Leonard Randolph Wilkens was born in Brooklyn, New York, on October 28, 1937, son of an African American father and white mother. He grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section, one of the toughest sections in the city, where he endured many hardships, including the loss of his father at a young age, poverty, and racism.
A sympathetic priest encouraged him to play basketball for Boys High School in Brooklyn. His basketball skills helped him win a scholarship to Providence College, a small Catholic institution in Rhode Island. Wilkens helped the college win a berth in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) in 1959 and again during his senior year in 1960. Although Providence College did not win the championship in 1960, Wilkens was named Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the Tournament.
Soon after he graduated in 1960 Wilkens was chosen by the St. Louis Hawks in the National Basketball Association (NBA) draft. Over the next eight years with the Hawks he firmly established himself as an invaluable team player. Between 1960 and 1970 he was voted to nine all-star teams and in 1968 finished second to Wilt Chamberlain for the NBA’s MVP Award.
Wilkens was traded to the Seattle Super Sonics in 1968 and one year later became the player-coach. In his new position he led the Sonics to their first winning season in 1971-72.
Wilkens left coaching behind in 1972 to concentrate on playing with the Cleveland Cavaliers for two seasons. He again became player-coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, beginning in 1974. After a 15-year playing career he retired from playing in 1975 and stayed on to coach the Trail Blazers for one more season. He ranks among the all-time leaders in assists, free throws, and was named MVP in the 1971 All-Star game.
When Lenny Wilkens returned to Seattle as head coach midway through the 1977-78 season, he took over a team with a dismal record, but by season’s end he had coached the Sonics to the NBA finals. In his eight seasons with the Sonics the team won its only NBA Championship in 1979 and