Somewhere in the silence there's a boy who climbs on buses and subways, rides to the end of the line, gets out and walks around, exploring the limits, wondering if there's a place in the world where he won't have to keep a lock on his dresser drawer just to have one tiny parcel of privacy, where no one depends on him, where he might fling the model airplanes he makes from balsa wood into the sky without their smashing into someone or something. He dreams of being a pilot, alone, wrapped in air; in ninth grade he even enters a Manhattan school with an aviation program but leaves a few months later because two bullies keep picking on him, and his rage overwhelms him, and he keeps getting into lights. "I could get so angry back then," he says, shaking his head. "But you couldn't turn the other cheek where I grew up. You had to defend yourself."
His tears, he has learned to control. Anger, that's next. It undoes him each time he walks onto a basketball court. No one passes to him, so he launches a bomb in vengeance every time he touches the ball. The Heaver, they nickname Lenny Wilkens. Who's going to be in charge of this life, Lenny's brain or Lenny's guts? This sport will be his test, his own private proof. He begins dribbling around and around the chairs that Father Mannion sets up for him, shoveling pathways to practice on the snow-covered court at Holy Rosary. At 14 he decides he's ready for the weekend CYO games inside the Holy Rosary gym. The coach buries Lenny on the bench, finally lets him in—then sends in a replacement for him after two trips upcourt. What's this? Lenny refuses to leave! The coach screams. The ref shrugs. The game halts. He makes a scene. Finally, he leaves the game. Something has to change.
The Heaver becomes the Feeder. So smooth, so controlled, that Father Mannion begs him to forsake the CYO league and play for Boys High his senior year. So focused that Father Mannion will write to the Providence athletic director imploring him to give this serious young man whom nobody knows a scholarship.
And one day in September 1956, a young African-American, clutching the suitcase that Father Mannion bought him, takes a deep breath, steps onto a train for Providence, R.I., and removes himself from the realm of anecdote.
The final test remains, of course. That's the one where God rips Lenny Wilkens's Achilles tendon at age 54, wraps him in a cast from heel to thigh and then sends blood clots from the immobilized leg into both of his lungs, filling them with so much fluid he nearly asphyxiates...just to see if He can make Lenny's facial expression change. It happened two years ago. You probably never read about it. Lenny Wilkens near death was just as obscure as his life.
Oxygen mask over his mouth, blood-thinner dripping through a tube into one arm to break down the clots before they could kill him, antibiotics dripping through a tube into the other arm to fight the fever, he lay awake staring at the clock the first two nights in the hospital, terrified that if he fell asleep he would die. He would have already, probably, if Marilyn had listened to him in their Seattle home when the pain was searing through his back and he was gasping for breath but assuring her that it was no big deal.
He refused to eat for a week because he didn't want to vomit, refused pain medicine, refused to use the bedpan, insisted on lifting himself on his crutches when he needed the bathroom, hobbling a step on his cast, nudging the stand on wheels that held the blood thinner and antibiotics, hobbling another step....
He didn't regain his strength until late in the '92-93 season. For the fourth time Jordan's Bulls dismantled Wilkens's Cavaliers in the playoffs. He could sense by then that support from the front office was waning, that taking over a 29-game winner in 1986 and turning it into a team that would win 50-plus games three times between '88-89 and '92-93 was no longer enough. So he quit that May, accepted a swift offer from the Hawks and went straight to Martin Luther King Jr.'s grave from the airport the day he arrived in Atlanta.
Friends noticed he laughed a little easier since coming out of the hospital. Marilyn noticed his eyes misting a little at family events. Players like Craig Ehlo, who has played for him in both Cleveland and Atlanta, noticed that he asked the guys about their families more, had lessened the distance between himself and his team. Nothing dramatic, but the middle ground had become a slightly wider spit of land.
He took a team considered mediocre to a 57-25 record last season and—what do you know?—for the first time, on the eve of becoming the NBA's winningest coach, in his 21st season running a team, he was actually named Coach of the Year.