Lenny Wilkens officially had a Seattle street named for him Thursday, which is only fitting for a guy who once owned the town. And who will always have a treasured place in its collective heart, one that goes far beyond a stretch of pavement.

Lenny Wilkens Way, formerly Thomas Street, runs next to Climate Pledge Arena, which is a much fancier incarnation of the building where Wilkens ruled the hardwood as a Sonics player and coach. The 1979 NBA title remains a galvanizing event in the history of Seattle sports.

“The way I look at it, Lenny’s the foundation of Sonics basketball,” said former Sonics coach George Karl, one of a multitude of Seattle basketball royalty that came out to pay homage to Wilkens on what was also his 84th birthday.

But as much as Wilkens accomplished as a player and coach — and he’s in the Basketball Hall of Fame in both capacities — his Seattle legacy doesn’t stop there. As many speakers noted Thursday during a ceremony moved indoors to the Seattle Center Armory because of inclement weather, his work in the community will also live on forever.

Specifically, Wilkens through his foundation has raised millions of dollars for the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic in Seattle’s Central District, which provides health care for families in need.

Not bad for someone who, in his own words Thursday, came to Seattle “kicking and screaming” when he was traded to the Sonics from the St. Louis Hawks in 1968. The Hawks were a perennial playoff team. The Sonics were an expansion team coming off a 23-59 debut season.


“I did not think that we could make the playoffs,” Wilkens recalled. “But after spending some time here and meeting the people I decided that there was no better place for us than the Northwest. Seattle was unique. The fans were unique. They were receptive. And it was a wonderful, wonderful experience for me. We decided that this was going to be our home.”

And indeed it has been for Lenny and Marilyn, his wife of nearly 60 years, and their family, most of whom were packed into the Armory. Many of Wilkens’ extended family of basketball players, coaches and fans turned out as well, including among others Fred Brown, Jack Sikma and Wally Walker from the 1979 title team; Jamal Crawford, who played for Wilkens with the New York Knicks in 2004-05; former Sonics Xavier McDaniel and Dale Ellis; and longtime Wilkens assistant coach Dick Helm.

“This means everything to all of us,” Ellis said. “I know everybody loves Lenny. All it takes is getting a chance to meet him, and you can’t help but love him.”

As he looked out into the audience and saw the sea of faces, Wilkens said with a smile, “I know every one.”

The audience, however, represented only a fraction of those who hold Wilkens in the highest esteem. He played a huge role in legitimizing Seattle as a professional sports town, bringing All-Star credibility to those early Sonics teams as a player-coach, and then returning to lead them to the promised land in 1979.

That title run turned Seattle into a Sonics-mad town and emboldened a whole generation of local basketball players to raise their aspirations. One of those was Crawford, who came out of Rainier Beach High School to forge a 20-year NBA career.


Crawford said that when he saw the new sign for Lenny Wilkens Way, he was reminded of walking down that street “a million times,” including an early job bringing food to the concession stands at KeyArena during the Karl era.

“It was usually a 10-minute trip, but I made it a 30-minute trip because I’d bring the food and stay in the hallways and just dream. Dream about being out there,” Crawford said.

Little did Crawford know he would not only one day play for Wilkens with the Knicks but live in the same New York apartment building.

“Obviously, having a Hall of Fame coaching career and a Hall of Fame playing career, those are wonderful things,” Crawford said. “But what struck me about him was his heart. … That’s the part that separates him from everybody else.”

Wilkens, decked out Thursday in an old-school black leather Sonics jacket “to jog some memories,” recalled meeting a woman named Freddie Mae Gautier early during his time in Seattle. She was instrumental in introducing him to Dr. Blanche Lavizzo, the first African-American woman pediatrician in Washington and the first medical director of the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic. Wilkens was instantly enamored of the work being done.

“I said, ‘That’s going to be my charity,’ because they were providing health care to families regardless of their ability to pay,” Wilkens said. “I’ve always said a sick kid who goes to school puts their head down on the desk, and they don’t learn anything. But if we give them the health care that they need, we let them know that they’re important to us, and then they’ll want to strive for more.”


Karl said that he and Wilkens have another cause: Bringing the Sonics back to Seattle, a quest that now seems more realistic than ever because of the new arena straddling Lenny Wilkens Way.

“Seattle is very hungry for basketball,” Karl said. “Lenny and I both will do anything to get (an NBA) team back before our lives end.”

One of the biggest cheers of the day was provided by Tod Leiweke, the CEO of the Kraken and a likely point person in dealings with the NBA.

“Lenny is one of the most beloved people in our community, because he came here and he dreamt,” Leiweke said. “I’ll just share with you one more dream I have: The people will walk down Lenny Wilkens Way and walk right into a Sonic game and honor this man — and I believe that will happen.”