Former Sonics coach Lenny Wilkens, a member of the National Basketball Association Hall of Fame both as a player and coach, threw out the first ball last week at a Mariners-Tigers game on Jackie Robinson night at Safeco Field and, afterward, did a brief gig in the television broadcast booth spinning old stories about his boyhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., rooting for the Dodgers.
The Robinson observance, at all major-league baseball parks, marked the anniversary of Robinson's breaking of the big-league color line in 1947.
Wilkens, who attended Boys High in Brooklyn with later Dodger star Tommy Davis, had hoped for a career in baseball. But a basketball scholarship to Providence College changed his career path.
After his Sonics stint, Wilkens moved on to coach other NBA teams but always maintained a home on the Eastside. At one time he contemplated seeking local elective office. Instead, he has quietly helped local good causes as an individual and through his non-profit Lenny Wilkens Foundation, which has helped raise more than $2.5 million alone for the Odessa Brown Clinic in the Seattle Central Area. The clinic annually serves about 8,000 mostly poor and minority Seattle and King County kids.
I attended recently a fundraising event for the clinic, sponsored by the Wilkens Foundation. The Foundation's big annual fundraiser comes August 6-7 with its Celebrity Classic Weekend, including an auction/dinner at the Hyatt Regency in Bellevue and golf tournament at Echo Falls in Snohomish. (Information and sponsorships can be gotten through lennywilkensfoundation.org).
Wilkens also gives his time to local kids' basketball clinics and other quiet causes.
Would he consider a return to fulltime coaching? Still in good health and vigorous (a young guy, three years younger than I), Wilkens says he would consider it — but only at professional level and only with a team ready for championship contention. No rebuilding projects. And no college coaching; he would not have the patience needed to recruit 17-year-old high-school prospects (although he does regularly attend Husky games).
Wilkens would be more than willing, he says, to pitch in with others to try to bring an NBA franchise back to Seattle. He had a brief and unhappy experience working with the Oklahoma City purchasers of the Sonics at a time when they said they would be interested in keeping the team here. If a local group really meant business, he said, he would be there to help.
Len Wilkens is the rare sports or other celebrity whose ego remains uninflated. He has always taken his work, and causes, more seriously than he takes himself. He is a precious local asset.