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He Has Overcome
Gary Smith
December 05, 1994
The key to Lenny Wilkens, soon to pass Red Auerbach as the NBA's winningest coach, lies deep in his past
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December 05, 1994

He Has Overcome

The key to Lenny Wilkens, soon to pass Red Auerbach as the NBA's winningest coach, lies deep in his past

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"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.

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