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Lenny Wilkens

Interview: Lenny Wilkens
Basketball Hall of Fame

June 19, 1999
Washington, D.C.

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A lot of kids want to grow up to be basketball players. When did you first think you were going to make that happen?

Lenny Wilkens: I started to get into basketball late. I played a half a year of high school basketball and played four years of college ball. I saw my first live pro game at the end of my senior year in college. It was the St. Louis Hawks playing the Boston Celtics for a championship. And I went with a friend and when I saw the excitement of the game, the fans, I saw the players out there, and I thought I could do that. And I never dreamt that I would be a professional athlete, let alone a professional coach.

I didn't have that vision until the end of my senior year in college. I only played a half a year of high school basketball where I grew up in Brooklyn, New York.

My dad died when I was five so I always had to have a job after school. Even though I enjoyed sports, the job was first. And, of course, education was even more so. My mother really pushed for us, you know, to get a good education and two things she always said was, you know, "You always have to be accountable for what you say and what you do." And the other thing she told me was that honesty and integrity had to define your character.

What happened to your dad?

Lenny Wilkens: My dad died of a bleeding ulcer. Today an ulcer is a very minor thing, but this was at a time when poor families didn't have the kind of medical care that a lot of other people had, so it really was just poor medical advice. It was a very unfortunate situation.

My mother had to raise us by herself, and it was a very difficult time. But at that time growing up in Brooklyn, you know, baseball was very popular and everyone in the neighborhood -- we were all sort of into sports and we all played baseball. I used to go to the games quite a bit and at that time I saw a young player by the name of Jackie Robinson, who was the first Afro-American to play major league baseball. I began to watch him and I saw things about his character that I really liked. And one, he was never intimidated by anybody; two, he never made excuses for himself. He came to play every game. He was a man on the field and off the field. What I mean by "off the field," you know, his family, business, all these things. And he became my role model.

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How many children were there in your family?

Lenny Wilkens: Five. I was next to the oldest. I have a sister who is older than I am.

So did you find yourself in the role of taking care of the little ones?

Lenny Wilkens: I was told that I was now the man of the family, so I felt a responsibility that I had to help out with the family. I always had a job after school. I think my siblings resented it at times, when someone would say "Why can't you be more like your brother," or that type of thing. But fortunately for all of us everyone turned out fine. I think that's a heavy burden to put on a young person at an early age because you have to grow up in a hurry, so you're probably more serious about life and you might miss something in your childhood.

I grew up in a very staunch Roman Catholic family. My mother went to church every day, okay? And to Novenas on the weekends. I mean, she was there! And so, I'm probably a testament that prayer works because she was always praying for us. And, I became very close to a priest in the parish -- I was an altar boy, and he was the one that wrote to Providence College, talked to them about giving me a scholarship -- by the name of Tom Mannion. And we still stay in touch today and he would always encourage me in telling me that I could do this. I mean, I could achieve here. I mean, anything that I wanted to, I could. It was up to me, you know. And that reinforced what my mother said about not making excuses. You know, be accountable for who you are.

How did he see that much talent in just a half of a year in high school basketball?

Lenny Wilkens: Well, I started out as a baseball player. A lot of my friends started to gravitate to basketball so I decided to try it too. We used to have what was called the Police Athletic League in the city, and a lot of kids were into it. You could go play basketball, ping pong, shuffle board, whatever. It was to keep kids off the streets, and they had it every Monday and Tuesday night at the parish where I went, so I would go too, and all the guys started playing basketball.

The two best players would choose up teams and I never got picked and so I'd wait for a chance to play and we used to play four on four. So when my turn finally came I would select three players to play with me. And now here I waited all this time, it's my game, and they wouldn't pass the ball to me. So every time I got my hands on it I just shot it and they started calling me a "heaver." And so, I started to go to the playgrounds to try and learn to play. I played CYO [Catholic Youth Organization] ball and that's how I got to know Father Mannion and he kept encouraging me. He would tell me, "If you want to get better at it you have to learn how to dribble. You have to learn how to pass," you know, things like that. And he would set up chairs for me to dribble in and out of, stuff like that. And what he saw in me, I don't know, but certainly he had to see something. He always put me in positions of responsibility and things happened.

I understand this was a pretty tough neighborhood, but obviously you were able to rise above it. What was it like?

Lenny Wilkens: It was hard.

There were many times when I had to fight to get home from school. But you couldn't back down, because if you backed down what happens is you got picked on all the time. So even if I lost a fight they knew that I would fight so they wouldn't bother you anymore. And, you know, if you went ten blocks in any direction, there were gangs and my mother didn't want me involved in any of that, and she was a very strong personality. She felt that there was always something better but it was up to me. And so the friends that I started surrounding myself with had the same kind of ideas that I had. They had both parents, which was fine, you know, that pushed them and helped them. But, there were many times when we were in situations that we had to get out of in order to get home. But like I said, you know, you don't allow yourself to be intimidated.

