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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,
Peyton Manning,
Willie Mays,
Pete Rozelle,
Bill Russell and
John Wooden

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: 6 / 7)

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  Lenny Wilkens

Was it hard to give up playing?

Lenny Wilkens Interview Photo
Lenny Wilkens: No, I was ready. I think I could have probably played another year, but 15 years is a long time play. I was really fortunate I didn't have too many injuries. It was time to move on. Being a player/coach, especially those first three years with Seattle, sort of whetted my appetite. I did some things in some games that let me know that I can do this, and maybe be pretty good at it.

You had a great year with Seattle in '79.

Lenny Wilkens: I had worked for CBS the year before. I left basketball for a year and did commentary, so I saw all the teams play. I knew who had all the talent and so forth. I had a two year contract with CBS, and after the first year, I was at a dinner and the owner of the Seattle SuperSonics, a guy named Sam Schulman, followed me around all night talking to me about coming to work for them as their director of player personnel or general manager. Finally I said, "We'll talk about it another time." I didn't want to talk about it because we were at a social function, but he just wouldn't stop, so finally I agreed.

They had had a terrible year. They had a lot of unrest on the team, so I took the job as director of player personnel. I helped engineer a lot of trades for them because I had seen all the players. I helped bring in Marvin Webster, Paul Silas and Willy Wise. I brought in John Johnson and Wally Walker.

Lenny Wilkens Interview Photo
We put together a pretty good team but they got off to a bad start. They were losing games left and right. The owner was upset. He wanted to fire the coach and I said, "You hired him. You've got to give him a chance." When it got to 5-16 he said, "That's it," and he wanted to fire the guy. They were in Denver at the time and I couldn't get to Denver so I said, "Wait until they get to Kansas City and I'll go do what you want." They lost the game in Denver and the writers were saying they were the worst team in basketball. It was awful.

So I went to Kansas City and I relieved the coach of his duties and explained to him, and he understood. Then I talked to the team and I told them that I couldn't change a whole lot tonight but I had some ideas, and I had great confidence that they were better than their record. That night, because of the change, we started out up by 17. We were playing great, but we almost lost the game. We won by one point. We go to Boston and had two days off, so I tried to simplify some things.

I changed the starting line up, and I explained to the players why I wanted these other guys coming off the bench, because of how they could help us, and we won the next ten games. Everybody's confidence goes sky high. We shocked everybody, and we get to the finals that year. We lost, but the next year we came back and won the championship. There are certain basic things that you have to do in any business. I thought communication was very important.

Players have to understand what their roles are, how they fit in, you know. I think that you have to learn to communicate with people, and I think that respect is a two-way street. If you want it, you've got to give it. I felt like if you show someone how to have success, they want more of it. You know? So find ways to help people. I felt if you put yourself on a pedestal as a coach and if you're not reachable, touchable, how can you communicate then? So these are things I believed in, and so I tried to implement those things with the guys. I tried to be consistent, so they always knew where I was coming from and what I stood for. I wasn't going to say one thing and do another thing. And so, I felt that these principles really worked, and they bought into them, and we became a very good team.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

Coach Mike Krzyzewski told us something similar. He said you have to let the player know you believe they can win, and that's really quite different than telling them, "You guys screwed up, you're worthless."

Lenny Wilkens: Yes. That's negative.

There was a book that came out and I thought was a terrible, terrible book. Winning Through Intimidation or something like that. Intimidation doesn't last very long. All right? So what you have to do is build confidence in people. Show people how to have success and then you can push their expectations up. At least, like you say, I let my players know I believe that they could achieve this and I set goals for them. Now, I set individual goals. I set team goals. I set intermediate goals, so that as soon as we achieve this one we can move to the next one. And so, yes, I have high expectations of them. I let them know that I believe that they can succeed, and I'm going to be there to help them.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

For someone who doesn't know basketball, what makes your job so exciting?

Lenny Wilkens: People. Working with young people. Helping them to maximize their ability because it helps them to become successful and it helps me to be successful. It helps the organization. But also, I feel if I can impart something lasting then they not only use it for their basketball, they take it off the court and they take it and they utilize it in giving back to society through their family and through how they interact in their community. And when I see that I feel real good about it. You see the growth. You see the development of a human being in addition to an athlete.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

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