Raptors name Wilkens coach

Posted: Thursday, June 22, 2000

TORONTO -- Lenny Wilkens never stopped smiling Wednesday as he ticked off the reasons why, at 62, the winningest coach in NBA history was coming to a Canadian franchise that recently seemed in disarray.

He cited an organization that ''exudes class,'' a great city, Vince Carter and the chance for something new with a team coming off its first playoff appearance.

''I'm excited about it and can't wait to get started,'' Wilkens said after signing a reported four-year, $20 million deal to become the fourth head coach in Raptors' history. ''I like the team, I like the city. ... I thought last year they made a tremendous stride getting to the playoffs and I think their future is all upward.''

Sitting next to Wilkens, general manager Glen Grunwald also alluded to an opportunity he hopes to exploit. By hiring Wilkens, he said, the Raptors showed their commitment to building a championship team, and that could entice free-agent forward Tracy McGrady to stay instead of heading south.

''I think for our franchise, this is the best thing possible,'' said Grunwald, adding he recently spoke with McGrady. ''The move we just made makes us more attractive to any free agent.''

In Wilkens, the Raptors landed a basketball legend, the only person named among the NBA's top 10 coaches and 50 greatest players of all time. He and John Wooden are the only two men in the Hall of Fame as both players and coaches.

He succeeds a series of first-time head coaches in the franchise's five-year history -- Brendan Malone, Darrell Walker and Butch Carter.

Carter was fired last week for unending off-court controversies, including a bid for the general manager's title, that marred the first winning season and playoff berth in franchise history. By the time Toronto got swept by New York in the first playoff round, veteran forwards Charles Oakley and Antonio Davis were against him.

Center Kevin Willis, who played for Wilkens in Atlanta, called the hiring a smart move, saying: ''The older guys will respect Lenny instantly, and to me that's the most important thing.''

Wilkens has coached in Seattle, Portland, Cleveland and Atlanta, leading the SuperSonics to their lone NBA title in 1979. He has a record of 1,179-981, and in seven years with Atlanta had a mark of 310-232.

This year, though, Wilkens quit after Atlanta finished next to last in the Eastern Conference with a 28-54 record, the worst season of his 27-year coaching career and the worst for the Hawks since the franchise moved to Atlanta in 1968.

The Sun newspaper reported Wednesday that Wilkens was owed $10.4 million by the Hawks over the next two seasons, and his Toronto salary would be deducted from that amount.

Wilkens said it was time to leave Atlanta, where the situation ''was not working.'' He already had some ideas for the Raptors.

''The area that definitely will change is the defense,'' Wilkens said. ''I don't see any reason why we can't be a little better defensive team and a little more uptempo.''

One reason for his optimism is Vince Carter, a budding superstar with a major endorsement profile. In his second NBA season, Carter averaged 25.7 points a game and was the leading All Star vote-getter.

''Vince is a great player. He not only gave us (Atlanta) fits, he gave everybody in the league fits, so it's going to be fun to work with a player like that,'' Wilkens said.

He also said he had spoken with McGrady, who blossomed into an offensive force by the end of the season. McGrady has said he was unlikely to return to Toronto.

Even with McGrady, Toronto needs a center and a point guard to spread out the offense, making it harder for defenses to key on Carter.

A first-round draft pick out of Providence, Wilkens spent 15 years as a player with St. Louis, Seattle and Cleveland. He ranks among the career leaders in assists, games played and free throws made.

He coached the United States to an Olympic gold medal in 1996 after serving as an assistant with the original Dream Team that won the Olympic title in 1992. Carter is the lone Raptor selected to the U.S. team for the Sydney Olympics in September.

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