Lenny Wilkens: Hall of Famer - Twice!
Charles E. Sutton | , WI Staff Writer | 3/8/2012, 3:31 p.m.
Lenny Wilkens was born on October 28, 1937, in Brooklyn, N.Y. He was raised in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section, one of the most challenging neighborhoods in America. His father worked as a chauffeur, while his mother was employed at a candy factory. Although Wilkens' father died when he was only five, his mother, a deeply religious woman, made sure that her son avoided the pitfalls of the streets. Wilkens excelled academically while maintaining a succession of after-school jobs as soon as he was old enough to work.
An empathetic priest encouraged Wilkens' athletic interests and helped him to earn a basketball scholarship to Providence College in Rhode Island. In his first year at Providence, he led the freshman team to an undefeated 23-0 season.
As a sophomore and junior, Wilkens was selected to two All-American teams, and in his senior year was named the NCAA Tournament's Most Valuable Player. In 1960, he graduated with a degree in economics.
Following graduation, he joined the National Basketball Association (NBA) and developed into one of the greatest point guards in the history of professional basketball. He began his career with the St. Louis Hawks, where he played for seven seasons.
He spent the next four seasons with the Seattle SuperSonics, where he first became player-coach. In his first season (1969-70) leading the Sonics as head coach, he also led the league in assists. He played three additional seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers before ending his playing career as a player-coach with the Portland Trail Blazers in 1975.
In his 15 seasons as a player, he averaged 16.5 points and 6.7 assists per game. He ranks among the all-time leaders in assists, free throws made, and games played. Wilkens was a nine-time NBA All-Star and was named Most Valuable Player in the 1971 All-Star Game. From 1961 to 1969, he also served as vice president of the NBA Players Association. His stellar career as a player earned him induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1989.
When his playing career ended, Wilkens continued his coaching career in the NBA. In 1979, he led the Seattle SuperSonics to an NBA Championship, while serving as head coach and general manager. He was the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks from 1993 to 2000. In three of those seasons, Wilkens coached the Hawks to 50 wins, including two consecutive 50-win seasons.
During his NBA coaching career, he also served as president of the NBA Coaches Association and was active in the U.S. Olympic basketball program. Wilkens received two Olympic gold medals, as assistant coach of the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team, and as head coach of the 1996 U.S. Olympic basketball team, a second consecutive Olympic championship.
In 1994, Wilkens was named NBA Coach of the Year after leading the Hawks to the best record in the Eastern Conference. On January 6, 1995, he became the NBA's most victorious coach, when he guided the Hawks to a 112-90 win over the Washington Bullets for his 939th career win, surpassing legendary Boston Celtic coach Red Auerbach's 938 career wins.