He is small by the standards of his peers and in their company appears frail as well. There is an air of the delicate about him—never in the vulgar sense of dainty, but of fineness and precision. He is shy, with mournful brown eyes, and is often by himself. Normally he does not raise his voice, being the quietest man ever to come out of Brooklyn, and though Lenny Wilkens is tall in the general population, at 6'1", he leaves no impression on the casual observer. "He is never recognized in a crowd," his wife Marilyn says. "Lenny doesn't like for me to say this, but he just melts in."
Wilkens often is lost in that sense, too, on the court—somehow unobtrusive even though he is running the show from backcourt, handling the ball more than anyone else. He is pale-skinned and he perspires hardly at all, so that, as a game progresses and the bodies about him begin to glow pink or glisten sable under the lights, it becomes even more difficult to appreciate that the expressionless little dry beige guy whom Elgin Baylor nicknamed "Sweety Cakes" is the one in absolute command.
This year Wilkens comes on the court for the first time with more than just his usual de facto authority. There is the badge of authentic leadership, a whistle about his neck. As the new coach of the Seattle SuperSonics, Wilkens is—in no particular order, for all are absolute qualifiers—the quietest man among major league coaches, the only black one and the only playing coach. Certainly, all three factors could add to the task before him, and he recognizes that. (Indeed, the assignment has been made even more difficult because the Sonics, with no general manager and player-contract problems, are off to a poor start.) "I had to convince myself that I would be doing the right thing to accept the job," he says. "What happens if I don't win? There are a lot of people—not all malicious, but a lot of people—waiting for me to fall on my face. Do I need that?"
Of course, he took the job, for if Lenny Wilkens is a cautious man he is also analytical. It was not unlike 1960 when he was deciding whether or not to play for the St. Louis Hawks, who had drafted him. Wilkens did not feel that he was good enough for the NBA, but someone took him to see the Celtics play, and the Hawks happened to be the opponents. By the time the game was half over he had decided to sign, because he had seen the Hawk guards and he realized he could beat them. When Al Bianchi quit and Wilkens was offered the Sonics job last summer, he remembers thinking: "Let's face it, who else better is available? I know the players. One advantage. I've played the pros nine years and I've learned it as well as anybody else. After all, I went to a predominantly white college and I got good grades, so presumably I was as smart to start with as the next guy in the league nine years ago, and I've been running things from the backcourt all along. My biggest advantage, though, is the way I have played. It's been part of my life to look for the best man, to find the best situation and react. And that's coaching."
He blows the whistle at the first Seattle practice. "All right, let's spread out," he says. He selects his top rookie, Lucius Allen, a young man not especially noted for any predilection for physical culture, to lead the team in calisthenics. Then Wilkens runs the Sonics—and runs with them—in long, arduous layup drills, in fast-break exercises, in an extended scrimmage. He blows the whistle and assembles all his men in a corner of the gym. It is a very brief appraisal the Sonics hear. "I never saw so many forced shots," their coach says evenly. "Just because it is the first practice of the season is no excuse for that. Now the next time—force a shot and you're coming out. I mean it." Coach Wilkens adds, still softly, with no more inflection, "I'm not going to have this raggedy kind of basketball again."
"I love Lenny," says Tommy Davis, the baseball player who grew up with Wilkens in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant area. "He is a man and a true friend who can be depended upon, but it is not only that he is steadfast and honorable. I love Lenny for what he has achieved. He went in there with all those big guys and proved to them that he could do it—for nine years—on quickness and guts and dedication.
"We used to say of him that he was like the man who wasn't there—he wasn't there till you read the box score. He has improved since his silent days in high school. Oh, he's still not going to win any filibuster, but he will say the right things at the right time and he will gain the respect of every player on the squad because he's a good man."
Wilkens has always had to turn primarily to his colleagues for respect and even for recognition, since circumstance and his own demeanor have conspired to rob him of the celebrity that athletes of much less talent have enjoyed. Two years ago, for example, the NBA players voted him second only to Wilt Chamberlain for Most Valuable Player; nearly one-fifth of all the ballots had Wilkens ranked as the first choice. However, when the official all-league team was selected—by the press—Wilkens failed to win a place on either the first or second squad.
Constructing the paradigm of athletic reputations begins early, and Wilkens is still suffering from his original sin—that he had no high school publicity on which to build. He had made the Boys High team—last man on a 15-man squad—as a freshman but did not go out for the team the next couple of years and, in fact, started cutting classes and generally drifting until his widowed mother put her foot down and refused him permission to quit school and join the Marines. Wilkens took a certain renewed interest in academics at this point and set his sights on going to the City College of New York. Tommy Davis was the all-city star at Boys High and he knew Lenny from way back, in stick-ball mostly, when Davis and the Decatur Street Boys used to come up against Wilkens and the Bainbridge Street Boys. Davis prevailed upon Lenny to come out for the Boys High team again. Still, Wilkens was a midyear graduate and played only half the schedule, missing out on all the city tournaments and publicity. But a few people had seen just enough to tell Joe Mullaney, then the coach of Providence College, and Lenny accepted a Providence scholarship in the fall of '56.
Unheralded, just reaching 6 feet then, he established himself as a good college player in his sophomore year. But the next year Johnny Egan, now with the Lakers, moved up to the varsity, and everybody in New England had known for years that Egan was "the next Bob Cousy." Providence had a good team and went to the finals of the NIT, Wilkens winning the MVP as a senior, but mostly he played second banana. No matter what he did, he remembers, one Providence paper always wrote: " Wilkens played his usual standout game."