Lenny Wilkens was the epitome of class and dignity. It would be difficult to find a basketball person with something bad to say about Wilkens. He was one of the best point guards of his generation and the first NBA coach to win 1,000 games.
Born October 28, 1937, Wilkens learned basketball on the playgrounds of Brooklyn. He received guidance from his mother and from a CYO coach, who designed basketball drills for Lenny and helped him get a scholarship from Providence College. An elegant 6'1" lefty, Wilkens developed a one-handed set shot as well as a running hook that became his trademark. Pro scouts became interested after he won the Most Valuable Player Award at the National Invitation Tournament his senior season at Providence, and the St. Louis Hawks selected him in the first round of the 1960 NBA draft. At the time, Wilkens never had seen an NBA game in person.
Wilkens played eight seasons with the Hawks, leading them in assists annually with feeds to frontcourt stars such as Bob Pettit and Cliff Hagan. Traded to Seattle before the 1968-69 season, Wilkens averaged 22.4 points that year, his career high. He became the SuperSonics' coach the next season while continuing to play. During his last season in Seattle, 1971-72, he was runner-up for the NBA assist title. An unpopular trade landed him in Cleveland in 1972, and he became player-coach of the Portland Trail Blazers in 1974. He retired from playing in 1975, ranking second all-time in assists.
Wilkens took over the coaching reins of a 5-17 Seattle club in 1977-78. Under Wilkens, the Sonics won 42 of their last 60 games and advanced to the NBA Finals, losing to Washington. Matched against the Bullets again the next season, the Sonics won the only championship in franchise history. Wilkens left to coach the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1986, and he moved to the Atlanta Hawks in 1993. In 1994-95, he broke Red Auerbach's record for most victories by an NBA coach, and in 1995-96 he won his 1,000th game. A Hall of Fame inductee in 1988, Wilkens served as coach of the 1996 Olympic basketball team. Late tenures as head coach of the Toronto Raptors and New York Knicks and a brief return to Seattle as de facto general manager of the Sonics all ultimately failed, but nothing has tarnished the legacy of one of the NBA's greatest leaders.