Today, the only way to climb the coaching ladder is by tediously upgrading from one coaching position to the next. If they’re lucky, by the 10th year of coaching or so, the coach might be able to make it up to the DI level of play. But if the coach doesn’t have the necessary experience playing at the DI level, it’s exponentially more difficult to coach DI basketball.
So how was a coach was able to go straight from a “middle-of-the-pack” DIII school to the NBA? For Dick Helm, this miracle only scratches the surface of his one-of-a-kind story.
From a young age, it was clear that Helm’s future would involve athletics at some level. Growing up in Tuscola, Ill. and playing basketball, track and football, Helm was a star three-sport athlete. Schools offered him scholarships to play any of the three sports at their DI schools. But Helm’s mother wanted him to have a Christian education, and when the field representative for Wheaton College visited his town, his mother offer to foot the bill if he chose to play for the Thunder. Helm agreed, and thanks to his mother, the college had suddenly nailed down one of the most athletic players in Wheaton’s history.
In 1951, legendary Wheaton coach Lee Pfund took over the men’s basketball program just as Helm hit campus. After playing in the fall for the Wheaton football team, Helm spent his free time in the gym to perfect his shot for the upcoming basketball season. And once basketball season ended, Helm traded his basketball sneakers for track spikes as the outdoor track season began.
“There were a couple years when I was too tired to go out for track,” Helm said. “So I came out for one week and then competed in the conference championship.”
On the basketball court, Helm took Wheaton to a 59-31 record and rose to captain for his senior campaign. During his sophomore year, Helm’s team was the first team to go undefeated during conference play. In fact, every Helm-led team succeeded — he won a conference championship with all three of the sports he played.
Take notes, underclassmen — Helm’s only regret from his time at Wheaton was that he didn’t take more Bible classes. Aside from that, Helm’s four years at Wheaton contained many of his favorite memories, including meeting his wife of 59 years, Andrea.
“I was really, really impressed with several faculty members I had for classes,” Helm said. “They were concerned about me as a person and not just as a student. They truly went out of their way for me.”
After graduation, Helm went to Michigan State University to receive his master in https://thewheatonrecord.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/IMG_0048.webpistration and education. He then returned to the Wheaton area and was named the Wheaton North High School athletic director and men’s basketball coach when the school first opened. Helm was at Wheaton North for 14 years before taking a job as the athletic director and basketball coach for a local school, Judson College. After only three years, his original mentor, Lee Pfund, retired from Wheaton and Helm replaced him as the men’s head basketball coach.
Helm led the program from 1975 to 1983, during which he guided the team to 90-112 record, good for fifth in the all-time win category for Wheaton coaches. He felt that God was calling him elsewhere though, and stepped down without a next plan, simply trusting God to provide. As he said, “I knew something was on the horizon.”
He was right. One of his friends recruited him to become a scout for the Seattle Supersonics, an NBA team. Because the pay was so small, he also worked as the assistant coach of the men’s basketball team at North Central College.
Guided by faith, a year-older Helm travelled to the Supersonics facility to present his scouting report. After the meeting, he received a call from the Supersonics explaining that NBA Hall of Fame head coach Lenny Wilkens was impressed and wanted him to become a full-time assistant coach. Caught off guard, Helm said that he nearly slid out of his chair — he was “so surprised.” Helm still has trouble explaining why Wilkens chose him.
“Something just clicked when I met Lenny,” Helm said. “He could have hired anyone in the world because he was so well-known.”
But Wilkens chose Helm, which served as a 16-year ticket to the NBA as an assistant coach for Wilkens with teams like the Seattle Supersonics, Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors and New York Knicks. Helm helped Wilkens coach these teams to the NBA playoffs 11 different times and was also able to sit on the bench for two different All-Star games when Wilkens was selected as the head coach. Helm coached stars like Dell Curry (father of current NBA player Stephen Curry), Mark Price, Spud Webb, Dikembe Mutombo, Vince Carter and Stephon Marbury.
Wilkens said that he couldn’t overstate Helm’s assistance. “Dick helps with the https://thewheatonrecord.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/IMG_0048.webpistrative stuff, getting practice outlined and making sure that I don’t forget something,” Wilkens explained in an interview with nba.com. “He’s like my right hand. I’m good because he helps me be good.”
Looking back on his time in the NBA, it still feels surreal to Helm. For someone who never got the job he applied for, it was quite the improbable route. Incredibly, all of Helm’s coaching jobs came from phone calls from past friends or acquaintances who were reconnecting in order to offer him a job.
“It (the NBA) was the Lord’s doing,” explained Helm. “I told God, ‘I’ll do what you want me to do, but I don’t know what that is so you’ll have to show me.’”
After leaving the NBA for good during the 2004-2005 season, Helm felt God calling him to a different area. True to form, with no plan or foreknowledge, Helm leaned on God to lead him as he joined the foreign missions field.
Now, Helm has been to many different countries including Australia, Brazil, Argentina and all across Europe, including eight trips to Poland. He is about to embark on his next journey as he prepares to travel to Belarus to spread the gospel through his ministry. Afterwards, he will head to Poland for the ninth time to lead an Athletes in Action group. At first, his ministry was centered strictly around basketball, yet as the years have gone by, his speaking skills have matured, similar to the faith of those to whom he has been preaching.
Helm’s journey to the NBA was incredibly unlikely. His record as a head coach at Wheaton was less than .500, yet he was coaching in the highest basketball league in the world only one year after stepping down from the college. Truly, Helm has lived his life with “faith like a mustard seed.” Even though Helm’s legacy far surpassed his time at Wheaton, similar to alumni before and after him, he never forgot his time at the school and its impact on his life.
“Lasting friendships I made with my friends, especially on the athletic teams, were one of my favorite parts of Wheaton,” Helm said. “They still last today.”