Just before the 1968-69 season, Wilkens was traded to Seattle. In his second year with the SuperSonics, he was named as the team’s player-coach, becoming just the second black head coach in NBA history. (Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics was the first black coach in 1966.)
After four seasons in Seattle, the 35-year-old Wilkens was dealt to Cleveland, and after two years with the Cleveland Cavaliers where he was strictly a player, he was off to Portland, spending one season as a player-coach before becoming a coach full-time.
“Coach Wilkens has had the rap of not being able to coach because he was a player,” says Lang. “Most people don’t think that former players make great coaches, but Lenny has bypassed that and achieved greatness. It’s harder to fool Coach Wilkens with a fake injury or trying to dog-it somehow because he knows every person on this team, and he knows if they’re not picking up their share of the workload.”
For the past three decades, Wilkens has been sharing his gift to coach and has kept winning at a phenomenal clip. After two years in Portland, Wilkens returned to Seattle to coach full time from 1977-85. In his first year solely as a coach in Seattle, he inherited a squad with a 5-17 record and led them to a 42-18 record for the remaining 60 games. Then in 1979, Wilkens and the SuperSonics defeated the Washington Bullets 4-1 to capture his only world championship.
In 1986, Wilkens took over as head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, turning them into what Magic Johnson called “The team of the ‘90’s.” But the team of the ‘90s could never get past Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. Wilkens’ easy-going label surfaced, and the critics claimed the Cavs were playing in the image of their coach: soft.
“One of the biggest fallacies—and it is still there—is that I never double-teamed Michael when I was in Cleveland,” says Wilkens. “I always laughed at that for a number of reasons. In terms of the double-teaming, I would funnel Michael from sideline to baseline and because we had two forwards who could really block shots, we would funnel him down and then send Larry Nance over to pick him up. So in essence, it was a double team. But it wasn’t a double-team pickup that everybody saw.
“So who’s to say who’s right or who’s wrong,” Wilkens wonders with a grin. “I laugh at it because who beat him during that time? With all the double-teams, who stopped him? Nobody.”
Because of the small-market towns that he has worked in, along with his cerebral approach to the game, Wilkens will forever remain in the coaching shadows of often-heard, too-often seen pilots like Pat Riley, Chuck Daly and the legendary Red Auerbach, whose 939 career victories Wilkens now sees in his rearview mirror.
“I’ve never worked in huge media markets or had great superstars on my teams,” says Wilkens, whose best Seattle teams featured the likes of Lonnie Shelton, Paul Silas, and Dennis Johnson. “When I coached in Seattle everyone ignored us. When we won a championship, a lot of people thought it was just a fluke. They didn’t realize how hard we worked to achieve that goal. But here in Atlanta, there’s a lot more interest and certainly a lot more exposure. I take pride in what I’ve accomplished because, like every other coach in this league, I’ve worked hard. It’s never an easy thing because you have to overcome so many things along the way, and some of those things aren’t even in your control.”
When asked to compare himself to Auerbach, who won 9 World Championships at the Celtics’ helm, Wilkens blushes. “I like to leave comparisons up to the writers,” he says.
“There are things that impress me about Red that are certainly in my subconscious [and] I incorporate in my mind. I always felt that he maximized the use of his talent and got the most out of his guys, and I tried to do that. I’ve never sat around and complained about the talent I had. If this is what my team was, then I was going to make them the best they could be. Red always had more talent, but if you look at his teams, it just wasn’t one or two guys doing everything, it was eight or nine guys contributing.”
When Leonard Randolph Wilkens Jr. talks about sharing success with all the people who have helped him along the way, he’s first and foremost talking about his mother, Henrietta, who had to raise five children after the death of her husband, Leonard Sr. Young Lenny was 5-years-old at the time.
“My father was a chauffeur and, I guess, a kind of a jack-of-all trades. He was the type of person [who] was on the go a lot,” says Wilkens. “I was just starting kindergarten when he died of a bleeding ulcer. He was about 37. My mother went to work in a candy factory. She also took in laundry and did odd jobs on the weekend. There were a lot of times we didn’t have any money, but it never bothered me not to have new clothes. The clothes I had were clean. Material things were not important to me.”
And with that, the greatest, most humble and winningest professional basketball coach of all time, ascends up the ladder to finish the job he started many hours earlier.