Fortunately, everything was resolved on the eve of the season when Dick Vertlieb, then Seattle's general manager, stepped in and traded Walt Hazzard for Wilkens. There was one last rub for Wilkens. Hazzard had been the best known and most popular sports figure in Seattle, and Lenny was greeted with resentment by fans and some coolness by a segment of his new team. It took several typical Wilkens performances—treading softly, moving the ball, making friends that way—before he was able to go home to his new house in Bellevue, in the suburbs, to Marilyn and their two young children, and assume again the position of the man who isn't there, except in the box scores.
Nine months later, when Wilkens agreed to step back into the spotlight as coach, very little speculation about the appointment was concerned with race. The chief question has been whether his quiet temperament and his unique status as star and coach will hamper him. That is as it should be, of course, because it just so happens that, far from being one of a kind, Wilkens perfectly fits the mold of NBA coach. Of today's 14 coaches, 11 are from the East Coast. Eight of that 11 learned the game at small Northeastern Roman Catholic colleges. Eight are still in their 30s and eight were guards. If Wilkens had not been on the scene, an IBM computer surely would have found him.
Aside from the predictable amount of hate mail that the Sonics received, Wilkens was accepted as coach without much fuss. At least in basketball—if not in baseball and football—the naming of a black coach is simply not startling anymore. The sport is dominated by black players, and on some teams—Seattle co-incidentally included—almost all of the regulars are black. Basketball has traditionally promoted its new coaches straight out of the playing ranks, and the recent fad of hiring white college coaches, for whatever reason, will not end the tradition.
Interestingly enough, Bill Russell's experience in Boston buried the simplistic notion that a black coach would, ipso facto, get along better with black players than whites. If anything, Russell had more trials with a couple of his Celtic brothers. In a sense, too, Wilkens' hiring was more significant than Russell's was. Russell, after all, was an exceptional case; if, instead of wanting to be coach, he had expressed a desire to be Miss Massachusetts, the Celtics would no doubt have arranged for it. The Sonics had no pressure on them. They also had the perfect white candidate right at hand in Forward Tom Meschery, the mustachioed poet, who shaved off his beard so journalists would be spared the temptation of referring to him as "the bearded bard of the backboards." Now working on a book of reflections in prose, Meschery plans on spending some time in the Peace Corps following his retirement from the NBA. After that he hopes to pursue an academic career. More outgoing than Wilkens and better suited to handle the public-relations requirements of coaching, Meschery is also popular in Seattle and he does not have to play as much as Wilkens must. He gave the Sonics a very easy way out.
General Manager Vertlieb passed over Meschery for the top job on purely technical grounds, deciding that since Wilkens was already the floor leader at guard he was the logical man to guide the team if the Sonics wanted a player-coach. (Vertlieb appointed Meschery as Wilkens' assistant.) "The matter of race never entered my mind." says Vertlieb, the kind of man whose words can be taken at full face value. "I always felt Lenny would be a success in whatever he tried. I just never thought of him as a coach until I needed a coach. And then I chose him because he was the best man to coach the Seattle Super-Sonics."
Wilkens and Meschery came into the Sonics' motel bar the night before the team opened practice. Earlier in the day, dragooned into another saloon where he had to address a group of sports-writers, Wilkens had sheepishly inquired of the waitress if he could have a root beer float. Now he settled for a Coke, but he did not finish it before he made his apologies and hurried off to bed. It must have been like the night before Christmas for him, but he left quietly, exhibiting no emotion.
"Oh, he doesn't show it and he won't," Meschery said, watching him go. "but he feels it inside. He feels the excitement. I sense it myself every year at this time—I'm a romantic when it comes to the game of basketball—and I'm sure he is, too. Neither of us needs the added involvement that we have this year.
"He knows what he's getting into, too, being a player-coach, but then he's too smart not to have learned the right things under Richie. He can make it known that he can be tough. That's no problem. He doesn't have to change. You can't change anyway, because you can't try to fool them. You can't con players. The important thing, the essence of coaching, is to be direct with the players and let them know where they stand, and Lenny can do that because Lenny is honest, and that is, above all, what you must be."
Meschery took another swallow of beer and brushed the foam off his mustache. "With Lenny," he said, "it's like sitting in the back row of an empty theater, straining to listen when the microphone isn't turned up loud enough. But then, you usually hear more when you have to try to listen."