The coach who took Seattle Pacific to the Elite Eight and was an assistant coach for the Seattle SuperSonics died Thursday at 92.
Lenny Wilkens remembers Les Habegger as a serious man.
Not that Habegger couldn’t laugh, not that he couldn’t lighten up. But he was intense, and that intensity — that seriousness — carried him to much success on the basketball court, first as the coach who made Seattle Pacific a contender and then as an assistant with the Sonics the year they won the NBA title in 1979.
Habegger died Thursday morning in Spokane, Seattle Pacific announced. He was 92.
“He was very important,” Wilkens, the former Sonics coach, said. “I valued his judgment and wanted to know what he was thinking. We’d sit down and plot stuff together, look at video together. We enjoyed it. We enjoyed the game. And we always wanted to make our teams better. We both believed very strongly in defense. We had a lot in common, and it was great.”
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Before he became a vital part of the Sonics, Habegger built Seattle Pacific’s basketball program. He went 6-20 during his first season, in 1956-57, but eight years later his team was in the Elite Eight.
When he left the school in 1974, he had more wins than any coach in school history and a career record of 267-170. His teams made six NCAA tournaments, and he was inducted into the school’s hall of fame in 2004.
“Les Habegger is the guy who put the place on the map,” said Ken Bone, who developed a relationship with Habegger when he became Seattle Pacific’s head coach in 1990.
“He put Seattle Pacific on the map,” agreed Don DeHart, one of Habegger’s former players. “He just made it a place that could be more than just competitive in basketball.
“I heard from him two weeks ago, and he said, ‘Did I ever teach you guys anything other than basketball? Did I teach you about life?’ I said, ‘Coach, you absolutely taught us more than basketball. You taught us about life.’ ”
Habegger joined the Sonics as an assistant coach in 1977. He worked under Bob Hopkins for the first 22 games that season until Hopkins was fired after a 5-17 start.
The Sonics hired Lenny Wilkens, who kept Habegger as his assistant.
“I liked what he saw,” Wilkens said. “And I didn’t always think that the previous coach followed what he wanted to do. But we both saw a lot of the same things defensively and also maximizing talent.”
Wilkens said he and Habegger had a “great relationship,” which helped the Sonics reach the NBA Finals in 1978 and win the championship in 1979.
“He would speak his mind,” Wilkens said. “I always wanted him to be honest, let me know what he saw. We had a lot of the same feelings about the game and always wanted our players to be at their best. We had a lot in common.
“We could dissect the game. We understood about rotating on defense, about double-teaming, trapping. Stuff like that came very naturally to us, and it was fun because we would set up situations and see how you’d defend them.”
Habegger became the Sonics’ general manager for several seasons. He also coached professionally in Germany and, a native of Indiana, was inducted into that state’s basketball hall of fame in 2014. But he is most remembered for contributions to Seattle basketball.
“I’m a better person because of him,” DeHart, his former player, said.
“I’ll miss him,” Wilkens said.