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Not that I'm going to stand there and fight ten people. You don't do that. But if they found out were an athlete, for some reason they didn't bother you as much. They would let you go to different places. But you had to be careful where you went, and what time you went in those areas, especially if you were at a party or something. It was very tough. We were in a lot of harrowing situations at times, but we got through them.

Did you have any setbacks along the way other than having to fight your home sometimes? It sounds like a fairly smooth transition from high school to college scholarship, to the NBA. Were there times when you had doubts about yourself or setbacks?

Lenny Wilkens: There were times. In high school I had a few great teachers, but I also had some teachers that I didn't think were very good. Because we had a few rowdy kids in class they labeled the whole class. I remember one teacher telling us that we'd never go anywhere, that the best thing we could hope for is to go to trade school and stuff like that. But I didn't pay any attention to what she was saying.

Certainly, there were parties that we weren't invited to. When you come from a family of five i,t was always important that the girls have something to wear. The boys could just get by.

As I got into high school and started to move through high school, at the various parties, some I wouldn't get invited to because I lived in a tenement house, or you didn't get invited because of the type of clothes you wore. I mean, I didn't have the nice clothes like other people had, you know. And young people are very impressionable, and I'm sure those things can play havoc with people, but I refused to let it bother me. I mean, I don't know where it came from, but I always felt that I was as good as the next person, and I didn't care what they had. You know? I didn't know I was that poor until later on.

I think Father Mannion had a lot to do with encouraging me and letting me know that I was as good as the next person and that I could achieve this, whatever it was, you know. And, I like challenges. I mean, he was always putting me in areas of responsibility. I'll give you an example. One time he had me coach a girls team, and now here I'm a young guy, you know, and girls are all of a sudden becoming attractive. But he put me in an area of responsibility and I would never do anything that would cause him to feel badly towards me.

I remember one time I was hanging out with some guys from the neighborhood. They weren't bad guys but they would give people flat tires, and some of them gravitated to other things. My mother found out I was hanging out with these guys, and she told Father Mannion. He brought me into his office over at the school and sat me down and told me he didn't want to ever see me with them again. So there were some difficult moments, not only in high school but even in college when I began to be exposed to the real world.

I saw prejudice in the world, and it bothered me that the Church didn't speak out against it more forcefully. It does today, but it didn't at that time. And I have a lot of people I know who turned away from the Church or were upset, you know, and everything. But in turning away they turned away from God too, and I said, "Wait a minute, you know. God gives us free will to do what we want to do. Okay? So why should I indict him for something some human being is doing?" And so I refused to do that, you know. But I was disappointed in a lot of people who were in the Church, okay, because of them not speaking out, and even their attitudes.

It sounds like your mother was very concerned about your future. What did she expect you to do with your life?

Lenny Wilkens: My mother's idea of a career or profession was either being a priest or a doctor. I may have disappointed her a little bit. When I graduated from high school, I was like a lot of young people. I really wasn't sure what I wanted to do. There were a lot of ideas in my head. I knew that whatever it was, I wanted to get a good job. I was impressed with a history teacher when I was in high school, and thought that maybe teaching would be it.

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It was a guy named Mr. Schuller at Boy's High, the high school I went to in Brooklyn. He made you feel like you were actually there experiencing whatever he described. Being a youngster who visualized very easily, I could just see myself in every one of these situations that we covered, and so I thought maybe I'd be a history teacher.

Later on I thought maybe I'd be an accountant. I wanted to learn about business. I wanted to learn about something I never had, which was money, and how to deal with it. In college I majored in economics, and in my money and banking classes subscribed to the Wall Street Journal, so I followed the stock market. I had landed an assistantship to Boston College to get my masters right after I graduated because I had done so well.

Given your mother's preference for you to follow the priesthood or medicine, what was her reaction when you began to get serious about basketball?

Lenny Wilkens: As long as I did my school work and it didn't interfere with work after school, she didn't mind. But she didn't have a clue, and when I got a scholarship to Providence College that was a real surprise to her. My sophomore year we came down to New York to play St. John's University at Madison Square Gardens and that was probably the first time she ever saw me play. I guess she became a real fan. My sisters and tell me she used to get really excited at the games. She didn't want anybody to touch me.

Were you a good student?

Lenny Wilkens: Well, in high school my studies were easy. Things came easy to me. When I got to college it was much more of a challenge. At Providence College I had to take four years of theology and three years of philosophy in addition to whatever my major was. That's the way it was back then.

