TORONTO — Twice enshrined Lenny Wilkens probably has no idea how close he came to being deported from Toronto less than two weeks ago. Yet, surely the Hall of Fame player and coach, the NBA’s all-time winningest (1278) and runnerup losingest (10 behind Bill Fitch at 1106) coach, knows his history-making career is raggedly reaching its finale.
According to a Raptors operative, Wilkens survived a split decision by management multi-entities during a meeting to discuss whether to fire him a day or two after his team lost its 11th straight game on Jan. 6 in Detroit.
Certainly everyone understands Lenny has a valid excuse for not being competitive this season, the nameless face acknowledges, referring to protracted injuries to three-fifths (Vince Carter, Antonio Davis and Lamond Murray) of Toronto’s early-season projected starting lineup.
But some of the people in power are greatly influenced by the media up here. In all candor, Lenny has been aloof, unaccommodating and tedious from the instant he arrived.
Naturally, you can get away with that when you are winning. As his losses have mounted so has the criticism and it has been very personal.
Nevertheless, Wilkens survived. Following another setback, the Raptors snapped the streak at 12. They are 2-2 in their last four games for whatever that’s worth. You don’t need a trusted informant to know Lenny is living on leased time.
Had those in control fired him 10 days ago, assistant Craig Neal would have replaced him for the remainder of the season. That could still happen in short order.
But even should Wilkens somehow slip the noose for the full schedule, have no doubt he will be dismissed at the end of the season and paid the $5 million he is owed for next season, my enlightened appraiser bluntly admits. Jeff Van Gundy, he further conceded, figures to be Toronto’s prime recruit.
Again, you don’t need an educated source to know, when (not if) Wilkens is whacked, his seemingly endless supply of clueless suitors for his services will be enduringly exhausted.
One billion Chinese, give or take a hundred million or so, are out shopping this week for Steve Francis jerseys. Hey, if I were in Shanghai, you and Pete Rose can bet that’s what I would be doing.
After crushing Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher and the ghost of Gail Goodrich for a career-high 44 points and 11 assists in Houston’s OT victory over the Lakers last week, Francis is now being hailed as Stevie FarEast.
You couldn’t have script-written more drama for the first command performance co-starring Shaq and Yao. OK, so Francis stole their show and often stepped on, as well as played above, their lines.
Still, Shaq, when allowed by his teammates to touch the ball, was staggering. He inventoried 31 points, including a primetime posterization of the Ming Dynasty, and collected 13 rebounds after an awfully humbling start.
Meanwhile, Yao only occasionally appeared to be outmatched, commencing and ending in a heated rush by invalidating Shaq’s first three shots and recording the game’s decisive basket on a dunk off a brilliant feed by Francis. In between, Houston’s 229-cm aristocrat accumulated 10 points, 10 boards and three additional blocks.
In spite of going 1-5 on their just-concluded home stand and 1-7 prior to their game with the Wizards, things are looking up for the Sixers.
Because Stanley Roberts (Shaq’s college teammate at LSU) has been reinstated following a three-year exile for substance abuse and his rotund rights still belong to Philly.
Far be it from me to suggest Roberts is a bit portly, but during his brief stint with the 76ers, John Croce needed a second pair of hands to go through his pants pockets.
Peter Vecsey covers the NBA for the New York Post.
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