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.”
Among those kids from the state were Schrempf, Donaldson, Doug Christie, John Stockton, George Irving, Jamal Crawford, James Edwards, and more recently, Jason Terry, Brandon Roy, Nate Robinson, Spencer Hawes, Jon Brockman, Aaron Brooks, Martell Webster, Marcus Williams and Rodney Stuckey. “You have pride that you have a team, but when all of that went down it broke my heart,” said Hawkins, who was part of the team that played the Bulls in the 1996 NBA Finals. “It was disheartening in the fact that the fans were left out in the cold.” “Hopefully, we’ll get a team back because this city definitely deserves a team, with all tradition and history the Sonics have,” he added.
Seattle brought its basketball players back together Friday — on the baseball field. The Mariners honored the history of the SuperSonics before their game against Tampa Bay. They gathered many of the Sonics’ greatest names, including Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens, George Karl, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Tom Chambers, Hersey Hawkins, Slick Watts, Dale Ellis, Jack Sikma, Spencer Haywood, Fred Brown, Gus Williams, Nate McMillan, Michael Cage and James Donaldson.
Big-name pursuers also include Joe Esposito, director of basketball operations under coaching legend Tubby Smith at Minnesota, who lists Smith and NBA veteran coach Flip Saunders (current coach of the Washington Wizards) as references; and Jeff Nix, who has worked with four of the five biggest coaches in NBA history: Pat Riley, Don Nelson, Lenny Wilkens and Larry Brown.
“I am not going to go out and solicit for a job,’’ he said. “That’s not me. I think my credentials speak for themselves. Why should I be chasing something down? We’ll see where it goes.’’
“There were a couple of teams interested in me a year ago,’’ Wilkens said. “But they didn’t want to pay anything. And I have credentials. “I am not coming back just for nothing. That’s not going to make any sense. I think with what I’ve done, I was a good coach and I’m not going to sell myself short.’’
Wilkens, 73, has never been one to accept complacency, and he still feels the urge to return to the sidelines for one final NBA coaching opportunity. In a time when well-traveled veteran coaches Doug Collins and Paul Silas were recently hired after long stints away from the game and Jerry Sloan, Phil Jackson, and Gregg Popovich are 60-somethings still running winning organizations, Wilkens feels capable of coaching again. He has never officially retired, although he took a break after his stint with the Knicks ended in 2005 and he briefly attempted to pursue a management position with the Sonics. Since then, Wilkens has waited for the right opportunity, feeling he still has the desire and knowledge to win. “I am not just going to run back to anything,’’ said Wilkens, who has coached six teams over five decades. “But if the situation was right, I would certainly give thought to it.’’
Regardless of whether it’s an expansion or an existing team, Wilkens said it’s clear what it will take for an NBA return after Seattle’s 41-year run ended with the move to Oklahoma City. “We’ve got to get a building first,” Wilkens said of a replacement for antiquated Key Arena. “Nobody is going to come if we don’t have a building.” Wilkens is working toward getting that done. Oklahoma City had the modern Ford Center already in place, one reason it was able to lure away the SuperSonics. “They had a building,” Wilkens said. “Key Arena was great, but its time has passed.”
Wilkens played for Seattle from 1968-72 and had two stints as head coach there, from 1969-72 (as player-coach) and from 1977-85. He also was in the team’s front office in 2006-07. “Yeah, I’ve been talking to some people that I know,” Wilkens said in a telephone interview Tuesday, but said he wasn’t at liberty to identify others involved in the effort to bring hoops back to Seattle.
Former NBA coach Lenny Wilkens is in Las Vegas this week in his capacity as a consultant for the Korean national team, which has been training in the U.S. this week. When asked if he was interested in coaching again, Wilkens, who previously told SI.com’s Frank Hughes that he thought about returning to coaching, revisited the possibility. “It’s a small itch,” said Wilkens. “When you have been a coach for a long-time and have had some success, that’s always in your blood.”
08 Apr 10