I'll never forget my first day in logic my first year, and we had this professor named Father Heath -- Dominican Fathers taught at Providence College at that time I was there -- and he was about six-three, six-four, big commanding guy. And we had to fill out these attendance cards and turn them in the first day. And so he went through them and finally he said, "Mr. Wilkens, Mr. Whalen." There was a kid named Dick Whalen who was also a freshman on the basketball team. "Would you please stand up, gentlemen?" And we both stood up and he said, "I want you to know that I don't like athletes, and in particular I don't like basketball players, so don't ever cut my class without a good reason." So right then and there he made us understand that we were there for an education, no matter what we thought, and I was always prepared. I mean, I had my logic book with me on trips and stuff, and I guess I impressed him because I never asked out of an exam. I was always there, and I had a B average all the way through college so, you know, I think, hopefully, I changed his attitude towards athletes.

I hope I showed him we weren't all just jocks, so to speak. When I was in college I began to see that athletes were stigmatized. We were supposed to be jocks who weren't very smart and were only there because of our athletic ability.

I was in my economics class, it was a theory class, and the professor was this Dominican Father named Father Kirk, who was a wonderful guy. And being "W," Wilkens, I was always in the back somewhere. And so I'm watching him as he's asking questions, and I see him skip over this one student, and he goes asking questions, and he skips over another student. And so he's doing this, and so he gets to the back row and there's a kid named Ray Weber who was a great baseball player sitting next to me, and he skips over Ray, and he skips over me. And I stood up and I said, "Wait a minute. What's going on?" I said, "Don't we get a chance to answer questions?" You know? And he started laughing, you know. I guess maybe I was the first one to do that. But I had studied. I knew those answers. I wanted to answer the questions. So, I began to realize that "athletes were great athletes but they weren't very smart." And so I was going to prove them wrong. And, you know, they posted the dean's list, guys who made the dean's list, and everybody saw it. And so I made sure that I made the dean's list every year and that I was in the top third of my class. You know, I took it as a challenge but I felt very strongly about it. "We're students, too, and we need to be treated that way." So, I made sure I could compete in the classroom as well as on the basketball court.

In your first year, the freshman team was 23-0. Is that right?

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Lenny Wilkens: We had a freshman team that was really outstanding. Very talented. Providence College was just starting to emerge as a basketball power. The school was known for academics and hockey. Hockey was the big sport. But our freshman team won 23 straight games that year and it was incredible.

In fact, midway through the year we scrimmaged the varsity and it became a very physical scrimmage because we were playing well. And the coach, Joe Mullaney, wouldn't let us scrimmage them again. For our last game, we sold out the place. People came to see the freshman team. They didn't come to see the varsity.

Providence was still a very tough school academically, and we lost about three or four of those players. When we became sophomores they were booted out of school because of academics. But we won some incredible games. Some games we were way behind and they held the ball on us and stuff like that, but we had enough talent that we overcame it.

Tell us about making that leap to the NBA.

Lenny Wilkens: I had been drafted, number one, by the St. Louis Hawks but I hadn't gone out to see them. I hadn't even talked to them. You know, I really thought I was going to go on to get my master's and then I saw that game. And they were trying to wine and dine me and talk to me, and they offered me a contract for -- I think it was $8,500 with a $1,500 signing bonus. The thing that I knew was that economists at that time were getting $6,000 and I knew that accountants were getting $6,600. So I figured I was way ahead of them if I were to sign a contract, but I also knew that everybody didn't make the professional leagues, and I'd ask them for -- my terminology at the time was I asked them for a "no cut" contract and they said, "What do you mean by that? No cut?" And they didn't understand. And really what I wanted was a guaranteed contract.

That you would play?

Lenny Wilkens: No, that I'd get paid even if they cut me. So they agreed to that. I graduated from college in 1960. I played one year and I had a good year but I was in ROTC in college and I had to go on active duty. I was in the military for a year and a half, and then I came back to the Hawks to play.

Where did you do your military service?

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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.

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."

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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.

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.

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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?

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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.

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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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Was it hard to give up playing?

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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.

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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.

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.

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.

Where do you see yourself now? Are you going to stay with coaching? Do you have other dreams, other aspirations?

Lenny Wilkens: I try to do a lot of things. I'm at a point in my life or my career that I feel very confident. I don't have to prove something all the time. I think when we first start out in whatever profession we are in, if you're really serious about your profession you always feel like you've got to prove something, or at least I always did. I felt like I couldn't live on yesterday's headlines. I had to do something today and tomorrow, and keep it going. I'm more comfortable now. I don't let up but I have time for other things.

I'm very involved in the community. My wife and I, in Seattle we have what is called the Odessa Brown Children's Clinic, and they provide medical and dental care for low-income families whether you can afford to pay or not. And that means something to me having grown up in a low-income area where we were treated like numbers only at the clinics, because we couldn't afford a personal doctor or a personal dentist. And so the care these young people get is with dignity, and they're impressionable at that age and that's what I want.

