The day Lenny Wilkens became the first NBA coach with 1,000 wins
‘A lot of people are in triple figures, but not quadruple figures’
Atlanta Hawks coach Lenny Wilkens paced along the sideline, his arms folded, his face stoic.
It wasn’t until Craig Ehlo nailed a 3-pointer to give Atlanta a 71-62 lead over the visiting Cleveland Cavaliers with 42.1 seconds left that Wilkens cracked a smile. He was moments away from becoming the first NBA coach with 1,000 wins.
Chants of “Lenny, Lenny, Lenny” rang out after the Hawks beat the Cavaliers, 74-68, on March 1, 1996. Wilkens, who passed Red Auerbach’s 938 wins the previous season to become the winningest coach in NBA history, finally let his emotions and the moment wash over him.
“It’s just incredible,” he told The Washington Post. “It puts you on a plateau and nobody else is there. A lot of people are in triple figures, but not quadruple figures. I’m really happy.”
Atlanta’s cheerleaders handed out placards with Wilkens’ face surrounded by a heart and “Sweet 1,000.” As the fans screamed his name, Wilkens stood up, smiled and waved to the crowd of 12,342.
General manager Pete Babcock made his way to the court to present Wilkens with the game ball. As Wilkens strolled to the tunnel, a fan hollered, “Hey, Lenny, we want to shake your hand.” Wilkens ended up shaking a long procession of hands.
So good was the victory that Wilkens, who didn’t smoke, lit up a cigar — an ode to Auerbach’s post-win ritual.
“I choked on that thing the last time,” Wilkens told the Los Angeles Times. “I don’t know how to smoke it.”
It took 21 seasons, including seven 50-win seasons, and few star players for Wilkens to accomplish his feat. But Wilkens was known for coaching up the talent he had.
A reporter asked him about the next potential milestone.
“I really don’t think about 1,500 or any number,” Wilkens said. “As long as it’s still fun and I can be fiercely competitive, I’ll coach.”