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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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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.

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