It’s been 25 years now but I remember it like it was yesterday.
In the annals of the NBA it remains the greatest upset ever and perhaps in the history of North American professional sports as well. The Golden State Warriors of 1974-75 came out of nowhere to win the NBA championship with an incredible 4-0 sweep of the mighty Washington Bullets in the NBA Finals and leave many a sporting fan to ask, “Who are these guys?”
That magical run to the NBA title by the Warriors had a profound impact on at least one 13-year-old boy growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I know that for sure. It was the catalyst for my interest in basketball and the NBA, and I was fortunate enough to go on to be a ball boy for the Warriors in high school and later work in the league as well. It was a horrible time in America. In the wake of Watergate, the Vietnam War and the Oil Crisis, the country was in a bad way. But one group of 13 men and a great coach brought a lot of joy to Northern California and a respite from all the problems of the day. They were the definition of the word “team.”
Al Attles was that coach, and looking back on the 25th anniversary of his team’s amazing achievement, he recalled in a recent telephone interview with The Japan Times how it all came to be. Attles, who has been a player, coach and executive for the franchise, just completed his 40th consecutive season with the team and is now a vice president.
“It wasn’t a team anybody expected much of,” Attles says in reflection. “In fact, the prognosticators picked us to be last in the division and maybe last in the league. That’s why the team was so special. They never allowed anyone to deter them from where they were trying to go. That’s kind of unheard of in sports because a lot of times people buy into what is said about you.”
Led by future Hall of Famer Rick Barry and rookie Keith Wilkes, the rest of the Warriors were comprised of names that many NBA fans of today have probably never heard of. Clifford Ray, Butch Beard, Charles Johnson, Phil Smith, George Johnson, Jeff Mullins, Derrek Dickey, Charles Dudley, Bill Bridges, Steve Bracey and Frank Kendrick. Coming off a 44-38 season the year before, the Warriors improved their regular season record to 48-34 and won the Pacific Division by five games. They faced the Seattle SuperSonics in the Western Conference semifinals and beat them in six games.
Next up were the rough and tumble Chicago Bulls in the Western Conference finals. After falling behind the Bulls 3-2 with Game 6 in Chicago, the Warriors had been written off by just about everyone, but dug down deep and came up with an 86-72 victory.
Attles says that although people still remember the win over the Bullets in the finals, it was the Game 7 victory over the Bulls in Oakland that was the real accomplishment.
“A lot of people get caught up in the fact that we won it in four straight, but I think the biggest single game in the history of the Warriors had to be Game 7 against Chicago at the Coliseum.
“We were down 3-2 going back to Chicago and for all intents and purposes, we were on vacation. We got behind early — nine points in the first quarter — and then found a way to come back and win it. Then we come back home and got behind 16 points in the first quarter,” Attles recalls with a laugh, “and come back and win that one (83-79).”
To illustrate how much times have changed in the NBA, I can vividly recall following the play-by-play of both those games — on the radio. One of the defining memories of the Warriors that season was their maddening tendency to fall behind early in games — often double-digit deficits — and then stage incredible comebacks to win.
“It wasn’t intentional. I think you could blame that on the coach,” Attles says with a chuckle. “The substitution pattern that year might have contributed to that. That year we played everybody on the team. We defeated teams with numbers a lot of times. Other teams would get ahead of us and stay with the same people, then all of a sudden we would bring in a fresh group of guys who would come out and wear them down, and you look up and we were back in the game.
“They were called the Cardiac Kids. I remember one night we were playing at the Coliseum and we got behind and I called a timeout and a fan walked by the bench and said, “Al, don’t worry. You got ‘em right where you want ‘em.’ ” It was rare indeed for a team to play all 12 players, but Attles did it, and very adeptly. The offense revolved around Barry, who averaged 30.6 points per game, with Wilkes, who was the NBA Rookie of the Year that season, the second-highest scorer on the team at 14.2 points a game. The team had great role players, with Ray and George Johnson splitting time at center, and Beard, Charles Johnson, Smith and Dudley rotating at guard.
After getting past the Bulls, the thought of taking on the Bullets, who won the Central Division with a 60-22 record and had just beaten the defending champion Boston Celtics in a tough six-game series in the Eastern Conference finals, was daunting. Led by future Hall of Famers Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld, the experts were predicting a sweep in the series by the Bullets.
But Attles says a simple quirk of fate may have helped the Warriors overcome the powerful Bullets. The Oakland Coliseum was unavailable to host the two home games for the Warriors because there was a recreational vehicle show being held there. This led to a 1-2-1 format for the first four scheduled games, with the Bullets hosting the first game, the Warriors the next two, and Washington the fourth.
“We had to play our two home games in the finals at the Cow Palace (in Daly City — just outside San Francisco) because the people at the Coliseum had to make out the schedule way in advance and they figured because we didn’t make the playoffs the year before, what were the chances we were going to be in the finals the next year?
“It turns out that this decision might have been as important as the games that we played, because it was new to everybody. Some of our players had played in the Cow Palace before — but not all of them — but many of the Bullets were not familiar with it.”
After the Warriors won the first game 101-95 on the road, they eked out a 92-91 victory at home in Game 2 and won convincingly 109-101 in Game 3 to bring themselves to the brink of the unimaginable.
“I told the players when we were up 3-0 that if they won one more game they would do something that no one thought they could do, but more importantly, no one could ever take away from them,” Attles recalls. “So that was why that was a special team, because the players really believed in themselves and rallied around each other.”
Finding their backs to the wall, the Bullets tried one last desperate measure to get back into the series. They tried to get Barry — who was known for his legendary temper — into a fight and thrown out of Game 4.
But Attles, who at that point had been a player and coach in the NBA for 15 years, knew what was coming and was ready for it.
The hatchet man of the Bullets that season was forward Mike Riordan, and he tried to take Barry out in the first minute of Game 4.
“When the ball went up I saw Mike come across and hit Rick, and then after they missed the first shot, as we came back up court, he went along the sideline and hit Rick with another elbow,” Attles remembers.
By the time Riordan tried to hit Barry with a third blow, Attles rushed off the bench and went after Riordan with fists flying, trying to keep him away from Barry, who Attles knew had to stay in the game for the Warriors to complete their storybook tale.
As a result, Attles became the only coach in NBA history to get thrown out of the game in which his team won the championship. Amazingly, he was the only person ejected; Riordan was allowed to stay in the game.
“I found out later it was all planned. When you have the best record in the league, like Washington did that year after winning 60 games, they might have thought it was going to be easy. Now they are playing this upstart team, and instead of being up 3-0 they were down 3-0, and I think they started to panic and said, ‘What do we have to do? We’ve got to get their best player out of the game.’ “
With Attles watching from the locker room on television, the Warriors battled to a 96-95 victory and the championship.
Attles says that the Warriors succeeded by persevering and never allowing jealousy — a real problem in the league now — to disrupt the team.
“The team never gave up. You always talk about trust and belief in each other and I don’t think there was every a better example of it than that team. They really, really got along well. Rick was the main star. The players never got jealous of him. They just came to work every day.”
The success of the Warriors that season was no fluke, as they had the best record in the NBA the following season (59-23) and nearly made it back to the finals before losing to the Phoenix Suns in seven games in the Western Conference finals.
“We were able to do something nobody thought we could do,” says Attles. “That is the beauty of the sport. Everybody has a common goal. You are trying to get to a certain place. When it all works you can always reflect back on it, but you can’t do it for long because the next year we had a much better team and we didn’t make it back.”