Even at 73, Wilkens isn’t the retiring type
Lenny Wilkens is extensively involved with various charitable foundations and occasionally analyzes a college basketball game for Fox Sports — a seemingly perfect place in his post-coaching career.
Life is comfortable and relaxed. Wilkens is revered in Seattle, where he resides, and his career is filled with unprecedented accomplishments.
“I’m in the Hall of Fame three times,’’ said Wilkens.
But Wilkens, 73, has never been one to accept complacency, and he still feels the urge to return to the sidelines for one final NBA coaching opportunity. In a time when well-traveled veteran coaches Doug Collins and Paul Silas were recently hired after long stints away from the game and Jerry Sloan, Phil Jackson, and Gregg Popovich are 60-somethings still running winning organizations, Wilkens feels capable of coaching again.
He has never officially retired, although he took a break after his stint with the Knicks ended in 2005 and he briefly attempted to pursue a management position with the Sonics. Since then, Wilkens has waited for the right opportunity, feeling he still has the desire and knowledge to win.
“I am not just going to run back to anything,’’ said Wilkens, who has coached six teams over five decades. “But if the situation was right, I would certainly give thought to it.’’
Wilkens was the league’s winningest coach before being passed by former Celtic Don Nelson last season. He spent the past year consulting with the South Korean national team, which lost to China in the gold medal game of the 2010 Asian Games, the team’s best finish ever. The Koreans had never finished higher than seventh.
Considered one of the NBA’s upper-tier coaches before disappointing tenures with the Raptors and Knicks, Wilkens’s celebrated run ended when Isiah Thomas dismissed him in 2005.
But old is becoming new again. The same thing could have been said for the burned-out Collins, who was dismissed by Michael Jordan in Washington and headed for the TNT booth, and Silas, who was removed in Cleveland despite a 34-30 record, primarily because of a difficult relationship with LeBron James.
Both were rejuvenated with time away and both have been successful in their returns. Collins had the 76ers a half-game out of a playoff spot entering last night’s game, and Silas was 8-5 with the Bobcats since replacing Larry Brown.
Wilkens won’t take just any job. He realizes his place in the game, even though some don’t.
There’s the infamous story from the 1996 Olympics, when a young Shaquille O’Neal asked Wilkens during a practice if he had ever played in the NBA. Scottie Pippen couldn’t stop laughing, and O’Neal’s father insisted he research Wilkens’s illustrious career.
The Hall of Fame inducted Wilkens as a player, a coach, and an assistant (on the 1992 Olympic team). He amassed 1,332 wins as an NBA coach and led the Sonics to the NBA title in 1979.
“There were a couple of teams interested in me a year ago,’’ Wilkens said. “But they didn’t want to pay anything. And I have credentials.
“I am not coming back just for nothing. That’s not going to make any sense. I think with what I’ve done, I was a good coach and I’m not going to sell myself short.’’
The idea that he may be a victim of age discrimination has not been lost on Wilkens. He will be 74 in October, although his mind remains sharp and he embraced the NBA lifestyle despite his age.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?’’ Wilkens said. “In no other sport does that exist. In football, in baseball, they don’t look at a coach’s age, they look at his ability and how he relates to players and whether he can be successful.
“In the NBA, for some reason, there was a stretch there, they were looking for more younger guys. Now it’s swung back the other way.’’
The recent trend may aid Wilkens in his desire to return. But he is savvy enough to know that it’s a slight possibility. The NBA is still leaning toward younger coaches who can better relate to the chest-bumping, tattooed players who didn’t exist in Wilkens’s prime.
“I am not going to go out and solicit for a job,’’ he said. “That’s not me. I think my credentials speak for themselves. Why should I be chasing something down? We’ll see where it goes.’’
The league no longer considered McGrady a scorer during his final years in Houston because he lacked the lift to get his shot off. Something had to change.
After signing a one-year contract with the Pistons, McGrady spent the first month of the season as a bench spark plug. But with coach John Kuester looking for something to produce victories in a city that’s accustomed to being a factor in the Eastern Conference, he inserted McGrady into the starting lineup at point guard.
Richard Hamilton was benched, allowing Rodney Stuckey to move back to his more comfortable shooting guard position after years of playing the point. In 12 games as a starter entering last night, McGrady is averaging 11.0 points and 5.0 assists, not exactly eye-popping, but the former All-Star has made himself more useful and perhaps a valuable trade asset in the next month.
During his final years in Houston, McGrady insisted on being the primary scorer, and that got him traded to the Knicks last spring. McGrady again tried to show he was the old T-Mac with the Knicks, but scouts weren’t convinced, and only the Pistons took a flier on a bargain contract.
McGrady watched as high-profile players such as Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury, and Steve Francis were ushered out of the league because they couldn’t accept their declining skills and roles. McGrady sought to shake his selfish tag and reestablish himself by becoming a distributor.
