Wilkens maintains zeal for gold medal run Hawks coach enjoying Dream Team opportunity

Olympics

July 19, 1996|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

It was a question so absurd that it even caught the usually even tempered Lenny Wilkens off guard. "Is there any scenario where the United States can't win the gold medal?" was the query, and Wilkens' response was fast and firm.

"I don't even think about that," said Wilkens, the coach of the Dream Team in this year's Olympics. "We have 12 of the best basketball players in the world who should be honored to be in the Olympics. We just want to go out there and show the world we're the best."

One would imagine that Wilkens, over the next few weeks, will have one of the easiest jobs in Atlanta as he coaches the latest version of the Dream Team, which will make its 1996 Olympic debut tomorrow against Argentina. With 12 of the NBA's best players on the roster, men's basketball will be the one Olympic sport in Atlanta that's a foregone conclusion. And yet, Wilkens, coach of the Atlanta Hawks for the last three years, speaks excitedly about giving up part of his summer to lead one of the best teams ever assembled.

"When I was growing up, the Olympics were a big deal and everyone wanted somebody to take part in it," Wilkens said. "Back in 1992, I was fortunate enough to be an assistant coach with the first Dream Team. Now I'm the head coach, and I'm enjoying it."

Wilkens is enjoying the moment as a coach, but the fact that he never got the opportunity to suit up as a player is still perplexing. In 1960, Wilkens had just finished a solid senior season at Providence and was under the assumption that a strong showing in the East-West college All-Star team would at least get him an Olympic tryout.

"Before the game, we received letters saying we would be invited, based on the game, for the [Olympic] trials in Denver," Wilkens said. "The day before the game they were taking pictures of guys who were invited, and I wasn't one of them. Jerry West and I were co-MVPs of the game, and I still wasn't invited. I'm not here to embarrass anybody, but there were a lot of guys on that team who I knew I was better than."

Wilkens said he harbored no ill feelings following the slight. He went on to a 15-year playing career in the NBA, the last four as a player/coach. In just his second year as a full-time coach, Wilkens led the Seattle SuperSonics to the 1978 NBA Finals. The next season, the Sonics were NBA champions.

In all, Wilkens has won 1,078 games -- the winningest coach in NBA history and the only one with more than 1,000 victories (Red Auerbach is second with 938). When it came to naming an Olympic coach last year, the USA Basketball committee had a fairly easy choice.

"Lenny Wilkens is a class act," said Rod Thorn, vice president of operations for the NBA, and chair of the national team committee. "As the winningest coach in NBA history, Lenny's coaching credentials are impeccable."

His basketball knowledge, his demeanor and his ability to get some of the biggest stars in basketball to suppress their egos have been a hit with the players.

"You can tell by just listening that Lenny knows the game," said Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal. "I think he has the respect of everyone here."

Added Detroit Pistons forward Grant Hill:

"You get a coach like Lenny who can deal with all the egos -- he's not going to overcoach, he's just going to let us play. He'll do well. As far as comparing this with what he does in Atlanta, with this team I think it'll be a little different."

What an understatement. Instead of throwing Atlanta's Christian Laettner in a game to do battle with some of the NBA's top centers, Wilkens in the Olympics can go to O'Neal, David Robinson or Hakeem Olajuwon.

"I think at times I'll use two players in a game at the same time," Wilkens said. "And, if it works out, we'll try to get all three in together."

Wilkens says this group can't be compared with the original Dream Team that featured Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

"Back then, there were more players with the legend moniker attached to them," Wilkens said. "These players aren't in that category yet. But certainly they are talented and they have great versatility and desire."

Wilkens says the biggest challenge to the Dream Team could come from teams from Croatia or Yugoslavia. While he has no doubt that the United States will bring home the gold, he says teams will look to play the Dream Team a bit tougher than in 1992, when the USA won by an average of 43 points a game.

"I think the foreign players have gotten better every year," Wilkens said. "In '92, they were in awe, maybe intimidated. They won't be that way anymore because their confidence has grown.

"I feel all we need to do is play hard, play aggressive and we will be all right," Wilkens said. "Our goal is to be the best we can be, every time we hit the floor. And it's my job to see that that happens."

Pub Date: 7/19/96

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