The Clippers were blindsided on the coaching front for the second time in less than two weeks Tuesday, when Lenny Wilkens had a sudden change of heart and signed with the Atlanta Hawks.
Wilkens was the Clippers’ top choice to replace Larry Brown, who surprised management by resigning May 13. They also believed they were Wilkens’ top choice.
So why the dramatic switch?
Maybe Magic Johnson.
Not that the Clippers will hire Johnson as coach, even though he is talking in several major media outlets about the Clippers’ being interested in him.
They are not. But, according to several people close to the situation, Johnson’s comments to the New York Times and NBC that Clipper players told him General Manager Elgin Baylor wanted to set up an interview led Wilkens to sense that the feeling he had for his potential new team was not mutual. So, with Atlanta continuing to make a push, the second-winningest coach in NBA history told his agent to get the Hawks’ deal done.
Privately, the Clippers are shocked and almost furious that, in their minds, apparently false reports went a long way in costing them their No. 1 candidate to replace Brown. They had said all along that Johnson was not a candidate, even as Newsday reported Tuesday that his agent, Lon Rosen, had a meeting scheduled with owner Donald T. Sterling to discuss the coaching vacancy.
Rosen flatly denied that. He said that he and Johnson approached Sterling several times about buying full or partial ownership of the Clippers, once as recently as last week, but were told no each time. And, Rosen said, Johnson had no desire to be on the sidelines if the deal did not include some percentage of the team, similar to the arrangement Don Nelson has at Golden State.
“If Donald did want to speak with Earvin about coaching the Clippers, if ownership was involved, that is the only way,” Rosen said.
Wilkens interviewed with the Hawks shortly before coming to Los Angeles to meet with the Clippers last Wednesday and Thursday morning. He then returned home to Ohio.
When the Clippers made a follow-up call Friday, Wilkens is believed to have indicated he wanted to be Brown’s replacement and that he would tell Atlanta officials to turn their efforts elsewhere.
It seemed that getting Wilkins, who could pass Red Auerbach as the NBA’s winningest coach as early 1994-95, was a matter of ironing out contract details. According to Clipper officials, both sides agreed to enjoy the three-day holiday and then get down to the negotiations--an indication, they said, that minds had been made up.
Then came the weekend, and everything changed. Why Wilkens did not call the Clippers when he became concerned about the Johnson talk is not known. Likewise, why did Baylor not call Wilkens to assure him there was no change of heart on the Clippers’ end?
Monday night, the story broke that Wilkens would sign with the Hawks, who had been turned down by Rick Pitino, Nolan Richardson and Doug Collins. Tuesday, it became official.
“We are absolutely thrilled to have a man of Lenny’s class and credentials join our franchise,” Stan Kasten, Atlanta’s president, said at a news conference. “We have the utmost confidence that he is the perfect man to lead us to great heights in the future. We weren’t looking for a coach to come in here and just get a last paycheck. He’s into long-term success here.”
So, what next for the Clippers, suddenly confronted with a second unexpected coaching search?
Putting the past behind them.
“It’s over and done with,” Baylor said. “There’s nothing anybody can do about it. To go back and reflect on it, that just doesn’t serve any purpose.
“It’s not going to help the situation. It’s not going to change. We just have to go forward.”
That will include interviews in Los Angeles with at least one candidate--perhaps Mike Fratello--later this week. Del Harris is still a possibility, as is Gene Littles.
Brown also is working on the future. He met with Indiana Pacer officials Tuesday to discuss a coaching job that would reunite him with Pacer President Donnie Walsh, a longtime friend.