Wilkens met with Knicks brass Friday night

Updated: January 22, 2005, 5:54 PM ET
Associated Press

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Lenny Wilkens finally had enough.

The 67-year-old Hall of Famer resigned as coach of the salary-cap challenged New York Knicks on Saturday, likely ending a record-setting career that began in 1969 when he was still an All-Star guard with the Seattle SuperSonics.

Sat, January 22
The ravenous New York tabloid press wasn't alone in awaiting a Knicks coaching change.

The Knicks themselves were playing like a team in limbo, losing 9 of 10 as they waited for the inevitable firing. Lenny Wilkens was unquestionably a gentleman to the end, but there was likewise no question that the Knicks had quit on him.

That's why the change had to come now. Knicks president Isiah Thomas would have preferred to wait until the offseason, when one of his favorites (Detroit's Larry Brown) might be available.

But Thomas sees the obvious. Only one team from the Atlantic Division is likely headed to the playoffs and the Knicks, carrying a league-high $103 million payroll, can't afford any more 1-9 stretches if they hope to be that team.

Even if you believe that Wilkens can no longer reach NBA players -- accusations he has faced since the end of his Toronto reign -- it's uncertain what kind of impact (if any) the unproven Herb Williams will have. Yet for Thomas, naming Williams as interim coach was the preferable compromise to choosing between an experienced but unpopular choice (Brendan Suhr) and Thomas' inexperienced childhood pal (Mark Aguirre).

Look for Thomas now to intensify his efforts to trade for Toronto's Donyell Marshall, perhaps to give the tabloid press something else to dissect beside the fact Wilkens lasted only a year.

Not that the Gotham media would be distracted for long anyway. You can expect daily speculation about Brown, Phil Jackson and Thomas himself ... until a suitably big name fills Wilkens' chair.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

"This is a difficult decision for me to make at this time because I really wanted to help the New York team get back to being an elite team," Wilkens said in a prepared statement. "But after a lot of consideration, I feel it's the right time for me, the right move and best for all involved."

Knicks president Isiah Thomas, who insisted that he would not have fired Wilkens despite the team's recent slide, turned over the club to assistant coach Herb Williams for the rest of the season.

The resignation, the first time Wilkens has stepped down or been fired during a season, followed a lengthy meeting with Thomas after the Knicks' last-second home loss to Houston on Friday night, their ninth defeat in 10 games. Thomas also said Wilkens is dealing with off-court issues, but was not specific.

"It's a very difficult day for myself and for the players," Thomas said. "He's a great man and a great coach. We'll miss him."

Wilkens is both the winningest and losingest coach in NBA history, going 1,332-1,155 in 32 seasons with Seattle, Portland, Cleveland, Atlanta, Toronto and New York. He won his lone NBA title with the Sonics in 1979 and coached the United States to a gold medal in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Wilkens, who did not take questions after reading his statement, has two years and $10 million left on his contract, which Thomas said the team will honor regardless of whether Wilkens accepts an offer to remain with the club in the front office.

"It's something I'll consider," Wilkens said. "Right now I feel I need to get away for a little time with my family."

Last season, Wilkens led the Knicks to their first playoff berth since 2001, going 23-19 in the final 42 regular-season games. But the Knicks were swept by New Jersey in the first round.

The 46-year-old Williams spent the last seven seasons of his 18-year playing career with the Knicks and joined the coaching staff in December 2001.

"It's a great opportunity and I'm going to make the most of it," Williams said. "We're trying to get back to the way things used to be here -- winning games in the playoffs. That's what it's all about in this league."

Williams impressed Thomas while coaching the club's summer league team.

"I'm excited for Herb to have this opportunity," Thomas said. "He's very knowledgeable about the game and the players respect him."

Williams coached the Knicks for one game -- a victory over Orlando -- a year ago between Don Chaney's firing and the hiring of Wilkens.

"Herb knows what's going on," former teammate Allan Houston said.

Houston and Kurt Thomas are the only Knicks left from Williams' playing days.

"He's a warrior," Kurt Thomas said. "He's going to coach the way he played."

Late-game breakdowns have plagued New York (17-22) throughout the season, with the latest letdown coming on Rockets backup Scott Padgett's buzzer-beater Friday night after the Knicks had a shot-clock violation with 10.2 seconds left.

They also lost Monday to Chicago on Ben Gordon's last-second basket, and were outscored 17-2 in the final 4:55 of a 17-point loss Wednesday night in Toronto. Six of their 22 losses have been decided by one or two points.

"The last couple of games you've watched us have some painful steps," Thomas said. "But our team is fighting and will continue to fight."

The Knicks have three games left on their four-game homestand -- Milwaukee, Phoenix and Cleveland -- before hitting the road for a six-game trip that includes stops in Detroit, Sacramento and Phoenix. They will then return home to play Shaquille O'Neal and the Eastern Conference-leading Miami Heat.

A nine-time NBA All-Star in his 15-year playing career with St. Louis, Seattle, Cleveland and Portland, Wilkens and John Wooden are the only Hall of Fame members elected as both a player and coach. And in 1997, Wilkens -- a player-coach for four seasons in Seattle and Portland -- was the only man selected as both one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history and one of the 10 greatest coaches.

Wilkens got his record 939th victory in early 1995 with Atlanta, passing former Boston coach Red Auerbach.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press