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Appreciating Lenny Wilkens

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2017 Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony - Portraits Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

“I feel that by the way you live your life people will know who you are and what you’re about.” - Lenny Wilkens

Word broke early this morning that the Lenny Wilkens Foundation will be closing after a final dinner event this August, prompting a look back at the storied career and contributions of a local legend. For more insight about this news make sure to read these great articles by KING5’s Chris Daniels and Percy Allen of the Seattle Times.

Wilkens is best known for being an elite player and coach in the NBA, racking up countless awards and commendations over the course of a 45 year professional basketball career.

As a player he appeared in 9 all star games, earning MVP honors one time. He averaged double figures in 14 of his 15 seasons and, when he retired in 1975, was ranked second on the NBA all-time assist list with 7,211.

“I think that people are surprised when they read my statistics as a player, because most of them would remember me as a coach.” Wilkens told SonicsRising, going on to explain that he was originally reticent to transition between those roles. ”They let the coach go and Dick Vertlieb who was the general manager, wanted me to be a player coach. I told him he was crazy. He said, no, you’re like a coach anyway on the floor. You know what to do, you run the show.”

And run the show he did.

Wilkens went on to coach in the NBA for a mind boggling 32 seasons, leading the NBA coaches association for 17 years. He led 9 different teams to 50 win seasons and retired with more wins (1,332), games coached (2,487) and losses (1,115) than any coach in NBA history before being surpassed by Don Nelson and Greg Popovich.

These achievements earned him an unmatched 3 entries into the Naismith Hall of Fame and in 2015 he was honored by the NBA with the Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement award.

Regardless of how impressive those honors may be they represent just a fraction of his total accomplishments. You cannot appreciate the true greatness of Lenny Wilkens without considering the impact he has made outside of basketball.

For starters, Wilkens is a respected businessman who has served on corporate boards including Seattle Children’s Hospital, and the Institute of Human Virology. Over a span of 27 years his foundation has raised more than $10 million for charities including the Odessa Brown Clinic which will be soon be breaking ground on a second facility named in his honor.

”I’m an active person, I can’t visualize not doing anything,” - Wilkens told Forbes Magazine in a 2015 biography highlighting is off court activities.

Pause for a minute and take this all in: A world champion with as many all-star appearances as Gary Payton, who coached at a Popovich level, excelled at business and politics while raising tens of millions of dollars for charity, then consider that all of that is just the tip of the iceberg when evaluating this great man.

Trying to define Lenny Wilkens by listing off statistical accomplishments is like trying to prove Stevie Wonder, Prince or Frank Sinatra were great musicians by citing their record sales. Sure the numbers are impressive, but numbers alone cannot convey the artistry with which they lived their lives, the totality of their experience or the sum of the impact they made on others.

Lenny Wilkens is more than a player, coach, businessman or philanthropist. He is an icon who has lived each day of his life adhering to values collected and honed over time, surrounded by great people, building relationships and relentlessly learning from those around him.

The accumulation of those values started with his mother, a staunch Roman Catholic, forced by tragedy to support a young, mixed race family of 5 on her own in Brooklyn, NY during the 1940’s.

“My Dad died when I was five and so it was tough for my mother. But you know, she raised us and taught us that honesty and integrity were important to our character.

She had a job that didn’t pay a whole lot. It was a struggle and at that time, if you were from a mixed race family and you went places, people would look. If she saw someone looking she would ask them what they were looking at. She wasn’t going to back down from anybody.

As a youngster, you have to learn growing up that you’re going to speak up for yourself and take care of yourself. My mom set that example.”

ROTC 2nd Lieutenant Lenny Wilkens attending college graduation with his mother.

His mother was the first of many great influences over the course of a lifetime spent seeking out mentors and learning at every opportunity.

“I think the people in your life help you become who you are because they have a part in your growth.”

“I met some people who I thought were very instrumental growing up in Brooklyn. I had a little part time job and I remember delivering groceries to Jackie Robinson’s house and I got to meet him. The thing that I saw is that he was such a fierce competitor on the baseball field, but he was also very intelligent. And he used a lot of that. No matter what anyone said, it didn’t deter him from what he wanted to accomplish.”

Wilkens has an endless trove of stories and experiences to share, transitioning deftly between subjects ranging from his childhood in New York, a fairytale NBA career, time spent leading young men as a Lieutenant in the United States Army and his experience supporting the Odessa Brown Clinic. He is quick to credit others by name and offers equal recognition and respect to unknown figures such as his childhood priest, Father Tom Mannion and the staff at Odessa Brown as he does NBA legends like Oscar Robinson and Jerry West, with whom he has traveled the globe, coaching youth camps, speaking and being an ambassador for the league.

“His gentlemanly manner and humble disposition have not changed in 30 years. He’s poised, calm and patient, always under control, accepting the good and the bad equally,” - Hall of Famer Dr. Jack Ramsey

In addition to being a great student who sought out strong mentors, Lenny Wilkens has always been a brilliant teacher and role model, not just for the regular kids who attended his camp or heard him speak, but also for the next generation of NBA players.

“At one time there were people saying that players couldn’t coach and I wanted to prove them wrong.” Wilkens says, “I think I’ve done that and hopefully I opened the door for a lot of other players who have gotten into coaching.”

Coach Wilkens has a message for these younger players and coaches whom he expects to carry on his tradition of community service.

“I would tell them to surround themselves with strength and with smart people who can protect them. They need to pay attention to the community, to what’s happening with young people and encourage young people to the point that they realize that they can make a difference.”

Clearing the way for young players to assume the mantle of leadership was a primary consideration in the decision to shut down the foundation

“It’s the right time to step away and make room for the next generation to make their mark.” he said in the formal announcement,

No matter how hard I tried to write an article about the closing of the foundation or the end of an era I could barely fit it in. There simply is not enough space to convey Coach Wilkens’ total contribution to our world.

  • Player and coach
  • Businessman and philanthropist
  • Student and teacher
  • Father and husband.

Wilkens ultimate legacy will have little to do with his stats as a point guard, his longevity as a coach or even the substantial funds he has raised for good causes. More likely he will be celebrated for his vast accumulation of relationships, the wisdom gleaned from those relationships and the masterful way he leveraged his NBA experience to share that knowledge with thousands of people all across the world. Coach Wilkens inspired dozens, if not hundreds of future leaders whose combined achievements will ultimately dwarf any of his own individual accomplishments.

His impact will be felt for generations to come.

Thank you for sharing your wisdom Coach Lenny Wilkens. You are an inspiration to us all!

To learn more about the Lenny Wilkens Foundation or support their mission please visit the link below:

LENNY WILKENS FOUNDATION: MISSION

Our passion lies in the enrichment, education and health of our youth. The Lenny Wilkens Foundation funds organizations that help young people reach their full potential while honoring their dignity and self-respect, regardless of circumstances.

To learn more about the Odessa Brown Clinic visit:

https://www.seattlechildrens.org/contact/odessa-brown/