Just Who Is Basketball Legend Lenny Wilkens?

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On Saturday night, Seattle mayor, Jenny Durkan, announced that a street running next to KeyArena would be named after Seattle SuperSonics legend Lenny Wilkens. But who is Wilkens? I myself didn’t know much about the icon until my buddy at work Todd Glenn informed me about the street being named in his honor.

This prompted me to do some research, and I quickly realized, Wilkens is a great man who deserves recognition.

This article is here to pay respect to the Sonics legend, and to bring attention to a humble man who’s charitable acts have benefitted Seattle’s citizens for decades.

College

The story may not have unfolded the way it did if it weren’t for an influential friend and coach alike. Tommy Davis convinced Wilkens to try out for the basketball team his senior year of high school. Davis was a good friend of his and an amazing athlete in his own right; he went on to become a star for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Wilkens listened to his buddy and tried out for the team but only ended up playing for half the year.

His basketball career was effectively finished, but divine intervention showed its hand again. His CYO coach, Father Thomas Mannion, convinced him to keep playing basketball while lauding Providence College coach, Joe Mullaney, to offer him a scholarship. Whatever Mannion said worked. Wilkens was on the roster for the 1956-57 season.

He had an immediate impact at the college level and led Providence’s freshman team to a 23-0 record. After his inaugural season, he made the varsity team where he averaged 14.9 points and was a standout on the defensive end of the court. In his junior campaign, the Friars lost in the National Invitation Tournament (the then-NCAA Tournament) semifinals. Providence made it to the championship game the following year, where it lost to Bradley University. That season he earned tournament MVP honors, and in his college career, he was selected to two All-American teams.

https://www.nba.com/history/legends/profiles/lenny-wilkens

NBA

After graduating in 1960, he was selected by the St. Louis Hawks in the NBA draft. Over an eight-year span with the team, he established himself as a pivotal player. Between 1960 and 1970, he was selected to nine All-Star squads and finished second place in the MVP race in 1968.

In 1968, he was traded to the Sonics, and the following year he expanded his role with the team becoming a player-coach. Under his mentorship, he and Seattle had their first winning seasons in 1971-72.

In 1972 he moved on from coaching and played for the Cleveland Cavaliers for two years. He resumed his role as a player coach for the Portland Trail Blazers in 1974. He retired as a player in 1975, but remained as head coach for the Blazers the following season.

Upon his retirement, he was among the all-time league leaders in assists, free-throws and was awarded the MVP award in the 1971 All-Star game.

After his playing days were over, he continued his role in the NBA as a head coach eventually finding his way back to the Sonics in the middle of the 1977-78 season. He took over a struggling team, but he immediately turned them around leading Seattle to the finals that same year. The following season, he led the Sonics back to the championship, except this time, they captured the title. This remains the only NBA Championship in Seattle history. In eight years with the team, he posted a 357-277 record.

After his stint with the Sups, he coached for the Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks, Toronto Raptors and Cleveland, he officially stepped away from the game in 2007.

He holds the distinct honor of being named one of the fifty greatest players and one of the top 10 coaches in league history. On May 9, 1989, and October 2, 1998, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. Throughout his career, he received a variety of accolades including Coach of the Year Award, an NBA championship, and two Olympic gold medals.

Charity

Wilkens is tied into the fabric of our community, via his foundation and work with other charitable organizations. In the early 1970s, he became familiar with a healthcare facility named the Odessa Brown Clinic; this establishment is located in Seattle’s Central District.

He was attracted to this healthcare center because it offered young people services who couldn’t afford insurance. “When I saw what the clinic did and how it affected young people’s lives, I was blown away. There were a lot of people who couldn’t afford health care and here was a way to help them,” he said. He then added, “If you didn’t have health insurance, you still got the service. So I got involved.”

This clinic inspired him to start his own foundation in his namesake, the Lenny Wilkens Foundation. His organization held an annual golf tournament and auction that attracted high-profile athletes and celebrities. This celebration grew to become one of Seattle’s most popular philanthropic events.

Last year, the combined event raised $550,000 for the Odessa Brown Clinic. Over 40 years, his foundation raised millions of dollars for the Central District establishment.

At the age of 81, he is stepping away from the organization to spend more time with his grandkids. “My son has three kids in Georgia and my wife, Marilyn, likes going there to visit them. My youngest daughter has two girls, 8 and 6. So we just would like to spend more time seeing them and being with them,” he said.

The announcement for the street being named in his honor was made at the final Lenny Wilkens Foundation gala auction.

Conclusion

Wilkens is a notoriously humble man who shines away from the spotlight. When Seattleites think of Sonic legends, they may associate Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, and George Karl at the forefront but Wilkens is a name that can’t be forgotten. Thank you Todd for bringing this cause to my attention, and thank you Wilkens for all you have done for our community.

https://www.seattletimes.com/sports/other-sports/allen-lenny-wilkens-story/

https://www.seattletimes.com/sports/nba/nba-legend-lenny-wilkens-to-have-street-named-after-him-alongside-keyarena/

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About Author

Nicholas Bartlett

My name is Nicholas Bartlett I am from Shoreline, Washington (North Seattle). I am 28 years old and a graduate of the Edward R Murrow School of Communications at Washington State University. I am a coach for a 6th grade boys basketball team and a coach for a 5th grade girls basketball team. I also am a assistant coach for a unified basketball team which is associated with the Special Olympics. You can contact me at Nb206wsu@gmail.com.

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