Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens was one of 52 individuals* listed in the Panel of Experts in Terry Pluto’s thoughtful 1995 book, “Falling From Grace: Can Pro Basketball Be Saved”?
The books, which checks in at more than 300 pages, is chock full of insight, knowledge and humor. It also asks important questions about the game in the mid-1990s.
“Eye-opening, provocative, carefully reasoned and endlessly revealing,” reads the inside the back cover premise. “Falling from Grace is a wake-up call for a league grown complacent with success, and for the players who have reaped the rewards of that success without fully understanding where it came from. It is a no-holds-barred look at a sport in freefall, a snapshot of the moment when it has passed its apogee of popularity and has begun to plummet toward ground zero.”
We now know the return of Michael Jordan that year, the Chicago Bulls’ second three-peat starting the next season and the emergence of the Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal-led Los Angeles Lakers thwarted any possibility of the NBA falling apart.
Nevertheless, by revisiting this book many years after it was released, one gains a greater appreciation for the league’s history and memorable characters. This is true even by just skimming some of the topics that Pluto presents.
Viewpoints from Lenny Wilkens
Which brings us back to Lenny Wilkens, whose poignant observations about running a team are included in “The Voice of Coaches” chapter.
“I’m never intimidated by the other coach, because I am confident in myself as a coach,” Wilkens said. “I hate to lose. There are maybe a half-dozen times a year where we will lose a game and I’ll have trouble sleeping that night. But most of the time I am able to go home and be myself.”
He continued: “When I was a young coach in Seattle, my son Randy came up to me in the middle of a game. He wanted a dollar for a hot dog. It was a great wake-up call for me. It reminded me that while I was a coach, I also was a father. I gave him the dollar and went back to coaching. In my life, my faith and my family come first. Then comes my coaching.
“I watch tape, but I don’t have to watch a game five or six times to know what happened…”
Speaking of his role as a disciplinarian, Wilkens had this to say in the book: “As a coach, my method of imposing discipline is that I control the minutes. No matter how much money these guys make, they all want to play. If they know that the coach — and only the coach — determines who plays, then the coach can get a player to do what he wants. I tell my guys that I’ll be fair with them. If I put them out there and they don’t get back on defense, they are coming out of the game. If they are selfish, they’re coming out. I treat them like men and I expect them to respond like men.”
Wilkens, the second-winningest coach in NBA history (1,332 victories), was an NBA bench boss in 32 seasons. He guided the Seattle SuperSonics (1969-72), Portland Trail Blazers (1974-76), Seattle (1977-85, winning a championship in ’79), Cleveland Cavaliers (1986-93), Atlanta Hawks (1993-2000), Toronto Raptors (2000-03) and his hometown New York Knicks (2003-05). He retired as a player in 1975 after serving several years as a player-coach. His teams had nine 50-win seasons.
Now 81, Wilkens retired as the career leader in wins, games coached (2,487) and losses (1,155). In April 2010, Don Nelson climbed past Wilkens on the all-time wins list and still sits No. 1 at 1,335.
Wilkens was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a player in 1989 and as a coach in 1998, and again in 2010 with the rest of the 1992 Team USA Dream Team for which he was an assistant coach. Only three other men have been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as players and coaches: John Wooden, Bill Sharman and Tom Heinsohn.
The joy of coaching
In an interview posted on achievement.org, Lenny Wilkens detailed what kept him in the coaching business for decades.
“For someone who doesn’t know basketball, what makes your job so exciting?” he was asked.
Wilkens’ response: “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.”
*The panel also includes: