Lenny Wilkens embodies the player as the coach in the ring – The Athletic

Welcome to NBA 75, The Athletic’s counting down the 75 best players in NBA history, in honor of the tournament’s diamond anniversary. From November 1 to February 18, we will announce a new player on the roster every weekday except December 27-31, culminating in the man nominated by The Athletic board of directors. NBA selected as the best player of all time.

Leonard Randolph Wilkens, of Medina, Wash., and a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame, just celebrated his 84th birthday, born October 28, 1937, in the borough of Brooklyn, New York. His father died when Lenny was 5 years old. His mother was Irish Catholic, and she made sure he grew up in the faith, serving as an altar boy at Holy Rosary Church on Chauncey Street and as parish pastor, Rev. Tom Mannion, as a mentor. Mannion himself wrote a letter to another priest, who happened to be the athletic director of Providence College, to recommend Lenny for a basketball scholarship.

Wilkens was also raised in the baseball church.

On the summer and fall afternoons of his youth, Wilkens used to sneak up to Ebbets Field, where for fifty cents he could sit in the stands in the courtyard, as the smell of cigar smoke wafted through the crowd, and watch Gil Hodges, Duke Snider and Roy Campanella. And of course, number 42, Jackie Robinson.

Basketball was a latecomer for young Wilkens, far behind in terms of interest and skill level for him. In his freshman year of high school, he was the 15th guy on the 15-player basketball team.


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John Verrall

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