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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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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!"

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