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Sports Heroes Who Served: One of Basketball's Greatest Also Served in the Army

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Sports Heroes Who Served is a series that highlights the accomplishments of athletes who served in the U.S. military.

In 1995, Lenny Wilkins became the National Basketball Association's all-time leader in coaching victories — 939 wins in 22 seasons. 

Wilkins also served in the Army as a second lieutenant from 1961 to 1962.

A military commander hands out challenge coins to a woman and two men.
Challenge Coin
NBA coaching legend Lenny Wilkens looks on as Air Force Col. Sarady Tan presents a 366th Fighter Wing challenge coin to WNBA star Ruthie Bolton following a five-on-five basketball game at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, Oct. 4, 2013. Bolton and Wilkens coached the two teams as part of a kickoff for the Healthy Base Initiative at the installation.
Photo By: Air Force Tech. Sgt. Samuel Morse
VIRIN: 131004-F-NW635-250A

Wilkens served at Fort Lee, Virginia, playing for the St. Louis Hawks on weekends. On the installation, he was a company executive officer and later became company commander.

In a 1999 interview with the Basketball Hall of Fame, he said that he learned a lot from his senior noncommissioned officers, who provided guidance for him.

"I think the military was good for people at the time because it taught discipline, and it taught that we had to work together to be successful. The other thing it taught me was organization, too. It helped. Whatever organizational skills I had, they just were enhanced because of being in the military," he said.

Prior to coaching, Wilkins was a basketball player, first at Providence College in Rhode Island, where he was a two-time All-American in 1959 and 1960. In 1996, his No. 14 jersey was retired by the college.

A basketball player dribbles while wearing a Sonics jersey.
SuperSonic Player
Lenny Wilkens, playing for the Seattle SuperSonics in 1968.
Photo By: Courtesy Seattle SuperSonics
VIRIN: 680901-O-D0439-001

In 1960, Wilkins made his foray into the NBA, drafted by the St. Louis Hawks. He remained with the Hawks until 1968. That year, he placed second to Wilt Chamberlain in most valuable player balloting.

For the next four years, Wilkins played for the Seattle SuperSonics and was an All-Star in three of those seasons. During his second season with the SuperSonics, he was named head coach of the team and also continued to play at point guard.

In 1972, he played for the Cleveland Cavaliers for two seasons and then with the Portland Trail Blazers from 1974 to 1975, where he was a player-coach and in 1976, as coach.

Following his coaching job with the Trail Blazers, he coached full time with the SuperSonics (1977-1985), Cavaliers (1986-1993), Atlanta Hawks (1993-2000), Toronto Raptors (2000-2003) and the New York Knicks (2004-2005).

In 1979, he coached the Seattle SuperSonics to the NBA championship.

In 1994, he was named NBA Coach of the Year.

A man speaks to an audience of children while airmen look on from the background.
Pep Talk
NBA legend Lenny Wilkens speaks to children Oct. 4, 2013, at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. NBA Cares Hoops for Troops helped kickoff the Healthy Base Initiative by teaching children basketball drills to show them how fun it can be to stay active.
Photo By: Air Force Airman 1st Class Brittany A. Chase
VIRIN: 131004-F-BM568-143C

Today, Wilkins is considered one of the top 10 coaches in NBA history. He's also a three-time Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee: in 1989 as a player, in 1998 as coach and 2010 as a member of the Dream Team.

In 1992, he was assistant coach with the Dream Team, which won Olympic gold and in 1996, he was head coach of the U.S. men's team, which also brought home Olympic gold.

Wilkins is the founder of the Lenny Wilkens Foundation for Children. He lives in Medina, Washington.

More Sports Heroes Who Served
sports graphic
Sports Heroes Graphic
Sports Heroes Who Served graphic - with title
Photo By: DOD
VIRIN: 200706-D-ZZ999-903


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