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If you like Lenny Wilkens's story, you might also like:
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Lenny Wilkens also appears in the video:
Heroes and the American Dream

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Lenny Wilkens
Lenny Wilkens
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Lenny Wilkens Interview

Basketball Hall of Fame

June 19, 1999
Washington, D.C.

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  Lenny Wilkens

A lot of kids want to grow up to be basketball players. When did you first think you were going to make that happen?

Lenny Wilkens: I started to get into basketball late. I played a half a year of high school basketball and played four years of college ball. I saw my first live pro game at the end of my senior year in college. It was the St. Louis Hawks playing the Boston Celtics for a championship. And I went with a friend and when I saw the excitement of the game, the fans, I saw the players out there, and I thought I could do that. And I never dreamt that I would be a professional athlete, let alone a professional coach.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

I didn't have that vision until the end of my senior year in college. I only played a half a year of high school basketball where I grew up in Brooklyn, New York.

My dad died when I was five so I always had to have a job after school. Even though I enjoyed sports, the job was first. And, of course, education was even more so. My mother really pushed for us, you know, to get a good education and two things she always said was, you know, "You always have to be accountable for what you say and what you do." And the other thing she told me was that honesty and integrity had to define your character.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

What happened to your dad?

Lenny Wilkens: My dad died of a bleeding ulcer. Today an ulcer is a very minor thing, but this was at a time when poor families didn't have the kind of medical care that a lot of other people had, so it really was just poor medical advice. It was a very unfortunate situation.

My mother had to raise us by herself, and it was a very difficult time. But at that time growing up in Brooklyn, you know, baseball was very popular and everyone in the neighborhood -- we were all sort of into sports and we all played baseball. I used to go to the games quite a bit and at that time I saw a young player by the name of Jackie Robinson, who was the first Afro-American to play major league baseball. I began to watch him and I saw things about his character that I really liked. And one, he was never intimidated by anybody; two, he never made excuses for himself. He came to play every game. He was a man on the field and off the field. What I mean by "off the field," you know, his family, business, all these things. And he became my role model.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

Lenny Wilkens Interview Photo
How many children were there in your family?

Lenny Wilkens: Five. I was next to the oldest. I have a sister who is older than I am.

So did you find yourself in the role of taking care of the little ones?

Lenny Wilkens: I was told that I was now the man of the family, so I felt a responsibility that I had to help out with the family. I always had a job after school. I think my siblings resented it at times, when someone would say "Why can't you be more like your brother," or that type of thing. But fortunately for all of us everyone turned out fine. I think that's a heavy burden to put on a young person at an early age because you have to grow up in a hurry, so you're probably more serious about life and you might miss something in your childhood.

I grew up in a very staunch Roman Catholic family. My mother went to church every day, okay? And to Novenas on the weekends. I mean, she was there! And so, I'm probably a testament that prayer works because she was always praying for us. And, I became very close to a priest in the parish -- I was an altar boy, and he was the one that wrote to Providence College, talked to them about giving me a scholarship -- by the name of Tom Mannion. And we still stay in touch today and he would always encourage me in telling me that I could do this. I mean, I could achieve here. I mean, anything that I wanted to, I could. It was up to me, you know. And that reinforced what my mother said about not making excuses. You know, be accountable for who you are.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

How did he see that much talent in just a half of a year in high school basketball?

Lenny Wilkens: Well, I started out as a baseball player. A lot of my friends started to gravitate to basketball so I decided to try it too. We used to have what was called the Police Athletic League in the city, and a lot of kids were into it. You could go play basketball, ping pong, shuffle board, whatever. It was to keep kids off the streets, and they had it every Monday and Tuesday night at the parish where I went, so I would go too, and all the guys started playing basketball.

The two best players would choose up teams and I never got picked and so I'd wait for a chance to play and we used to play four on four. So when my turn finally came I would select three players to play with me. And now here I waited all this time, it's my game, and they wouldn't pass the ball to me. So every time I got my hands on it I just shot it and they started calling me a "heaver." And so, I started to go to the playgrounds to try and learn to play. I played CYO [Catholic Youth Organization] ball and that's how I got to know Father Mannion and he kept encouraging me. He would tell me, "If you want to get better at it you have to learn how to dribble. You have to learn how to pass," you know, things like that. And he would set up chairs for me to dribble in and out of, stuff like that. And what he saw in me, I don't know, but certainly he had to see something. He always put me in positions of responsibility and things happened.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

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