When he entered the coaching profession 25 years ago, Lenny Wilkens did so with great reluctance. He had established himself as both a floor general and a scorer in a career that would earn him nine All-Star appearances. He was a player in his prime.
Then Seattle SuperSonics general manager Bill Vertlieb made him an offer.
"He invited me to dinner and he approached me about being a player-coach," Wilkens, now coach of the Atlanta Hawks, recalled of that conversation, back in 1969. "I looked at him and said 'you've got to be crazy.'
"He was pretty insistent; he stayed after me so I decided to try it out and see," Wilkens said. "I never had a clue I'd be where I am today."
Today, Wilkens, 57, finds himself on the verge of basketball history. With last night's 115-97 win over the Milwaukee Bucks, Wilkens has 936 career victories, two shy of the all-time NBA record held by another Brooklynite, the great Red Auerbach (938). Wilkens can tie the record as early as Friday; he can break it Tuesday.
His accomplishment proves one thing: Vertlieb wasn't so crazy after all.
Wilkens, during a national teleconference call last week, took time to reflect on a career that took him from one of the top talents, to one of the game's classiest coaches.
"It's been somewhat of a distraction because of all the questions and all the attention," said Wilkens, who has never been an attention-grabber. "You know you need so many wins and you certainly want to win games. At the same time there are a lot of new people [with the Hawks] and you're trying to teach them and pull them together."
Don't read that as Wilkens' being unappreciative -- he's not.
"This will be huge, this will top everything," he would say later. "Obviously the Hall of Fame [Wilkens was inducted in 1988] is comparable. The Hall of Fame and this are the two highlights of my career."
Those highlights are a long way from the rough streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, where Wilkens grew up. Sports, Wilkens, was a way to stay away from the wrong crowd.
Jackie Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodgers second baseman who broke the race barrier in baseball, was a hero.
"The thing I felt with Jackie was he would not let anyone influence him in the wrong direction," Wilkens said. "He was very determined about what he was going to accomplish. He knew what he was."
And so, soon, would Wilkens. The 6-foot-1 point guard received the last scholarship that Providence College had to offer in 1956. He averaged 21.2 points his freshman year, and by his senior season, 1959-60, he was the MVP of the National Invitation Tournament and a college All-American.
Because 1960 was an Olympic year, Wilkens seemed a prime candidate to represent his country. But there was no invitation.
"It was probably one of the biggest disappointments I've had," Wilkens said. "In college the East-West game was a big thing and we got letters that said they would select a team from that game to go to Denver and compete in the Olympic Trials.
"Who wouldn't want to represent their country?" Wilkens said. "But the day before the game, I saw them taking pictures of the guys who were going [to the Trials]. Along with Jerry West, I got the MVP. But I still didn't get the invitation. I was very, very disappointed by the fact that I didn't get the opportunity."
Coming into his own
Wilkens' basketball career appeared to be ending there. He was selected in the first round of the draft by the St. Louis Hawks, but Wilkens planned to either teach economics while earning his master's degree at Boston College, or to work while playing AAU basketball on the side.
Then he went to a playoff game between the Hawks and Auerbach's Boston Celtics, and changed his mind. Seeing how poorly the guards for St. Louis played, Wilkens saw a spot for himself on the team.
The rap on him when he entered the NBA was that he couldn't shoot. That he could use only his left hand. But by his third year he was an All-Star, impressive in his ability to score and direct a team. That led to his being named Seattle's player-coach in 1969 and, with one impressive win early that season, he knew he could do that for a living.
"I'm not sure which victory was the sweetest, but the one that stood out was when I was player-coach and we played the Cincinnati Royals and were down by four with 28 seconds left," Wilkens said. "I called a timeout and set up a play . . . for a dunk. We pressed and stole the ball, because we didn't have any timeouts, and tied the game and went into overtime and won.
"After that, I said 'Well, yeah, I think I can coach in this league.' "
After coaching stops in Seattle, Portland, Seattle again, Cleveland and now Atlanta, the numbers back him up. By the time Wilkens retires, he should have 1,000 wins.
His coaching career spans 22 seasons and includes one NBA title (in 1979, when the SuperSonics beat the Washington Bullets). Auerbach's 938 wins came over 20 seasons, nine of which ended with titles.
That doesn't keep Auerbach from paying the proper respect to Wilkens.
"Now that it's getting broken, I'm happy it's Lenny," Auerbach said. "He's a good guy. He's a Hall of Famer, he played in New England, and he's a real credit to the profession."
Since Wilkens first entered the league as a player more than 30 years ago, the NBA has been revolutionized. Some coaches have changed their style to deal with players with big contracts who pout and undermine coaches.
Wilkens' style has stayed steady.
"Guys [with attitudes], I just don't want them around," Wilkens said. "Everybody knows they have to be accountable, that they have to have respect for one another. If you are interested in winning, this is what we have to be."
And that's the way it's been for Wilkens. He's won. And soon he'll be able to say he's done it more than anyone else.
"I don't compare myself to anyone, I leave that to other people," Wilkens said. "But I think I'm as good a coach as any."