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The Power of Lenny Wilkens

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Written by
Lauren Hunsberger

Photography by
Michael Matti

There’s no doubt Lenny Wilkens has star power. It’s evident in his ease in front of a camera and the way he thoughtfully, carefully chooses his words in interviews. “Oh, I’ve done this too many times to count,” jokes the three-time NBA Hall of Fame inductee (once as a player, once as a coach, once as an Olympian) and winner of the 1979 NBA championship. With 15 years in the league as a player and 32 as a coach, it’s clear he’s built a substantial platform to express his thoughts surrounding professional sports and basketball.

But these days Wilkens is increasingly using his celebrity status to raise money for the Lenny Wilkens Foundation, which primarily provides funding for the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic, an organization dedicated to offering health care to kids 21 years old and younger who can’t afford care. And he’s bringing his star-studded circle of friends with him.

“My dad died when I was very young, and we didn’t have health insurance. It was tough. I remember being a young person and having to go to the clinic. So I thought, here’s a way I can give back. I know how those kids feel,” Wilkens says. “There are a lot of people in the community without health insurance, and these young people need care. Sick kids have a difficult time learning, so we want them to not only have health care but education as well. Young people, they’re our future. So it’s real easy for me to get involved because I want them to have that opportunity.”

Over the years, Wilkens and the foundation have contributed more than $7 million to Odessa, raising money through a variety of events and dinners. But the main event each year is the Celebrity Classic Weekend, which includes a golf tournament and formal dinner. This year, the event was held in August, and Wilkens says it was their most successful year to date, raising more than half a million dollars in just one weekend.

With over 800 people in attendance, Wilkens says he was pleased to have peers and friends such as Spencer Haywood, Jamal Crawford, John Egan, Isaiah Thomas, Meadowlark Lemon and dozens of other celebrities show their support for the cause.

“The highlight is the people. They make it. The new CEO of Children’s Hospital, Jeff Sperring, he and his wife, Amie, attended. Doug Picha from Children’s Hospital too, and then I had a lot of friends come. Gus Williams comes every year, that’s always fun for us because he was from the championship team. Dale Ellis was there; James Donaldson, Slick Watts, who supports everything we do,” Wilkens says. “I appreciate it, and it’s a way to give back. The community likes seeing them there. You get a celebrity sitting at your table and you’re going to have fun. It’s a win-win situation.” 

Wilkens says giving back to his community has always been in his nature, and he points to a few different influences who encouraged him from an early age to get involved in local outreach programs, including the Boys & Girls Club.

“I guess it comes from people who’ve been in my life. First of all, my mother. She told us that honesty and integrity were very important. And we had to have that no matter what,” Wilkens says. “There was also a strong influence from a priest friend of mine in my parish where I grew up. He always had programs for kids. We became great friends, and when I’d get upset about something, he’d say to me, ‘Who promised you?’ It used to make me mad, but then I began to really understand. Nobody promises you anything. You have to get out there and do it. From that point on, I believed I could make a difference. Wherever I went, whatever I was involved in, I believed that I could make a change.” 

Wilkens hopes his efforts will affect younger generations in a few different ways. First, is to obviously provide a variety of health-care services to low-income families. But then he also hopes to inspire younger generations of professional athletes to use their own influence for good.

“Young people need to learn to take care of themselves first, and they need to surround themselves with strength, people who can help them. And then, I think as you secure yourself, you look around and see what your community needs. What can you get involved with that really will give back to the community? I want them to take their time and look around,” he says.

Despite his focus on charitable efforts, Wilkens says he hasn’t lost sight of his first passion, and smiles wide when talking about the benefits of organized sports with young people. “Sports are great for young people because it teaches you how to make a decision. No matter what sport you play, even if it’s Ping-Pong, you have to make a decision about hitting the ball back,” he says. “But I do want young people to broaden the dream. Everybody dreams of being a professional athlete, but they can’t all be. You can still be associated with the sport, though, by being a doctor, a lawyer or through marketing.”

He also says he is looking forward to the possibility of bringing back basketball to the greater Seattle area.

For more information, visit lennywilkensfoundation.org

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