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

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Lenny Wilkens
Lenny Wilkens
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Lenny Wilkens Interview (page: 5 / 7)

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  Lenny Wilkens

What prompted you to become active in the Players Association?

Lenny Wilkens: After I got out of the service I made the All Star team that next year, along with Bob Petit. The game was going to be in Boston. We ran into a lot of snow and we got into Boston kind of late. Bob Petit was the player rep for the Hawks and as we got in the hotel lobby, Tommy Hineson, who was President of the Player's Association, and Bill Russell, and the legal counsel, Larry Fleischer, came up to Petit right away and said, "We've got a problem." We didn't have good benefits. We didn't have a pension plan or anything. Our per diem was like $8 a day. So they said to Petit, "The new commissioner won't see us. They won't give us anything. We need to have a meeting right now." So as we're checking in I'm listening and I decided I'm going to go to my room, and they said, "No, you come with us." So I went.

We went and had an interview with the commissioner, a guy named Walter Kennedy, and so as we're sitting in his suite talking and we say that we're going to strike the All Star game. They had lost their TV contract and this was going to be an opportunity to get it back because this was going to be the first game they were going to televise in maybe a year or two. And the commissioner looks at, you know, Russell and these guys when they say, "We're going to strike the All Star game." And we're sitting -- he's like where you are, and the four of us or five of us are sitting over here. And he looks at everybody, and he looks at me, and I'm the lowest guy on the totem pole in the room. And he says to me -- he comes right up and gets right in my face and says to me, "You mean to tell me you're going to strike the All Star game?" And I was sliding down in my seat and I said, "Yes." But that night we all went into one locker room and told them we weren't going to play unless we got a commitment that we'd have a pension plan. So to make a long story short, they agreed finally, because they were going to lose the TV time if they didn't.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

Lenny Wilkens Interview Photo
They other players wanted me to be active. They tried to get star players to be active because they knew owners couldn't threaten them as much. After that I became player rep and eventually became vice-president of the Player's Association. I was in on all the negotiating committees. The team didn't really want to trade me, but it didn't create good relations between me and the coach at times. The coach was upset a few times when we had threatened a strike or something like that.

It must be strange for you to look at your own player's salaries and benefits now, compared to the way things were for you in the early '60s.

Lenny Wilkens: We've come a long way. Of course, you could relate it to almost every business field. We had to stand up and not be intimidated. If I got traded I was going to have to get traded. The Coaches Association went through the same thing. I'm president of the Coaches Association, and we had to get a pension approved. When I got involved with the coaches it was like doing it all over again. But yeah, you look at the salaries today and it's incredible, the change from when I came in as a player.

What were your favorite books growing up? Do you remember one that had a particular influence on you?

Lenny Wilkens Interview Photo
Lenny Wilkens: I don't know that I had a favorite growing up, because I read newspapers more than I read books. Halfway through college I started to get really interested in reading. I especially remember reading two books on Winston Churchill, Alone and The Last Lion. I was always impressed with him. Then I began to read historical novels, and books on the Kennedys, on Lyndon Johnson, whoever was in office. I read all about Truman who I thought was a great, great president.

I've read all of James Michener's books. I read all of Herman Wouk's books and Tom Clancy's books. There may be a few of those I haven't read, but I enjoy reading. Sometimes it's just an escape, but I also like to read about great leaders, about how they conducted their lives, and what helped them make decisions.

Lenny Wilkens Interview Photo
You've taken a leadership role throughout your life, in high school and college, in the military, as a player and as a coach. Did you ever feel destined to be a leader?

Lenny Wilkens: I always seemed to be the person everybody turned to, or I was pushed into it and I didn't seem to mind. As time went on, I was always in those areas and, in fact, I liked the idea of it, being a leader. Even in my basketball career, being a point guard, I was the guy who ran the show. I was always referred to as a coach on the floor. I figured I needed to do these things.

You were a player/coach for while. How did that come about?

Lenny Wilkens: When the St. Louis Hawks franchise was sold to Atlanta, we had a contract problem and I wouldn't sign, and then I got traded to Seattle and I played in Seattle. I was there for one year when at the next year they fired the coach just before we started training camp. We had a general manager by the name of Dick Bertlieb who asked me and my wife to come over for dinner, and I had known him socially. And when dinner was over, we got to talking and he wanted me to be a player/coach, and I told him he was crazy. I mean I did not want to do it, but he was persistent. We talked about it for a few days and he kept saying that I could do it; that if we brought someone in new with so short a time period he wouldn't know the team like I knew it and all these kind of things. And then he reiterated like I was always like a coach on the floor anyway. So finally I decided I'd try it to see, and I felt that I had nothing to lose. He wasn't going to get rid of me so I would try it and I did it in Seattle for three years. The first year was sort of a novelty. The second year I became a little more serious about it. The third year we had a real good record. I mean, I felt I made some decisions as a coach that helped us win.

By then, the guy who hired me was gone and we had a new general manager. He wanted me to do one or the other, so I said, "Fine, I'll play, because you don't play me enough for that aggravation." I felt I had a couple of years left to play. Eventually I got traded to Cleveland, so I played there for two years. I came back to Portland and was offered a job there. They got my playing rights and I wound up being a player/coach again, but just for one year. I realized then that my career was turning. I had to do more teaching, more explaining. I had to spend more time doing these other things. and I knew that would affect my playing. It was time anyway. I had played 15 years so it was time to retire and I went straight into coaching.

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This page last revised on Sep 28, 2010 22:00 EDT
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