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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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Five or six times a summer, for a dozen years, the jerk went about his task. He would button his shirt up to his neck, hitch his pants up to his ribs, conceal an egg inside a box of popcorn, grab an open can of soda and walk onto a stage in front of a thousand people. It was time for the "movie skit," the one that brought down the house each Wednesday on Parents Night at a basketball camp outside of Seattle.

He would sit beside a man already seated on the stage, whose legs were crossed, whose eyes were staring impassively at an imaginary movie screen. The jerk would begin to convulse with laughter at the "film," and then, a moment later, to sob. Slowly, noticing that the expression of the man beside him never changed, he would begin to grow vexed. He would nudge the man in the ribs to get him to laugh, sob on the man's shoulder, wave a hand before his eyes. And still not a muscle on the man's face would move, delighting the audience, exasperating the jerk. While turning his wrist to glance at his watch, the jerk would spill his soda on the man's legs. Slipping the hidden egg into his hand, he would sneeze, causing the yolk to ooze through his fingers like phlegm. And still the man never flinched, never budged, kept staring at the film.

The years went by, the campers howled, but the jerk—a high school principal named Steff Steinhorst who had performed this act for years before working the basketball camp—began to take the man's impassivity as a personal challenge. Sooner or later he had been able to make all his partners crack except this one. He began to play a game within the game, mumbling strange utterances that the audience couldn't hear, thrusting his face inches from the man's and contorting it wildly. He filled his soda can with frigid water to make the man jump when he spilled it; he produced a can of shaving cream and sprayed ridiculous curlicues on the man's nose, his cheeks, his ears and brow.

It was hopeless, of course. Because the man beside him wasn't acting. Because the man beside him was Lenny Wilkens.

One evening in the next month or so, Lenny Wilkens of the Atlanta Hawks will win his 939th game and pass Red Auerbach as the winningest coach in NBA history. Testimonials and tributes must be prepared, feature stories about him written and taped. But there's no need to panic yet, I tell you. There's still time. Someone, somewhere, somehow is going to step forward, clear his throat and tell the first Lenny Wilkens anecdote.

"You know, I can't remember a single one," says Bob Pettit, Wilkens's former St. Louis Hawks teammate. "But that doesn't mean there aren't any. Probably would be one if I thought."

"Anecdotes? Gosh...just give me time," says Wilkens's agent, Lonnie Cooper. "I'll come up with one before we're through."

"God help you," says Jack McCallum, who used to cover the NBA for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. "I've got none."

"Wait, I remember one," says former Atlanta Hawk forward Kevin Willis, who was recently traded to the Miami Heat. "He was getting out of the team plane once. And the wind was blowing, see. And it blew his hair out of place. He reached up and pushed it back. What happened then? Well, not much. Just went back to being Lenny."

"I've called all over the league," says Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Ailene Voisin. "Nothing...nothing...."

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