Egan now says: "I think it was enough for Lenny that the guys on the team appreciated him." Another teammate, Tom Folliard, recalls: "I used to play opposite Lenny in scrimmages. It was really embarrassing. I mean, I was just a dummy for him. If he wanted to steal the ball, he did. If he wanted to block my shot, he did. It got so bad that after a while I'd begin wondering about my own ability, but every time I'd reach that point Lenny would let me beat him, and my confidence would rise again. He seemed to know exactly how far he could push me. He'd never say anything, he'd just lead by example."
At his best Wilkens averaged only 15 points per game for the Friars, but his defense—skills he had acquired in New York at Madison Park and Riis Park, playing against older, bigger boys who wanted only to shoot—began to attract attention. He was the Hawks' first pick in 1960 and was invited to play in the college East-West game, a special honor that year because it was announced the game would be used as a prime test for choosing the players who would compete for Olympic berths. Wilkens arrived at Madison Square Garden for practice the day before the game to find photographers already shooting pictures of the players who had been selected. He shared the game's MVP award with Jerry West, but there was no reprieve. He was shut out of the Olympic Trials.
The '60 U.S. team went on to Rome—West, Robertson, Lucas—the most famous amateur unit in history. Wilkens went to a Hawk rookie camp and, favoring a bad ankle, probably would have been cut but for the fact that he had a no-cut clause in his $8,000 contract. He did not make the starting team till mid-season and came back in '62, after spending much of his second season in the Army, to find that he had made such an impression on the Hawks that they had eight other guards in camp. The Hawks did not offer him a contract, just paid him the same salary as before, even after he made the All-Star Game in midseason. At the end of the year he was, technically, a free agent, but he was too naive to realize the situation and take advantage of it. And, although he was an All-Star, Wilkens generally went unnoticed, for his job was to set up for the Hawks' bulky, sluggish front line of Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagan and Clyde Lovellette. "It was pattern ball, not really my game, but you had to adjust to it," Wilkens says. The pattern was not for the guards to shoot, which makes it all the more impressive that Wilkens is now the 30th leading scorer of all time. (He averaged 22.4 last year—his best—and undoubtedly will pass Lovellette and Hagan on his move up the ladder in the next couple of years.) He is seventh on the alltime assist list. All of his achievements with the Hawks were recorded with a singular absence of fanfare. Indeed, it is ironic that the only time Lenny Wilkens ever stayed in the public eye for longer than an absentminded blink was last fall, when he went through the only controversy of his life.
Richie Guerin came to the Hawks in 1963. A year later Owner Ben Kerner decided Guerin should be his new coach. He asked Wilkens what he thought of the idea. Wilkens enthusiastically approved the promotion of his backcourt partner. Later Guerin made Wilkens team captain. When he first joined the Hawks, Wilkens had been closest to Hagan, for they possessed similar tranquil temperaments. Now he began to spend time with the extroverted Guerin, talking shop. It was Guerin who first suggested that Wilkens might himself become a coach—long before any team had crossed the coaching color line. And Wilkens began trying to prepare himself for that eventuality.
In 1967 Guerin was selected to lead an NBA summer tour of South America for the State Department. He could choose two Hawks to accompany him. Wives were also invited; it made a nice vacation. Guerin says the first Hawk he approached with an invitation was his captain, Wilkens. He says Lenny replied that he had a job arranged with Monsanto that summer and was not interested in the tour. Wilkens maintains such a conversation never took place, that not only did Guerin never approach him with an invitation but that, moreover, a conspiracy of silence was established by those in the know to keep word of the trip away from those who were not going. The first he ever heard of the tour, Wilkens says, was after a game at Memphis late in the season when Bill Bridges came up to him in the airport and told him that he and Gene Tormohlen—now Guerin's assistant—would be going with the coach. Then, Wilkens says, the curtain of silence was drawn again.
Only after he got back from South America did Guerin find out that Wilkens was upset. Immediately, Guerin says, he offered his apologies. Even now, Guerin insists, "I did tell Lenny about the trip, but I believe it is quite possible that the talk we had could have slipped his mind in the heat of the season." Wilkens says he was never mad that he and Mrs. Wilkens were not invited; he remains annoyed only at what he feels was the hush-hush manner in which the affair was handled.
In training camp that fall, 1967, the Hawks were simmering. Wilkens muttered something about Bridges after he made an error in practice one day, and the comment was passed on to Bridges. The word was spread that Wilkens had declared he did not want Joe Caldwell moved into the backcourt because he might draw attention away from Lenny and rob him of his All-Star status. The team was floundering in exhibitions, split with resentment.
Before a game in San Francisco, Guerin summoned Wilkens to his hotel room, chewed him out and took away his team captaincy. About the same time Wilkens called a player meeting and tried to clear the air. He apologized to Bridges and he denied ever making the remark about Caldwell, demanding—without success—that whoever had started the story stand up and repeat the statement to his face. The Hawks went out and swept their final exhibitions. Guerin gave Wilkens his captaincy back; the team won its first seven games, 16 of the first 17 and captured the Western Division title for the first time in seven years.
No team, however, was so successful on court and such a spectacular disaster in other areas. On the night the season opened in San Diego, Mrs. Guerin invited all the players' wives over for dinner and the radio broadcast of the game. Somehow, the subject of the South American trip got on the agenda, and before long Marilyn Wilkens, a beautiful and strong-willed woman, walked out. Mrs. Paul Silas and Mrs. Zelmo Beaty left with her. Offcourt relationships were uneasy all year. The season ended with a Lenny Wilkens Night—he got a green Cadillac—and Kerner later sold the team to Atlanta. Wilkens was never to sign to play there.
He was insulted right off the bat, Wilkens says, when the new Hawk management chose a lunch counter in a meat market as the place to open negotiations with the NBA's runner-up for MVP honors. Things went downhill from there, and even some word of the South American dispute leaked out. Bridges, who first said that Wilkens should have gone on the trip, that it was all a "great misunderstanding, and...I personally feel it has affected me tremendously on the court," soon was declaring that Wilkens "was a fellow who has to have everything." Kerner inserted himself into the melee at about this point and announced that Wilkens had always been insanely jealous of Guerin. Kerner also got in his licks with Red Auerbach, who was hanging around like a bounty hunter, hoping to pick off Wilkens straight up in a deal for Larry Siegfried. Kerner said Auerbach should be fined $5,000 for "tampering," since he had declared earlier that Wilkens was a "superstar" and this had gone to Lenny's head, hence he wanted all this money and therefore all this trouble, etc. The Hawk management offered a bizarre solution to the problem: it suggested giving Wilkens two-thirds of his base pay, the final third to be sent him after the season if his "attitude" was deemed to have been satisfactory.