In the mid-1990s, as he inched closer to becoming the National Basketball Association's all-time leader in coaching victories, Leonard Randolph Wilkens exhibited the same type of quiet resolve that began to develop during his childhood in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.
Born on October 28, 1937 to an African-American father and an Irish mother, Wilkens had to quickly adjust to the ostracism he would receive for his mixed heritage, either from the taunts of other children or the contemptuous remarks of racist adults.
While still a preschooler though, his emotional maturation was further accelerated when his father died suddenly, leaving Wilkens, the oldest of four children, as the “man of the family” at the tender age of five.
Living in a Brooklyn tenement, and supported only by the wages his mother earned working in a candy factory, Wilkens managed to keep his emotions under firm control while keeping his nose in the books and resisting the temptations of the street.
"I couldn't have sympathy," Wilkens told Sports Illustrated.
"I couldn't trust. I couldn't get involved with people because then I'd have to feel. What scared me so much was seeing no one going out of their way to help my mother and family after my father died. Seeing people look down their noses at us. You realize that no one really cares.”
“So how do you get through? You start building the wall. You never let anyone know what's inside. It sounds awful now to say I'd never cry."
After acquiring a grocery delivery job at the age of seven, Wilkens spent his leisure time playing basketball with various youth leagues in Brooklyn, becoming a standout over the course of his adolescent years.
At Boys High School, Wilkens made enough of a mark to win an athletic scholarship to Providence College, a private, Catholic university in Rhode Island.
As one of six African-Americans in a school with 1,200 students, Wilkens was re-indoctrinated to the ugly reality of racism. But Wilkens allowed his brilliance in the classroom and stellar play on the court do the talking.
"There were people looking at me like I was some kind of insect," Wilkens recalled of his college years. "People who assumed that because I was from Bed-Stuy, I was carrying a knife or gun.”
“One drop of black blood in this country ... and you're tainted. If I let that hurt me, who has the anxiety? Me. I was not going to let anyone hurt me or make me feel anxious. I'd learned something by then. If I could control myself, I could make them feel anxious."
Wilkens’ controlled aggression helped him become a two-time All-American at Providence, leading the team to its first National Invitational Tournament (NIT) appearance in 1959 and the NIT Finals in 1960, where he was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
Wilkens graduated from Providence with a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1960.
In the 1960 NBA Draft, Wilkens was drafted sixth overall by the St. Louis Hawks, and in a matter of years, became a perennial All-Star.
Between 1963 and 1973, Wilkens was named to nine All-Star teams as a member of the Hawks (1960-1968), Seattle SuperSonics (1968-1972) and Cleveland Cavaliers (1972-1974). In 1968, Wilkens finished second in the NBA’s MVP voting to Wilt Chamberlain.
At the time of his retirement in 1975, Wilkens was second on the NBA’s all-time assists list, behind only Oscar Robertson, and finished his career with 16.5 points, 6.7 assists, and 4.7 rebounds per game.
Wilkens would begin the coaching portion of his basketball journey as a player-coach in Seattle (1969-1972) and for the Portland Trail Blazers in 1974, which was his final year as a player. Wilkens became a full-time coach in 1977 when he took over the 5-17 SuperSonics.
Their dismal record notwithstanding, Wilkens’ knack for teaching the fundamentals of the game became glaringly evident as he guided Seattle to a 42-18 record the rest of the season, and an appearance in the 1978 NBA Finals, where the SuperSonics succumbed to the Washington Bullets in seven games.
The following season, Wilkens took Seattle back to the NBA Finals and, this time, the SuperSonics defeated Washington in five games.
Despite Seattle’s dramatic turnaround under Wilkens’ steady hand, Wilkens was overlooked for the Coach of the Year Award in 1978 and 1979 for reasons that more than one observer considered racist.
After eight seasons in Seattle, Wilkens moved on to coach the Cleveland Cavaliers, transforming a team that won only 29 games in 1985-1986 into an Eastern Conference powerhouse that won 50 games or more in five of his last six seasons.
In 1994, his first year as the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, Wilkens finally won Coach of the Year honors for taking a mediocre Hawks team to the playoffs with a 57-25 record.
Two years later, Wilkens would surpass Red Auerbach as the NBA’s all-time leader in coaching victories and, after brief stints with the Toronto Raptors (2000-2003) and the New York Knicks (2004-2005), retire with 1,332 victories, which is now only second to former coach Don Nelson.
During his coaching career, Wilkens also served as an assistant coach on the gold-medal winning 1992 United States Olympic Dream Team and as the head coach for the 1996 United States Olympic Team, which also captured gold.
On February 10, 1989, Wilkens’ exploits as a player were rewarded with election to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
And with his induction as a coach in 1998, Wilkens became only one of three players to be enshrined in Springfield as a player and a coach (Bill Sharman, John Wooden).
In 1996, the NBA named Wilkens one of its 50 Greatest Players and one of its 10 Greatest Coaches, the only individual named to both lists.
According to Newsweek, Wilkens "has earned the respect of two decades' worth of NBA players by being patient, by being demanding and by asking no more of his players than he asked of himself.... Nothing can detract from Wilkens' historic accomplishment. He has proved himself a man for all seasons, not just any one."