Publish date:

New stripes, same old slick tiger


Lenny Wilkens is a skinny little man with no jump shot and a hairstyle by Dagwood Bumstead. He plays guard with one hand—his left—better than all but a few other pros do with two. "Lenny plays his position the way it should be played," says Chicago Coach Dick Motta. "There are a few other guards around who are more dangerous, but when it comes down to playing the position, to knowing what should be done and how to do it, Lenny's my standard."

In his previous 12 NBA seasons Wilkens has sometimes averaged 20 points a game, just as he is doing this year, or led the NBA in assists, or been named the Most Valuable Player in the All-Star Game. But none of those achievements reflect his value. The word that Wilkens' current coach, Bill Fitch of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and many of Lenny's opponents use most often in discussing him is "professional." It is an attribute not easily found these days among the many players who like to think of themselves as pros even while they go one-on-one to the basket and the bank. Meanwhile, Wilkens sticks quietly and expertly to the most guardly of virtues, the direction of a team's activities on the floor. He can dribble through a brier patch. He knows the perfect pass to make and, perhaps more important, realizes that most often it need not be a fancy one. He picks the proper moments to shoot one of his feathery hooks off the drive or to pull back for an old-fashioned, one-hand set shot. Best of all, he has the ability to pace a game, to enforce a tempo so adroitly that nine larger and meaner men—foes as well as friends—often end up playing to the rhythm set by the player the Cavs call The Little Fella.

Consequently, the measure of Wilkens' effectiveness is not found in his statistics, although his numbers this season (20.9 points and eight assists a game, and a $100,000-plus salary) are worth measuring. The only accurate gauge of a playmaker's success must be drawn from his team's record, and rarely has the value of a guard's guard been as clearly delineated as in the cases of Wilkens' two clubs.

One of them is the Seattle SuperSonics, the team for which he had played the past four seasons, which he had coached the last three and which unceremoniously shipped him out of town late in August. During his tenure the Sonics progressed from awful to artful. Last spring Seattle finished with a 47-35 record, its first over .500, and was widely regarded as the most promising young team in the NBA. Seattleites certainly thought so. They came to games at an average rate of 11,107, many of them apparently out of love for Lenny, whose absence has contributed to an 18% attendance drop.

His departure also has left the Sonics flying as low as the SST. They may not win more than 25 games, and Tom Nissalke, the coach hired to replace Wilkens, has been fired. Seattle's two remaining quality players, Forward Spencer Haywood and Guard Dick Snyder, obviously miss The Little Fella. Snyder is now too often left out of the action altogether while Haywood is in it too much. Without Wilkens around to set him up inside, Haywood has been coming outside to get the ball and trying to blast his way back in toward the basket one-on-one.

In their first season, 1970-71, the Cavaliers won only 15 games. A year ago solid coaching by Fitch and steady performances by some young players, particularly Center Rick Roberson, Forward John Johnson and Guard Austin Carr, resulted in 23 wins. This year Cleveland scored its 23rd victory with 20 games remaining and are hopefully battling the Houston Rockets for third place in the Central Division with a 25-46 record.

In the bad old days Cleveland's set offense consisted of five men standing around taking a vote on where the first pass from the guard would go. This time-consuming procedure usually left the 24-second clock ticking perilously close to zero as someone threw up a shot from near half court. Now the attack is crisper, although the fact that they are the league's worst group of shooters—the complexities of the layup seem to elude them—tends to undermine the good execution of plays.

Wilkens' value to the Cavs extends beyond directing set plays. "I think John Johnson described it best when he said that last year we were like a family of five kids out on the floor without a father," says Fitch. "We're still using basically the same offense we've had since the team's first year, but now if it breaks down, Lenny will make a play. A play-maker isn't a guy who simply runs patterns for you. He's the guy who can make things happen when the set things haven't panned out. When the clock gets down to five or six seconds, he'll go to one of the basics—one-on-one, pick-and-roll, pass-and-cut. And he'll make 'em work."

"I think the big thing Lenny's done for us is all head stuff," says Carr. "Take the fast break, for example. If you're in the middle with the ball and your center is filling one lane and he's going full blast, you shouldn't give him the ball because he's not used to handling it in that sort of circumstance. You should wait until he's at the basket before you throw it so he's in his customary position. Lenny does that."

