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.