People of Faith - Lenny Wilkens

Lenny Wilkens 
credits hoops 
success to God

Interview by Dan Lee

Lenny Wilkens, a Hall of Fame basketball player and coach, currently ranks second in all-time wins as an NBA coach and first in all-time games coached.

Lenny WilkensLenny Wilkens dribbles ball in file photo
Photos: Courtesy Lenny Wilkens Foundation

Lenny Wilkens, a Hall of Fame basketball player and coach, currently ranks second in all-time wins as an NBA coach and first in all-time games coached.

In 1996, he was the only person honored as both one of the 50 greatest players and one of the top 10 coaches in the NBA’s first 50 years. Among his many accomplishments, he coached the Seattle Supersonics to their only NBA title in 1979. A lifelong Catholic, Wilkens grew up in Brooklyn, where he was an altar server. He is the founder of the Lenny Wilkens Foundation, which supports children’s health care and education. He and his wife, Marilyn, are members of Sacred Heart Parish in Bellevue.

Tell me about your faith journey and the role your Catholic faith has played in your life.

My mother was a devout Catholic. She went to church every day, and I never saw anyone pray as much as her. And so I always tell everyone, “I’m a testament that prayer works,” because we grew up in a very tough neighborhood. It was five of us kids, and my dad died when I was quite young, 5 years old, and certainly the church was kind of a pillar, something that she leaned on quite a bit.

And I went to a Catholic elementary school where we had Sisters of Mercy who showed no mercy, but they were great teachers. They were great, great teachers. There was a young parish priest named Father Tom Mannion, and we became great friends, and certainly he was very key in my life and in my successes as I have gone on.

I was a person that was taught that when you wake up, you say “Good morning, God,” not “Good God, it’s morning.” And I’m not a guy that goes around and talks about my faith all the time, but certainly I feel that it has helped me in my journey to become who I am.

Describe the role Father Tom Mannion played in your life.

He was a mentor to all the young people. In my neighborhood everybody played baseball, stickball, stoopball, handball, and then I started to get into basketball, and it was a little frustrating at first because there were a lot of guys who were better than I was, but he was always encouraging. He would say, “You want to get better at it, you’ve got to work at it,” and so he encouraged me to play CYO basketball, and then I played, finally, for my high school, and he wrote to Providence College to get them to take a look at me, because I only played a half a year of high school ball. And I was offered a scholarship. So Providence was the start of everything.

In your Hall of Fame speech, when you were inducted as a player in ’89, you said, “God has always smiled on me.” What did you mean?

I look at how I grew up, my neighborhood, what I’ve been exposed to, and certainly I feel that God was in my life. He made all my successes possible, 
because there’s no way that I could have done all that by myself. So I have peace of mind, and when I go to church I don’t feel I have to go there to show someone I’m going — I’m there because I want to be there. I’m going because it means something to me. And so I’m not a guy that goes out and tries to convince 
everyone that they should be a Catholic. I feel that by the way you live your 
life people will know who you are and what you’re about.

If you had one message to leave behind for the handful of people that are most important to you, what would that be?

Make the world a better place than you found it. Don’t sit around and complain about what your situation is. Try to make the situation better.

Dan Lee is a freelance journalist and a member of St. Barbara Parish in Black Diamond.

 

Listen to audio excerpts from this interview

 

NORTHWEST CATHOLIC - January/February 2014

Dan Lee

Dan Lee is a freelance journalist and a member of St. Barbara Parish in Black Diamond.

Website: www.webershandwickseattle.com/author/dan-lee/