Wilkens' arrival in Cleveland was precipitated by a series of events that began last spring when the Seattle ownership told him to choose between playing and coaching. He decided to remain in uniform and told his employers they could expect his full loyally to the new coach. In return, he felt he had been assured he would not be traded. During the summer trade rumors buzzed through Seattle and he again asked if he would be shipped out. The answer, says Lenny, was no.

His future in Seattle was of particular importance to Brooklyn-born Wilkens because of his newly developed love for the woods and open spaces in the Northwest. For the first time in his pro career he had bought a house not for its resale value but for its hominess. He and his wife Marilyn had decided this was the place they wanted to live and raise their three children.

When Nissalke, last season's ABA Coach of the Year at Dallas, came to Seattle with a three-year contract, he decided the Sonics would not become title contenders for several more seasons. He surmised that Wilkens, who at 35 is the oldest starting guard in the NBA, would be too elderly by then and he thought he had the full support of management when he traded Lenny as part of a long-term youth movement.

Had he looked hard at his franchise's previous efforts to improve, Nissalke might have been less surprised when he was fired three months into the season. While other teams patiently attempted to upgrade through drafts and trades, the Sonics had tried to buy a championship out of the ABA, even though NBA rules prohibit the tactics of Seattle Owner Sam Schulman. He took his own league to court and won. Of the three former ABA All-Stars on the Sonic roster, only Haywood has been a success. Center Jim McDaniels remains a high-priced substitute and Forward John Brisker, in addition to playing poorly, has been a discipline problem. The agent retained by all three to hustle them out of the ABA is Al Ross of Los Angeles, a man who reportedly tries to take a hand in the management and coaching of the teams for which his players perform. Seattle and Phoenix, the two NBA clubs that have signed former ABA players advised by Ross (the Suns have Charlie Scott), are the teams that have failed most dramatically to live up to expectations.

On the day the trade was made, Lenny was off playing golf. The Sonic front office called Marilyn Wilkens and told her of the deal only five minutes before a relative from New York phoned to say he had heard the news over the radio. Summoned home from the practice green, Lenny was shocked by the trade, dismayed by the prospect of playing for a club as poor as Cleveland and upset because he thought he had been judged over-the-hill.

"It was like they had said, 'We don't want you. You're worn out and of no use to us anymore. You're a piece of baggage,' " Wilkens said recently. "I felt justified in thinking that I had helped a lot in developing that franchise, but I guess they didn't consider things like that. I wanted security and I got the feeling that I finally had it. I forgot for a moment that no athlete in professional sport is secure. Then I really got depressed wondering if they thought I couldn't play anymore."

The Seattle fans saw nothing wrong with his ability. On the day of the trade a man threatened Nissalke's life, and 200 others signed a petition headed, "If Lenny Goes, I Stay Home." Wilkens has a large packing carton full of sympathetic letters, which he is keeping as a memento of the public's loyalty.

At first Wilkens refused to join the Cavaliers, but when he finally did—after the team had an 0-6 record to start the season—it set the stage for a triumphant return to his old home floor. The second-largest crowd in Seattle's history, 13,174, turned out to give him a three-minute standing ovation, to boo the home team and to roundly cheer the Cavaliers as they won 113-107. It was the first time Cleveland had ever defeated the Sonics, and it began a trend. The Cavs have won three of four against Seattle this season and have a better overall record.

All of which would be a particular source of delight for Wilkens if he were a vindictive man. "I can't feel happy about what's happened to the Sonics," he says. "I have too many old friends on that team. Besides, I'm not that kind of person and I hope I never become one. I guess an old tiger like me just doesn't change his stripes." Or his style for that matter. In a recent win at Detroit the score was tied 104-104 with 28 seconds to play and Cleveland in control of the ball. Time had almost expired on the shot clock as Forward Barry Clemens, who was a throw-in in the trade that brought Wilkens to the team, dribbled near the foul line. Lenny's man was playing him far to his left, a wise strategy until late in games when Wilkens always seems to unveil his right hand for the first time. A quick fake to the left, an even quicker dart to his right toward the basket and a nifty bounce pass from Clemens resulted in an easy, right-handed lay up and a 106-104 win.

As they say in the NBA, a very professional move.