When Lenny Wilkens was a player, he was best known as a quiet little man with magic moves and a flat-footed, left-handed set shot. Practically everybody liked him.
He hasn't changed much. He still is quiet, still working magic. It also is harder to find someone who will say an unkind word about Wilkness than it is to find a ticket for the first game of the National Basketball Association final series with the Washington Bullets that starts tomorrow.
The fact that Seattle made it to the playoffs at all, let alone to the final, is a minor miracle. And Wilkens is the one waving the magic wand.
"I never thought we'd be in this position and no one else did either," Wilkens said. "I didn't knew how far we could go because we were a young team and had eight new players, but I have all players who fit into the roles I want them to fit into the roles I want them to fit into. They are willing to listen and they are unselfish.
"It's hard to explain to anyone who wan't a part of it just how these players matured. It was a lot of work, but also a heck of a lot of fun."
He took over the Sonics on Nov. 30, when they were 5-17 and sinking fast. The Sonics won 70 percent of their remaining regular-season games and 10 of 15 games in three playoff series on their way to the final.
Until now, Wilkens has had a bumpy career as an NBA coach. He was the Sonics' player-coach from 1969-72. His best season was in 1971-72 when Seattle went 47-35. The next season Wilkens was traded to Cleveland. After two seasons there, as a player only, he went to Portland as player-coach.
The next season he retired as a player, and, after going 37-45 with the Trail Blazers, with Bill Walton injured most of the year, was told "the team hadn't made enough progress." He was fired with two years to gon on his coaching contract.
Jack Ramsay came in as the new Portland coach and took the team to the NBA title. Although Wilkens will not say so publicly, he probably could have done the same had he remained coach another season.
Wilkens worked as an analyst for CBS for a year. Then, when Bill Russell quit as the Sonics' coach and general manager after last season, owner Sam Schulman asked Wilkens to become his personnel director. Wilkens accepted and assembled a young, running team.
The only problem was that Coach Bob Hopkins didn't let the Sonics run and the team was awful. People started second-guessing the talent Wilkens had brought together.
"He (Hopkins) was playing a college game, but this is the pros," said center Marvin Webster. "We'd slow the ball down and set up on offense every time down the floor. Teams were running on us yet we weren't running and running is the name of the game."
Players started bickering, yet Wilkens remained out of the dispute, although he had ideas of what the team should be doing.
When Shulman finally fired Hopkins, he turned to Wilkens, Wilkens changed the lineup and had the Sonics running by the next game. They have run all the way to the final.
Much like the Trail Blazers, the Sonics are a very close-knit, young group that plays as a team.
The offense is not complicated, yet effective. The fast break is taken whenever it is there, and sometimes when it isn't, but even the set-up offense is kept simple.
"We do very basic things," Wilkens said. "We have options off our plays, but they aren't very complicated. Your offense has to be simple enough for the players to understand it. I feel that whatever offense you run, no matter how complicated or how many options you have, when it really gets down or two on two. I just believe in getting to ti quickly."
Defensively Wilkens has taught his team to force the opposition to go the way it doesn't want to.
Picks and screens are what make plays work in the NBA, and how well a team fights through them or switches on them is the key to how well it plays defense. The Sonics have that knack for forcing an opponent out of the offense it had planned and channeling it into Seattle's big men. Most of the Seattle players are very quick, which enables them to play that sort of defense effectively.
Wilken's most valuable asset is probably his ability to relate to players and understand their needs.
He was often misunderstood as a player and a coach and he has learned how to look for the source of a player's problems rather than just at the player as a problem.
An example is Gus Williams, a starting guard.
Williams was a disgruntled reserve at Golden State. He was labeled as having an "attitude." He had played out his option, but a lot of teams stayed away from him.
"I had seen Gus play in college and he has great quickness," Wilkens said. "I knew he could get a running game going with him. I watched him at Golden State and I could see what his problem was. He can't see what his problem was. He can't play without the ball and he can't be the one to run your offense all of the time. He just isn't that kind of player.
"You can't do a good job of coaching in this league unless you put in the time in trying to understand your players. That's what I wanted as a player and that's what I give as a coachs.
"I haven't changed much."