Pro Hoops History HOF: Lenny Wilkens

(Seattle Times)
(Seattle Times)

Lenny Wilkens was the first coach in NBA history to amass 1000 victories. The first of those many wins for coach Wilkens came on Halloween 1969. Wilkens was coaching the Seattle SuperSonics. His leading scorer and the player that led the club to victory that night was some guy by the name of Lenny Wilkens with 38 points.

Wilkens would spend most of the last half of his playing career in this dual role as player-coach.

But long before Wilkens called his own number, he excelled as one of the NBA’s best point guards. The first eight years of his career were spent in St. Louis with the Hawks. That ball club was dominated by a frontcourt heavy offense anchored by Cliff Hagan and Bob Pettit. Wilkens’ job was to feed them the ball early and often. As time wore on, and Hagan and Pettit aged, Lenny was able to carve out a larger role. By his final Hawks season, he was averaging 20 points and 8 assists per game, both career-highs at the time.

With a move to Atlanta, though, Wilkens encountered a rift with the new Hawks owners. Unable to find a rapprochement, the Hawks traded Wilkens to Seattle in 1968 where he continued his all-star ways and began to patrol the sidelines as coach. His actual on-court talent may have been the same, but totally free to run the show in Seattle, and then Portland and Cleveland, Wilkens had the numbers to match his always great game.

Wilkens with the Hawks (1961 – ’68): 35.2 MPG, 15.5 PPG, 5.5 APG, 4.9 RPG, 42.1% FG, 75.7% FT
Wilkens after the Hawks (1969 – ’75): 35.5 MPG, 17.6 PPG, 8.0 APG, 4.4 RPG, 44.3% FG, 79.0% FT

His playing style was one of quicksilver flair. He loved to penetrate into the teeth of a defense and finish with swirling, looping layups with either hand. The fact that Wilkens was a southpaw helped him confound defenses. Lenny, as you may notice by the assist averages, didn’t hesitate to drop a dime as well after knifing his way into a defense.

Amazingly, Wilkens playing, and therefore coaching, success almost never got off the ground. Chained to the bench his rookie season, Wilkens had a great practice and Hawks coach Paul Seymour inquired why he didn’t play like that in the games.

“I’m never in the game, so how would you know how I play?”, Wilkens shot back. Wilkens clarified the remarks, “When I make one mistake, you take me out. I’ll see some of the older guys make the same mistake 3 – 4 times and you leave them in.” The next game, Wilkens made a rookie mistake, but Seymour let him play out the game and the rest, as they say, is history.

Years Played: 1960 – 1975

Accolades

NBA -
All-Star Game MVP (1971)
9x All-Star (1963-’65, 1967-’71, 1973)

Statistics

NBA - 1077 Games
16.5 PPG, 6.7 APG, 4.7 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 43.2% FG, 77.4% FT
APG Leader (1970)

Contemporary NBA Ranks (1960-61 through 1974-75 season)
2nd Assists, 5th APG
9th Points
4th FTs Made, 9th FGs Made
23rd Steals*, 17th SPG*
1st Games Played, 5th Minutes Played

*Stat not kept until 1973-74 season

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