A welcome memoir by a pioneer of integrated pro basketball.
Writing with Akron Beacon Journal sports columnist Pluto, Wilkens recounts his long career as a player and coach—one of only two entrants in the Basketball Hall of Fame to be honored for his accomplishments in both roles. The son of an African-American father and Irish-American mother, Wilkens grew up in the 1940s in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, now largely black but then a polyethnic, polyglot neighborhood. “Only later,” he writes, “did I realize how unique this situation was and how it affected my life: I never doubted that people from different races could work with each other and be friends, because I saw it every day of my life while growing up.” Wilkens’s catholicity was put to the test when, after earning an economics degree with distinction, he first went in to the NBA and confronted segregation within and without the arena. His offended sense of justice takes second place in this narrative, however, to straightforward sports memoir, as he relates his episodic education in how the game of basketball can and should be played. Evidently, Wilkens’s keyword is respect, for, despite having had to deal with ego hounds like Scottie Pippen and Charles Barkley, he has almost nothing but warmly generous words for his players and colleagues. Still, at many points, especially when considering modern players’ huge salaries (as a rookie he had to work during the off-season as a salesman to make ends meet) and team perks like private first-class jet travel and hotel suites, Wilkens longs for the relatively pure old days, when basketball games “weren’t played in luxurious arenas with corporate boxes with wine and cheese and caviar. . . . They were played in something called an ‘armory,’ an old barn of a building that smelled of stale cigar smoke, spilled beer, and hot dogs on the grill.”
Cordial and courtly: Wilkens’s memoir is no classic, but it’s still of considerable appeal to roundball fans.