Lenny Wilkens grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, learning to play basketball in one of the toughest neighborhoods of New York’s most populous borough. Wilkens was raised by his mother, a deeply religious woman, who made sure that he didn’t fall victim to the temptations of street life. He was an excellent student, and worked after school to help his mother with living expenses. Winning a basketball scholarship to Providence College was a God send for Wilkens, giving him a chance to escape the neighborhood he grew up in.
His first year at Providence, Wilkens helped the freshman squad to a record 23-0 season. Wilkens led the team to their first NIT appearance in 1959, and to the NIT finals in 1960. This resulted in a first-team selection to two All-America teams, and in his senior year he was named the tourney’s Most Valuable Player. He graduated in 1960 with a degree in economics. His 1,193 points make him the second highest scorer in Friar history.
Wilkens was drafted sixth overall by the St. Louis Hawks in the 1960 NBA Draft. He would immediately make his mark by leading the team to the NBA finals in his rookie year, but the team lost to the Boston Celtics. The Hawks made the playoffs consistently with Wilkens at the point, but came up short of reaching the finals in the next few years. Wilkens would be named runner up to Wilt Chamberlain in the 1967–1968 MVP balloting, his last year with the Hawks. The following season he would be traded to the expansion Seattle Supersonics for Walt Hazzard. This would be a great trade for Seattle as Wilkens would play four seasons for them, being named as an All-Star in three of them.
The trade produced immediate dividends for the Sonics, as Wilkens averaged 22.4 points per game, 6.2 rebounds per game, and his 8.2 assists per game led the league. Wilkens was named player-coach just before his second season for the team, simultaneously coaching and starting at point guard. Their record improved each season and they won 47 games during the 1971–72 season. Wilkens was also named Most Valuable Player in the 1971 All-Star Game. Wilkens was dealt, along with Barry Clemens, to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Butch Beard before the start of the next season. Over 200 season ticket holders petitioned the team, saying that if Lenny goes, so would they, but the trade stood. The Sonics dropped to 26-56 without his leadership on the court.
Wilkens made an immediate impact upon the third year Cavs. With Wilkens directing the action the attacks became crisper, and more potent. “We’re still using basically the same offense we’ve had since the team’s first year,” coach Bill Fitch commented to Sports Illustrated in his assessment of Wilkens’ contribution, “but now if it breaks down, Lenny will make a play. A playmaker isn’t a guy who simply runs patterns for you. He’s the guy who can make things happen when the set things haven’t panned out. When the clock gets down to five or six seconds, he’ll go to one of the basics — one-on-one, pick and roll, pass-and-cut. And he’ll make them work.”
Wilkens represented the Cavaliers in the 1973 NBA All-Star Game during a season in which he averaged 20.5 points per game and 8.4 assists per game. He concluded his playing career with the Portland Trail Blazers during the 1974-75 season, once again performing the dual role of player-coach. However, this time he focused more on the coaching duties, playing only 18 minutes a game. The next season he would hang up his sneakers to coach the Bill Walton-led Trail Blazers full time for one more season. At the time of his retirement, Wilkens was the NBA’s second all-time leader in assists with 7211 assists (6.7 assists per game), behind only Oscar Robertson. He scored 17,772 points during the regular season, an average of 16.5 points per game.
After taking a season off from coaching, he was asked to return to Seattle to coach the SuperSonics. Bob Hopkins, was fired after a dismal 5-17 start to the 1977–1978 season. The SuperSonics won 11 of their first 12 games under Wilkens, made the playoffs, and ultimately reached the 1978 NBA Finals before losing in a close seven game series to the Washington Bullets. He coached in Seattle for eight seasons (1977–1985), winning his and Seattle’s only NBA Championship in 1979 behind the play of Dennis Johnson. Wilkens coached Seattle for eight seasons, making the playoffs six times.
He spent one year in the front office for the SuperSonics before returning to the bench as the head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. He inherited a talented team in Cleveland, and helped turn them into a true force in the NBA. In 7 seasons as the head coach in Cleveland, the team won 50 games or more 3 times and reached the conference finals in 1992. Unfortunately, they could never get past Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls to reach the NBA Finals. The following season the Cavs won 54 games but were knocked out of the playoffs by the Bulls for the fourth time in six years, ending the Wilkens era in Cleveland. Failing to reach the team’s potential, Wilkens tendereed his resignation.
Wilkens took over as coach of the Atlanta Hawks in 1993, just 69 wins behind Red Auerbach for the most victories by a head coach in NBA history. Lenny surpassed Auerbach in his second season in Atlanta to become the all time wins leader. The following year, he became the first coach to break the 1,000 victory threshold. Altogether, Wilkens coached 7 seasons in Atlanta, winning 50 games or more three times. Unfortunately, the team fell under .500 his last two years there, and Wilkens moved on at the end of the ’99-’00 season.
Wilkens was signed to coach the Toronto Raptors, where he spent three years, posting respectable records in the first two before falling to 24-58, and bringing his time in Toronto to an end. The last stop in the great career of Wilkens came with the New York Knicks, spending parts of two seasons with the team. He took the Knicks to the playoffs, after taking over the team, which had started the 2004-05 season slowly. The following year he resigned after starting the year just 17-22. Wilkens ended his coaching career with a 1332-1155 (.536) over 32 seasons, along with a 80-98 playoff mark (.449). He has participated in more games as player and coach than anyone else in league history.
Wilkens is one of only three players to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach (the other two being John Wooden and Bill Sharman), joining the Hall in 1989 as a player and 1998 as a coach. After the 1997-98 season, he was named to the NBA’s list of the 50 All Time Greatest Players and to the Top 10 Coaches in the league’s history. Wilkens is the only person to make both lists.
Wilkens also coached the U.S.A. Olympic Champion Men’s Basketball team in 1996, winning an Olympic Gold Medal. He also served an assistant coach on the 1992 USA Olympic Dream Team. He is a member of the Providence College Athletic Hall of Fame. In 1994 Coach Wilkens was presented the United States Sports Academy’s Amos Alonzo Stagg Coaching Award for his outstanding achievement as a coach.
Wilkens and his wife Marilyn currently make their home in Seattle, where he spent so much of his life playing and coaching. The Lenny Wilkens Foundation has contributed nearly $3 million to the Odessa Brown Children’s clinic in Seattle over the years. To learn more about Wilkens, read his autobiography, “Unguarded: My Forty Years Surviving in the NBA”, which was published in 2001.