Lenny Wilkens Rumors
16 Apr 14
In what can only be described as a virtual “Who’s Who” of NBA superstar talent, in 2005 Colangelo called a special meeting of former Olympian basketball players. Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Jerry West, and Hall of Fame Coaches Dean Smith, Lenny Wilkens, and Chuck Daly, among others, gave their input. It was a superstar group therapy session. They laid bare all concerns—one of most hailed players of our time, for instance, voiced concerns about looking stupid on a global stage. At that moment, choosing the right coach became a very personal endeavor.
Colangelo told me it was about understanding and connecting with a vast array of personality types, getting the trust of NBA superstars who could sacrifice ego for the good of the team. First, Colangelo wanted to hear first-hand what it was like to be a player on the Olympic basketball team. It’s a unique experience, and he didn’t want to assume he had all the answers. Picking the “right” coach depended on his understanding how the players felt and what motivated them.
My teammates didn’t help me out at first. They were a product of their times. But it had more to do with me taking somebody’s job. Only after they saw I could play and help the team, everything was fine. Pettit and Hagan went out of their way to make sure I was OK. I thanked them for that, because it was tough on me in St. Louis, a place that didn’t welcome me. You’ve got to understand, I grew up in Brooklyn. You threw a rock at me, you were going to get one thrown back at you. I don’t know how others put up with it. I couldn’t. I couldn’t do what Jackie did. It would’ve been a disaster if that had been me.
Lenny Wilkens is in the Hall of Fame as a player and a coach. Let that soak in for a second. Is there anything else he could’ve accomplished in basketball? Actually, yes. He was also a pioneer on the floor and the bench as one of the first African-American stars in an age when he wasn’t universally welcomed as either a player or coach. Wilkens came of age in the 1950s, played professionally in the 60s and coached in the 70s. America was changing in those decades, learning how to connect to blacks, relate to blacks, even live next door to blacks. And yes, root for blacks in sports. It was a bumpy transition for most, even Wilkens, son of a black father and Irish mother who was born and raised in Brooklyn. “I never had any problems in Brooklyn, in terms of race,” Wilkens said. “That all started when I left Brooklyn.”
Wilkens, a Hall of Famer as both a coach and a player, coached Atlanta when the NBA lost games for the first time during a 1998-99 lockout that shortened the season from 82 to 50 games. But Wilkens believes this second work stoppage could lead to more damage due to the depressed economy. “I’m a little disappointed it got to this point,” Wilkens said from Seattle, where he coached the SuperSonics to the 1979 NBA title and has had aspirations of bringing another team to the city since the franchise bolted to Oklahoma City in 2008. “I thought last year was a great year (in the NBA). There were a lot of young players developing, a lot of young teams developing. (The lockout) hurts both sides. “I thought we were fortunate (in the last lockout) to recapture the fans’ attention. This could hurt a little bit more. I think with the economy, people will have to make tough choices.”