Lenny Wilkens: A great coach, but no Auerbach

January 10, 1995|By BILL TANTON

There is one problem with breaking a record that has stood for many years. It tends to diminish the holder of the old record.

That's the way it is in the wake of Lenny Wilkens' becoming the NBA's all-time winningest coach.

Wilkens set the record when his Hawks beat the Bullets last weekend in Atlanta. It was Lenny's 939th career victory, one more than Red Auerbach had with the Boston Celtics.

There are millions who might take that to mean Wilkens is the best pro basketball coach ever. Remember, Auerbach hasn't been the Boston Celtics' coach since 1966.

No one who was around during the years when Auerbach lit up those victory cigars would rate Wilkens over Red, including Wilkens himself.

"When I first came into the league as a player," Wilkens said after lighting a victory cigar of his own last Friday night, "Red was the guy everyone looked to as a coach. I still feel that way. I lit the cigar as a testament to Red."

No one who reads Dan Shaughnessy's new book, "Seeing Red -- the Red Auerbach Story," will confuse Lenny's greatness with Red's.

In pro basketball annals, Auerbach is in a class by himself.

He won nine NBA titles, eight of them in a row. Wilkens, who was never blessed with a Bill Russell, won one championship with Seattle in 1979.

Wilkens has coached longer. This is his 22nd year in the league. Auerbach coached 20 years -- and then left the bench after winning eight straight titles.

As coach and general manager of the Celtics from 1957 to 1969, Auerbach won 11 championships in 13 seasons.

Auerbach's domination of the NBA continued in his role as general manager. As Shaughnessy puts it, the league's best coach became its best GM.

Auerbach not only built a championship team in Boston in the Bill Russell-Bob Cousy era in the '50s and '60s. He rebuilt it twice.

He won two titles in three years in the '70s with John Havlicek, Dave Cowens and Jo Jo White. He won three more in the '80s with Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale.

Shaughnessy, a gifted writer who covered Orioles baseball for this newspaper in the late '70s, tells how Auerbach outfoxed everybody in 1970 to get Dave Cowens from Florida State.

One night the gym there was full of NBA scouts looking at Cowens. Into the place walked Auerbach.

When the game started, the other scouts watched Red to get his reaction to the 6-foot-8, red-haired center. They knew his judgment was the best. Before halftime, Auerbach screwed up his face as if he had smelled something unpleasant and stormed out.

Teams drafting ahead of Boston shied away from Cowens in the first round. Auerbach took him No. 1 and won with him for years.

Shaughnessy says Auerbach was gracious when Wilkens topped his record. Red had realized for some time that somebody would break it. He was glad it was Wilkens.

"Red doesn't like coaches who call attention to themselves," Shaughnessy says. "Lenny Wilkens has always been a very classy guy. I don't think Red would have been happy if Pat Riley had broken the record."

Auerbach's career spans the entire history of the NBA. When the league started 49 years ago, Red was there. Today, at 78, he's still there as the president of the Celtics.

Next year, on its 50th anniversary, the NBA will name an all-time team. The speculation is that the coach will be either Auerbach or the Knicks' Riley. I hope it's Red.

Auerbach has never won any honors on charm. He's gruff, as I found out the first time I ever met him.

When the Baltimore Bullets came into the NBA in 1962, Red and the Celtics were riding high. When they came to the Civic Center (now Baltimore Arena) I, a young writer, covered the game. Afterward, I entered the Celtics' dressing room and began to interview Bill Russell.

"Get the hell out of here!" boomed a voice with a New York accent. It was Auerbach's. I was dumb founded.

"Who the hell invited you in here?" Auerbach barked.

"I was just trying to interv . . .," I said just before Red broke in.

"Are you on Paul Menton's paper?" he asked, a little more gently now.

"Yes," I said.

"You're all right then," Red said. "You can stay."

Menton was then sports editor of The Evening Sun. Auerbach knew him from the 1930s when Red played basketball at George Washington for coach Bill Reinhart. Menton refereed their games.

"That's Red," Shaughnessy said. "If you have any connection with the old gang, you're all right."

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