“It’s extremely fun,’’ said McGrady, who has scored more than 17,000 points in 13-plus seasons. “I accepted the role and I take pride in making these guys better.
“And as far as an overall look of our team, that’s what’s best for our team because I am a playmaker and I do have a great feel for the game. I don’t look to score as I did. I look to get these guys involved.’’
One of the league’s purest and most graceful scorers during his prime, McGrady began experiencing back problems while playing for Doc Rivers in Orlando in the early 2000s and then dealt with shoulder and knee injuries in Houston before finally undergoing microfracture knee surgery in February 2009.
The explosion is gone from his 6-7 body, making him a jump shooter, but he maintains that his recovery is almost complete.
“Next season, I’m sure I am going to be a lot healthier and feel a lot better,’’ he said. “I’m telling you, it’s a complete change from how my body felt then than it is now.
“I was hurt every day waking up, running, jumping, playing. None of it bothers me now. I don’t like my body shape right now. I can’t do nothing about that until the end of the season.’’
McGrady is one of those high school-to-pro players who have had their careers interrupted by injuries. Jonathon Bender and Darius Miles weren’t able to play into their 30s, while Jermaine O’Neal and McGrady are watching their bodies betray them at a time when they should be in their primes.
“We understood,’’ said McGrady. “Even though we’re 31, we played a lot of minutes through the course of our 15-year career.
“It takes a toll on your body and you’re fortunate enough to last that long. I feel like I can get four or five more years out of it.
“If you can modify your game and still be effective on the basketball court, you can give yourself a chance, and I feel I can do that. I don’t have to be the 25- to 30-point scorer that I was, but I can still impact the game.’’
Unlike the past few seasons in Houston, McGrady fully accepts the fact he is no longer the high-flying, dominant scorer, a reality that has pushed many of his peers out of the league.
“I understand you can’t do [the dunking] forever,’’ he said. “There comes a time where it’s going to slow down for you. It’s been that time. But I can still be effective.’’
He proved that untrue last week when he took the Nets out of the Carmelo Anthony Sweepstakes, which have turned into a complete joke, thanks to Anthony.
Let’s get this straight. Carmelo told friends at his wedding that he wanted to play for the Knicks and would not sign a three-year extension with the Nuggets. Then he comes to Denver’s media day and says he never asked for a trade and is uncertain of his future, yet he gives every indication that he wants to play in the New York area — but not for the Nets.
His blaming of the media for making this a story is absurd, and Prokhorov’s stand was admirable, considering the Nets badly need a franchise player, something they haven’t had since Julius Erving. The Nets are seeking respect but won’t sell their souls and beg Anthony to bless them with his presence — especially since he hasn’t won anything in Denver.
Instead of communicating clearly to management that he wants a trade or keeping quiet until the end of his contract, Anthony has turned this season into a disaster for the Nuggets and coach George Karl, who has had enough stress already with his cancer battle.
And, of course, Anthony blames the media for the entire thing, and continues to issue denials while at the same time conducting nationally televised interviews in which he says playing in New York would be a dream.
Unlike in the 1980 Winter Olympics and “Rocky IV,’’ many fans are rooting for the Russian to win this one.
“We will come back to the table every time we need the right player for the team,’’ said Prokhorov. “But, really, I’m not ready to overpay. Because as soon as you make a mistake in the NBA, you can wait for the next chance for the next five or six years.
“That’s why I prefer to be really patient, and I want to thank the New Jersey fans for their patience.’’
Sounds like Prokhorov has been listening to his cohorts, including Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who allowed LeBron James to hold his organization hostage and is paying a dear price.
Layups The Players Association and the owners agreed to meet during All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles, and it will be interesting to track how negotiations could affect the relationships between owners and star players. Celtics majority owner Wyc Grousbeck has been one of the more vocal owners calling for a retooling of the collective bargaining agreement, and Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett sat in on a portion of the players-owners meeting at last year’s All-Star Weekend. Pierce was able to secure a long-term extension beyond the expiration of the CBA, while Ray Allen and Garnett have two more years left on their deals . . . A forgotten free agent this summer will be Milwaukee’s Michael Redd, who is unlikely to play for the Bucks again after tearing the ACL and MCL in his left knee twice in the past two years. Redd is a year removed from the last tear, but he doesn’t seem to be in the Bucks’ plans this season. He is earning $18 million in the final year of his maximum contract and turns 32 in August. Since most of his salary is covered by insurance, the Bucks have no issue with his presence on the roster and likely wouldn’t move him . . . Celtics rookie Avery Bradley has played in three games for NBDL Maine, averaging 13.3 points, 3.3 assists, and 1.7 steals in 23 minutes. He is shooting 35 percent from the field. Antoine Walker continues his comeback after a putrid performance in the D-League Showcase (4 for 26 in two games). Walker has hit 51 percent of his shots and averaged 21 points and 6 rebounds in a four-game stretch.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.