His future in Seattle was of particular importance to Brooklyn-born Wilkens because of his newly developed love for the woods and open spaces in the Northwest. For the first time in his pro career he had bought a house not for its resale value but for its hominess. He and his wife Marilyn had decided this was the place they wanted to live and raise their three children.
When Nissalke, last season's ABA Coach of the Year at Dallas, came to Seattle with a three-year contract, he decided the Sonics would not become title contenders for several more seasons. He surmised that Wilkens, who at 35 is the oldest starting guard in the NBA, would be too elderly by then and he thought he had the full support of management when he traded Lenny as part of a long-term youth movement.
Had he looked hard at his franchise's previous efforts to improve, Nissalke might have been less surprised when he was fired three months into the season. While other teams patiently attempted to upgrade through drafts and trades, the Sonics had tried to buy a championship out of the ABA, even though NBA rules prohibit the tactics of Seattle Owner Sam Schulman. He took his own league to court and won. Of the three former ABA All-Stars on the Sonic roster, only Haywood has been a success. Center Jim McDaniels remains a high-priced substitute and Forward John Brisker, in addition to playing poorly, has been a discipline problem. The agent retained by all three to hustle them out of the ABA is Al Ross of Los Angeles, a man who reportedly tries to take a hand in the management and coaching of the teams for which his players perform. Seattle and Phoenix, the two NBA clubs that have signed former ABA players advised by Ross (the Suns have Charlie Scott), are the teams that have failed most dramatically to live up to expectations.
On the day the trade was made, Lenny was off playing golf. The Sonic front office called Marilyn Wilkens and told her of the deal only five minutes before a relative from New York phoned to say he had heard the news over the radio. Summoned home from the practice green, Lenny was shocked by the trade, dismayed by the prospect of playing for a club as poor as Cleveland and upset because he thought he had been judged over-the-hill.
"It was like they had said, 'We don't want you. You're worn out and of no use to us anymore. You're a piece of baggage,' " Wilkens said recently. "I felt justified in thinking that I had helped a lot in developing that franchise, but I guess they didn't consider things like that. I wanted security and I got the feeling that I finally had it. I forgot for a moment that no athlete in professional sport is secure. Then I really got depressed wondering if they thought I couldn't play anymore."
The Seattle fans saw nothing wrong with his ability. On the day of the trade a man threatened Nissalke's life, and 200 others signed a petition headed, "If Lenny Goes, I Stay Home." Wilkens has a large packing carton full of sympathetic letters, which he is keeping as a memento of the public's loyalty.
At first Wilkens refused to join the Cavaliers, but when he finally did—after the team had an 0-6 record to start the season—it set the stage for a triumphant return to his old home floor. The second-largest crowd in Seattle's history, 13,174, turned out to give him a three-minute standing ovation, to boo the home team and to roundly cheer the Cavaliers as they won 113-107. It was the first time Cleveland had ever defeated the Sonics, and it began a trend. The Cavs have won three of four against Seattle this season and have a better overall record.
All of which would be a particular source of delight for Wilkens if he were a vindictive man. "I can't feel happy about what's happened to the Sonics," he says. "I have too many old friends on that team. Besides, I'm not that kind of person and I hope I never become one. I guess an old tiger like me just doesn't change his stripes." Or his style for that matter. In a recent win at Detroit the score was tied 104-104 with 28 seconds to play and Cleveland in control of the ball. Time had almost expired on the shot clock as Forward Barry Clemens, who was a throw-in in the trade that brought Wilkens to the team, dribbled near the foul line. Lenny's man was playing him far to his left, a wise strategy until late in games when Wilkens always seems to unveil his right hand for the first time. A quick fake to the left, an even quicker dart to his right toward the basket and a nifty bounce pass from Clemens resulted in an easy, right-handed lay up and a 106-104 win.
As they say in the NBA, a very professional move.