As a three-time NBA Hall of Fame recipient, nobody would blame Lenny Wilkens if he dropped a few names here and there. After all, he did play against Oscar Robertson, coach the U.S. Olympic Team in the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games, and—perhaps most impressive—led the Seattle SuperSonics to their only NBA Championship in 1979.
But instead of casually mentioning dinner in Barcelona with Michael Jordan or the time he vied with Wilt Chamberlain for the league’s most valuable player, Lenny gets most animated about names you’ve probably never heard.
Some are doctors. Some are childhood friends. But the common thread is caring about healthcare with dignity for low-income families and children.
When Lenny originally entered the NBA as a first-round pick in the 1960 draft, things were a bit different. For one, Lenny’s salary for the title-contending St. Louis Hawks (now Atlanta) necessitated an off-season job that didn’t involve shoe commercials.
And two, his charity work was exactly as it sounds—work.
“I got involved working with high-school dropouts at a clinic run by Jewish Employment Services,” he says.
And he wasn’t just shooting a couple baskets with the kids and mugging for photos.
“My job was a motivational counselor. I’d sit with them and talk to them about career counseling—how to sit for an interview, how to dress,” he says. “I was just a rookie in the NBA talking to these kids.”
Retired from coaching in 2005 and now living in Bellevue, Lenny earnestly describes his childhood as the early inspiration for his nonprofit involvement.
“As a youngster, I grew up in Brooklyn. My dad died when I was 5. It was very difficult for my mother to raise five of us,” he says. “She wasn’t able to afford health insurance. We had to go to a local clinic, but I resented it because I didn’t think they treated people very nice, especially if you were a minority. You were just a number. As a youngster, it made a huge impression on me. It always kind of stuck in mind.”
After Lenny was traded to Seattle in 1968, he was eventually introduced to the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic, which provides healthcare services for children in need. One of the clinic’s first doctors—and the first African American woman pediatrician in Washington—touched a chord with Lenny’s past.
“Dr. Blanche Lavizzo coined the phrase, ‘Quality care with dignity,’” he says. “I wanted to know how I could help.”
His first contribution came in the form of being humbly roasted at an all-star dinner.
“The proceeds went to the clinic,” he says.
Despite going on to play and coach in Portland, Cleveland, Atlanta, Toronto and New York, Lenny’s family had fallen in love with Seattle and kept a permanent home in the area.
“I was attracted to the outdoors, the mountains and lakes,” he says. They also maintained ties with the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic, eventually starting the Lenny Wilkens Foundation with his family to raise support for the clinic and promote healthcare, education and respect for every child.
And the foundation has come a long way from Lenny’s initial roast.
This past year, more than 500 people came out for the annual Lenny Wilkens Foundation Celebrity Classic Weekend. With a dinner auction and golf tournament at Echo Falls, Lenny invites former players and other celebrity guests from all over the country to participate.
“They donate their time so we have a low overhead, which allows us to give more,” he says. Lenny also enjoys taking individuals down to the clinic in Seattle’s Central District.
“We take them over to the clinic and see that they’re blown away,” he says.
And when asked about his role during the tour, Lenny can’t help but drop a few favorite names—like Odessa Brown Medical Director Dr. Benjamin Danielson.
“I’ll usually say a few things, but Dr. Danielson is such a bright guy,” he says.