Lenny Wilkens Interview Photo
We worked in Atlanta with the Atlanta Center for Abused Children and that's very important to us. In Cleveland it was Shoes for Kids. So those are very important to us. I run a golf tournament in Seattle where we raise funds that we give to the charities. We have one in Atlanta, too. I'm on the board of a couple of companies. I'm involved with some of their decision making, and I have my own little company which handles all my endorsements and appearances. My son helps me run it and he sets it up for me to do clinics all over the world. We're pretty busy. I've done some announcing and color commentary on TV. I think I'd like to do that for a little bit after I retire.

You moved around a lot as a player and a coach while your family was growing. What was it like to be uprooted so much?

Lenny Wilkens: It was hard. When we got to Seattle my son was almost two years old. My daughter was three-and-a-half. We liked it a lot and we decided right then and there that Seattle would be our home base no matter what I did. So when we went to these other places, we always kept a home in Seattle and we'd always come back. My wife and I agreed that we would have to concentrate on quality of time because I didn't have quantity of time. At the end of every season the family took a vacation together, and before the season started we took a vacation together. We tried to spend a lot of time with our kids. The important things for me are my belief in God, my family, and my job. Our kids knew we were always there for them. I feel very fortunate. I think they're all nice young adults.

How many kids?

Lenny Wilkens Interview Photo
Lenny Wilkens: I have three, two girls and a boy. The boy works for the Atlanta Hawks. He's our IT coordinator, and does all our computer stuff. He has a master's in psychology so he works on the personality tests we do when we bring in new athletes, and he does a lot of other things. My oldest daughter is married and has two little girls so we have two granddaughters. My other daughter works for Boeing. She's in computer animation, computer graphics. They're all doing fine. My son is in Atlanta, the two girls are in Seattle. They're Northwesterners. They love it and they won't go anywhere else.

Would you want your grandchildren to be pro ball players?

Lenny Wilkens: That's really up to them. My oldest daughter didn't like anything about basketball. I think she always felt it was taking me away from her. I think sports in general is a very good thing for young people; it teaches discipline, it teaches decision making. But I don't feel that sports is for everyone, and I would never push my kids to become tremendous athletes. I want them to evolve into the human beings they want to be. I'll be there to support them, and if it's sports they want to follow, fine. My son was a good athlete, but I think it's very difficult -- especially for a boy -- to follow in his father's footsteps and try to accomplish what I accomplished. I think that's very hard, and I don't want them to be judged by that.

A lot of kids grow up thinking they want to be in the NBA, but they can't all be in the NBA. Do you see a problem in the way we glorify our athletes today?

Lenny Wilkens: I think we glorify some of them too much and some not enough. Athletics is very good for people. There's nothing wrong with aspiring to be a professional athlete, but I tell young people that it's a narrow scope to only see the athlete. Broaden the scope.

We should never discourage young people from dreaming dreams. We all should have our dreams and dream them. Okay. But also see what surrounds it if you love professional sports, if you love the professional athlete. Now what are the things that surround him or her? There's the coach. There's the trainer. There's the team doctor, whether it's an orthopedic or internist or dentist or ophthalmologist. There's the advertising department, the marketing department, media relations department. There's a promotions department. There's ownership, general manager. So let your scope be here, okay. And if I'm shooting to be the professional athlete, and I learn all about professional sports, and I don't make it -- Boom! I'm over here. I'm still associated with the sport. So I tell young people, "Don't narrow your dream to here. Let your dream grow, and just broaden it."

What does the American Dream mean to you?

Lenny Wilkens: The American Dream, to me, means having the opportunity to achieve, okay? Because I don't think you should be guaranteed anything other than the opportunity. I want you to let me fail or succeed, okay? And the thing that I tell young people, if you fail the first time that's just a chance to start over again so don't take it personally because it's like coming to a roadblock. If you can't go through it, find a way around it. Don't waste all your time banging your head against that. Move in another direction. So my philosophy becomes that I worry about the things I can affect, and the things I have no control over I move by.

Did you ever send NBA tickets to the teacher who said you'd never amount to anything?

Lenny Wilkens Interview Photo
Lenny Wilkens: No. If you put time and energy into revenge or getting back at people, you're the one who suffers. Not them. They've probably forgotten all about it and moved on.

I have a saying that I love. It's a little poem that a fan wrote on a menu and sent to me one time in a restaurant. I treasure it because I think it sums up my life, and it could sum up a lot of people's lives. It's called "The Solitary Bird."


The conditions for a solitary bird are five:
One, that it point its beak skyward.
Two, that it sing very softly.
Three, that it does not suffer for company, not even of its own kind.
Four, that it fly to the highest point.
And five, that it has no definite color.

That's beautiful. It has been a great pleasure. Thank you so much.

You're quite welcome.




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