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If you like Lenny Wilkens's story, you might also like:
Hank Aaron,
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,
Yogi Berra,
Julius Erving,
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Lenny Wilkens also appears in the video:
Heroes and the American Dream

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Lenny Wilkens
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Lenny Wilkens Interview (page: 4 / 7)

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  Lenny Wilkens

Where did you do your military service?

Lenny Wilkens Interview Photo
Lenny Wilkens: I served at Fort Lee, Virginia. I could have gone overseas during the Berlin crisis, but they knew that I had played one year of pro ball and they tried to get me to play for the base team. I wouldn't. I had this phobia that guys who played in the service lost something and never played as well when they came back. I had seen that happen to two guys, so I wouldn't play. They gave me troop duty, which was fine because I enjoyed it. It was a lot of responsibility but I didn't mind. Then the Hawks talked to me about coming in to play on some weekends if I could get away because they had a real bad year that second year. So I finally agreed to play for the base team if they would let me go join the Hawks on any weekends the base team didn't have to play. The military service was interesting. I played basketball for them but I also had some troop duty, which I thought was a great experience.

What sort of duty?

Lenny Wilkens: I was an executive officer to a company commander. We set training schedules, and I had to discipline young soldiers who went AWOL and stuff like that. My company commander got transferred to Germany and I had to take over the company. I was up for first lieutenant and I had a lot of seconds under me, which at that time was unusual because usually captains run companies. I learned very quickly that my first sergeants and sergeant majors really knew everything, so we became great friends, and they helped me to get superior ratings on all the inspections.

What effect do you think your training as a military leader of troops has had on your coaching?

Lenny Wilkens: I think it helped tremendously because I was used to working with people, insofar as demanding discipline and helping them to be successful. Those were skills I was able to apply in a lot of things I've done.

I suppose there's a need in both arenas, for discipline and a sense of team spirit.

Lenny Wilkens: That's right.


I think the military was good for people at the time because -- it did -- it taught discipline and it taught that we had to work together to be successful. The other thing it taught me was organization, too. It helped. Whatever organizational skills I had, they just were enhanced because of being in the military.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation


When I got out I rejoined the team, but you have to understand that back in those days we weren't making the kind of salaries they make today. I always had a job during the summer. For three years I worked with high school dropouts at the Jewish Employment Vocational Services in St. Louis. I used to administer IQ tests and dexterity tests and recommend an area of training for them. We had professional people who taught them a specific field. At the end of the day I would counsel them on how to fill out an application, how to go for an interview, grooming, whatever they needed. And then the next three summers I worked in marketing and sales for Monsanto Corporation. I had a lot of experience that I think helped with my basketball.

Could you tell us more about your first year in the NBA?


Lenny Wilkens: I was probably the greenest NBA player there ever was. I mean, because I didn't know the history real well. I didn't know who all the stars were. I knew everybody on the Celtics because if you were in New England you had to know who they were. But the other teams I didn't really know. I mean, I knew some of the rookies because in the college all star games and stuff like that I played against them. And I'll never forget one game I was playing against Bob Cousy -- who was a great player at the time -- and I stole the ball from him cleanly and the referee blew the whistle, called a foul on me and I was really upset, you know, because I took it clean and I turned to the referee and I said, "You know, if I was a superstar you wouldn't make a call like that." And he realized I was a rookie and, you know, maybe I didn't get it or whatever, and he didn't want to call a technical so he just looked at me for a second and he said, "Well--" because I said, "If I was a superstar, you know you wouldn't make that call," and he looked at me and he said, "Well, we'll never have to worry about that." And it let me know right then and there, "Leave the officials alone."


Lenny Wilkens Interview Photo
My first year in St. Louis was not an easy year because the teammates weren't so friendly to rookies back then. Also, the city was somewhat segregated. You couldn't eat in certain restaurants downtown and things like that.

When you say you couldn't eat in restaurants, what does that mean exactly? What year was that?

Lenny Wilkens: This was in 1960 and '61. All the rookies were staying downtown at the Sheraton hotel, during training camp and one evening we decided we didn't want any more hotel food. There was a place across the street from the hotel, so a bunch of us players -- black and white -- went in. People were standing there looking at us. Roland Todd was a white player on the team. A guy called him over and said, "We can't serve your friends," so we all left. There were a lot of situations like that but it changed by the end of the year. St. Louis opened up, but in certain areas it still existed. My third year in the pros I got married and we lived in an apartment at first.


We decided to buy a house and we bought a home in an area called Moline Acres, and when we moved in, "For Sale" signs went up everywhere. We had a collie, a little puppy, that was poisoned and stuff like that. But, you know, I wasn't going to be intimidated. I was still young. I was young and stupid, you know, but I refused to be intimidated by it. Some people moved out. Some stayed. And then when they got to realize that we were just like them, you know, I became friends with most of them except for one guy who lived next door to us. We had carports then. It was our first house, it was a starter house. And he would get out of his car and I may be out front sometimes and see him. And if I was out there he'd open the door, you know, on the driver's side and he'd back out so he wouldn't have to speak. So there were a lot of things like that. You work your way through it. My thing was to show people that I was as good as they were and that they needed to take the time to know me and not judge me just by the color of my skin.

[ Key to Success ] Courage


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