of his lungs, filling them with so much fluid he nearly asphyxiates . . . just to see if He can make Lenny's facial expression change. It happened two years ago. You probably never read about it. Lenny Wilkens near death was just as obscure as his life.
Oxygen mask over his mouth, blood-thinner dripping through a tube into one arm to break down the clots before they could kill him, antibiotics dripping through a tube into the other arm to fight the fever, he lay awake staring at the clock the first two nights in the hospital, terrified that if he fell asleep he would die. He would have already, probably, if Marilyn had listened to him in their Seattle home when the pain was searing through his back and he was gasping for breath but assuring her that it was no big deal.
He refused to eat for a week because he didn't want to vomit, refused pain medicine, refused to use the bedpan, insisted on lifting himself on his crutches when he needed the bathroom, hobbling a step on his cast, nudging the stand on wheels that held the blood thinner and antibiotics, hobbling another step. . . .
He didn't regain his strength until late in the '92-93 season. For the fourth time Jordan's Bulls dismantled Wilkens's Cavaliers in the playoffs. He could sense by then that support from the front office was waning, that taking over a 29-game winner in 1986 and turning it into a team that would win 50-plus games three times between '88-89 and '92-93 was no longer enough. So he quit that May, accepted a swift offer from the Hawks and went straight to Martin Luther King Jr.'s grave from the airport the day he arrived in Atlanta.
Friends noticed he laughed a little easier since coming out of the hospital. Marilyn noticed his eyes misting a little at family events. Players like Craig Ehlo, who has played for him in both Cleveland and Atlanta, noticed that he asked the guys about their families more, had lessened the distance between himself and his team. Nothing dramatic, but the middle ground had become a slightly wider spit of land.
He took a team considered mediocre to a 57-25 record last season and—what do you know?—for the first time, on the eve of becoming the NBA's winningest coach, in his 21st season running a team, he was actually named Coach of the Year.
The award, sitting in his Atlanta home, is a bronze sculpture of Auerbach sitting on a bench, clutching his infamous victory cigar. Funny thing, though. The sculptor placed Redon one end, left plenty of space on the bench beside him for one more bronze legend to sit.
It would take someone unique to sit beside Red, of course, someone who would never blink or flinch at Red's cursing, his crustiness, even his cigar smoke. Who might that be?
Ask the jerk.