Thursday, October 2

SSS HOF #8: Lenny Wilkens

Player. Coach.

For one generation, he was a 3-time all star, a whirling dervish of a guard who slipped easily from facilitator to dominator.

For another, he was the curly-haired wizard with a Brooklyn accent who improbably guided a group of men to the only championship in Seattle sports history.

For yet another, he was a link from the past, tied tenuously to a corrupt ownership hell bent upon destroying the history he himself played such a vital role in creating.

He was Lenny Wilkens and, in many ways, he embodies the word “Sonic” more than any man.

Think of it thus – the Sonics have had four distinct phases in their existence: Expansion, championship, return to glory, and departure. Lenny Wilkens played a key role in three of those phases: first as the team’s inaugural star, second as the team’s coach in its halcyon days of the late 1970s, and third as the president during Clay Bennett’s destructive reign.

Long-forgotten by today’s fans, Wilkens was a three-time all-star, and was named the game’s MVP in 1971. He recorded the first ten triple-doubles in team history (only Gary Payton had more), was the first Sonic to lead the league in a major statistical category (assists, 1969-70), and held the team record for assists in a single game for more than a decade.

It was a remarkable run as a player (and coach) in Seattle, a run that would only – could only – be surpassed by the heights he reached as the team’s coach.

Everyone knows the story of the championship-era Sonics: of Brown, Johnson(s), Williams, Sikma, Shelton, Silas, and the rest. Wilkens is often a footnote to the tale, standing to the side, arms crossed while the players did the work.

What has been forgotten is how mediocre the Sonics had been before Wilkens took charge in 1977. As a player-coach in the early 1970s, Wilkens had guided the Sonics to a 47-win season in 1971-72 … and got traded. Those 47 wins would not be surpassed by the team until he guided the team again seven years later.

After letting Bill Russell go as coach after yet another 40-odd win season in 1976-77, the Sonics put Bob Hopkins in charge. 17 losses and only 5 wins later, Hopkins was gone, and with the team mired in the Pacific Division basement, Wilkens brought them back, coaching the team to a 42-18 record from then on.

Read those numbers again:

Hopkins: 5-17
Wilkens: 42-18

That’s with the same team, people. Hopkins would have had to go 37-1 to reach the record Wilkens attained with the same group of players.

And it was not merely regular season success, as that group of men reached the pinnacle of playoff heights by losing to the Bullets in the NBA Finals, a loss they would redeem the next season with Seattle’s only championship. The team’s first star became the team’s first coaching legend.

When I think of Lenny Wilkens, though, it is with more sadness than delight. I think of the man forced to subjugate himself to Clay Bennett’s rule, who had to parrot lines he must have believed to be lies just to keep his job. Wilkens ended his NBA life with a less than stellar reputation – he became known as much for self-preservation as for coaching ability – and that saddens me.

At the time of the unfortunate end to his life as a Sonic, Wilkens was chastised in the press for speaking out of turn and making statements that were less than true. Looking back on those times, though, he becomes less of a scapegoat, and more of a man desperately clinging to the reputation he had built over a lifetime of work in basketball.

I hope history will treat Lenny Wilkens more kindly than he was treated in his final days with this franchise, that his immense successes will outweigh his failures, and that his name will be erased from the sullied ending to a once-proud franchise’s life.

For all he gave this city, he deserves it.

8 comments:

kdoublec said...

I remember my brother used to go to his hoop camps. Nice guy.

ryan said...

Superb, as always, folks. Love the spindly drawing of Lenny - he kinda looks like Plastic Man, only if Plastic Man were running a youth center in Cleveland circa 1968.

nuss said...

Looking at the background image in that drawing, I'm wondering who's up for a game of "Guess what Lenny's Saying!"

1. Hey, Habegger, you goin' to clean that up or what?
2. Silas, you're in. Put Unseld on his ass.
3. Damn but that Walton is one ugly mutha....

Anonymous said...

"Dammit, Wally, get back on that bench. We ain't giving up yet!"

chunkstyle23 said...

"Shouldn't Dennis Awtrey be cutting down a Douglas Fir or appearing on paper towel packaging right about now?"

Anonymous said...

"Anybody know what time Starsky & Hutch is on tonight?"

ryan said...

"I'm tellin' you, Jack, forget that Dutchboy thing you got goin' on. Embrace the man perm!"

kdoublec said...

"That Huggy Bear is pure gold."