Mon, Jan 19, 2004 - Page 19 News List

Lenny Wilkens a breath of fresh air

NATIONAL BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION The NBA's winningest coach has brought a skill set to New York that the Knicks deperately need -- and he does it with class

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Lenny Wilkens, the new head coach of the New York Knicks, watches the action Friday at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois, as the Knicks take on the Chicago Bulls.

PHOTO: AFP

He has been acknowledged for possessing a special trait: grace under pressure. The image of Lenny Wilkens, the old (at 66) new New York Knicks coach, is just that: stoic as a statue. On the sideline during a game, his seemingly calm but mindful eyes and expressionless face above his knotted tie and natty suit are unchanging whether the whistle is for or against his team, whether the scoreboard shows his team losing or winning.

He's up on his feet, prowling the alley in front of the bench, sometimes crossing his arms to indicate his mood has changed. But scream, bellow, kick a chair or pound a scorer's table? Never. Not Cool Hand Lenny.

But from where, one wonders, has this apparently placid persona derived?

It might have been that day at the basketball court at PS 35 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Little Lenny Wilkens, not yet grown to 6 feet 1 inch and so skinny he might have fit through a picket fence, was playing ball with some friends. The game was abruptly interrupted by a gang wielding zip guns, knives and tire irons.

"I realized I couldn't panic," Wilkens said Friday morning, hours before his debut as the Knicks' coach in Madison Square Garden against Seattle. "If I ran or even tried to fight back, I knew one of two things would probably happen: I'd get a good butt-whuppin', or I'd get killed. I thought, `If I stay calm, maybe I'll find a way out.'"

It turned out that one of the gang recognized Wilkens as another gang member's cousin. They departed, leaving Lenny and his pals shaken but in one piece.

"You remember things like that; those things help," Wilkens said. "I found that it was better to keep your composure than lose it. As a player it helped, and as a coach it's helped for me to be in control of me."

What goes up ...

In his first year in the National Basketball Association, however, as a first-round draft pick by the St. Louis Hawks in 1960, Wilkens remembers disputing a referee's call and throwing the ball into the air.

"`Rookie,'" he recalled the referee, Bob Duffy, telling him, "`if that ball comes down, you'll get a technical and a fine.'"

Wilkens said: "The fine for a technical in those days was US$25. I tried to catch the ball before it landed, but didn't."

He said he learned two things: "Why blow US$25 when I didn't have to, and I hurt the team with the technical."

But Cool Hand Lenny still had something to learn about temperament. In the 1978-1979 season, when he guided Seattle to an NBA title, Wilkens recalls getting about eight technical fouls. "But one resulted in me being thrown out of a game," he said, "and we won that one."

Despite the cheerful result, Wilkens has not duplicated it. That is the only time he has been tossed from a game in his 30-year coaching career with Seattle, Portland, Cleveland, Atlanta and Toronto, and two games with the Knicks. He has won -- and lost -- more games than any other coach in NBA history, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame as both a coach and a player.

The Einstein of hoops

What you don't see but can almost hear as Wilkens paces the sideline is the whirring of his brain. Someone in the NBA has said that Wilkens runs only eight or nine plays, and always has. If that's true, it's reminiscent of something Einstein said: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

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