Small Town News

Guest Opinion

Lenny Wilkens: Seattle's greatest hall-of-famer

Shelton-Mason County Journal of Shelton, Washington

- Advertisement -


Of all the sports heroes this region has admired over many generations, one name rises above them all — Lenny Wilkens.

All-stars are plentiful in the realm of sports. And halls of fame are homes for the famous and best professional players. We know Ken Griffey Jr. is the latest icon of Northwest sports to receive Hall of Fame status — he'll enter baseball immortality this year.

But the greatest hall-of-famer with roots in the Pacific Northwest is pro basketball's Leonard Randolph Wilkens. Twice elected to the Hall of Fame — as a player in 1989 and as a coach in 1998 — Lenny Wilkens was once proclaimed one of the 50 greatest players in the history of the National Basketball Association.

A great moment for Wilkens — and one of greatest moments in Seattle sports history — was in 1979 when he coached the Super-Sonics to the NBA championship. But eight years earlier the region and Wilkens were participants in one of the most dramatic moments in Northwest sports history.

It was 1972.

"The Sonics had just dumped me," Wilkens recalls in his autobiography. He had been traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the worst team in the NBA. The trade was kept secret from Wilkens by team officials as long as possible.

"They wanted me as far out of sight and off their radar screen as they could find in the NBA," Wilkens said. "I went to a team that some players called 'Devil's Island.'"

Sonics fans were stunned. Earlier in the year Wilkens — his popularity at an all-time high — had been honored with a special night.

"I was a great guy," Wilkens wryly recalls. "An asset to the community." Suddenly, he was exiled to Cleveland.

Then, as fortune would have it, Wilkens would soon return one night to Seattle, now in the uniform of his new team, the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"I'll never forget the sign: This Is Lenny's Country,'" Wilkens writes in his autobiography, published in 2000. "There were signs everywhere."

The Seattle Coliseum was jammed with Wilkens' fans, all very angry over the sudden and shabby trade of the player-coach who had led their team to its franchise-best record of 47 wins. They were loaded for bear.

For nearly 10 minutes, chanting and cheering, the sellout crowd of 13,174 rose to its feet to let Lenny know of their love for him and their dislike of Sonics' management. Those who were there (and this writer was one of them) say it was an outpouring never before seen in a Seattle sports venue. A sportswriter described it as "one of the most nerve-shattering sports spectacles of all time."

As the game neared its end, a fan arose and blew taps on a bugle. The Cavaliers won 113-107. Wilkens scored 22 points.

"While I've never cried in public," writes Wilkens, "this was as close as I came.

"People cheered whenever I touched the ball. They about tore down the roof when I scored, and they cheered for the Cavs as if we were the home team."

"Come home Lenny, come home!" chanted the fans.

And Wilkens did eventually come home, back to the Seattle SuperSonics as coach in 1977-78. The next year, he led them to the NBA championship.

He spent 11 seasons as a coach or player-coach of the Seattle SuperSonics. His career carried him to other NBA teams as head coach or front-office executive.

Finally, one of his last positions brought him again back to Seattle as the Sonics' president of basketball operations. Fittingly, he parted ways with the team not long before the Sonics departed Seattle to become the Oklahoma City Thunder.

John Komen, who lives at Mason Lake, was for 40 years a reporter and editor, Seattle television news anchorman and executive, national TV network news correspondent, producer, columnist, editorial writer and commentator. His column appears each week in the Shelton-Mason County Journal.

Copyright 2016 Shelton-Mason County Journal, Shelton, Washington. All Rights Reserved. This content, including derivations, may not be stored or distributed in any manner, disseminated, published, broadcast, rewritten or reproduced without express, written consent from SmallTownPapers, Inc.

Original Publication Date: June 2, 2016

More from Shelton-Mason County Journal