That championship team kindled my love affair with the franchise that has endured some 40 years. Through the decades, the same way that all great love affairs survive: through ups and downs and promises made and kept. These are the faces and moments that define my enduring relationship with the Golden State Warriors.
Warriors Aficionado David Barnes Reflects on His Forty Years of Fandom: From Al Attles to Run TMC to “We Believe”
As irritated as I get with the way that Bay Area local radio and television revolves around the Giants, there was once a time when the Dubs had to take a back seat to the Ice Follies (admittedly a bigger draw at the time then the NBA.) Yes, that last championship in 1975, one of the great upsets in NBA history, was won in the home of today’s rodeos and rabbit shows. What we know as Oracle Arena today, then called Oakland Coliseum Arena, wasn’t available in early June of 1975, so the most important NBA games ever played in Northern California at that time, were moved to Daly City’s Cow Palace.
1975: The Surprise Champs
It begins with Al “The Destroyer” Attles. Nattily attired, gruff-voiced and with the demeanor to ensure that he was heard, Attles believed in team-first basketball. He preached defense and rebounding (a harbinger of things to come). Attles became the second African-American coach to win an NBA title, following only Bill Russell.
Though Attles was all about defense, the team wouldn’t have won without one of the most gifted (and self-centered) basketball players of all time, Rick Barry. Barry averaged over 30 points per game that year, but he took a whopping 28 shots to do it. While his game was magnificent, his personality was abrasive and indicative of everything I disliked about sports and in stark contrast to any number of players on that team including my personal favorite, Jamaal Wilkes. Wilkes, nicknamed Silk, had a fluid style. The seemingly effortless way he went about his game can be seen today in Warriors swingman Harrison Barnes. When they talk about “letting the game come to you,” I think of Silk. Always capable of surprises, Wilkes, along with Cliff Ray, George Johnson, Butch Beard made this a true “Oaktown” team – blue collar, tough and reminiscent in their own way of their baseball counterparts who were coming off of three straight World Series titles and five straight division crowns.
Franklin Mieuli, the iconoclastic owner in his trademark deerstalker hat who eventually sold the team in 1986 to Jim Fitzgerald and Dan Finnane (former Milwaukee Bucks owners) who made their own mark on the franchise when they brought in Bucks coach Don Nelson and eventually made him head coach.
Before Don Nelson had an impact as the coach of the Warrior’s, he had an impact on the player that was to become the model for the franchise. Chris Mullin, drafted in 1985 came to the team with long hair, remarkable shot-making ability and a taste for alcohol that was soon to become a problem for both Mully and the team. It was Nelson who, after Mullin reneged on a promise to not drink for 6-months who insisted that his star player went into treatment. The Chris Mullin that emerged from that treatment would become a Hall of Famer and noted gym rat, using basketball as a tool to help him cope with his recovery.
With Mitch Richmond joining the team in 1988 and Hardaway following in 1989, Nellie Ball was off and running. No, the defense was not a strong point or even a priority but there was no team that was more fun to watch. Nelson exploited mismatches, found a way to seemingly ensure that the Warriors were always the ones dictating the pace, and kept things flowing for the players on the floor, creating the environment that exists to this day. The best coaches know when to get out of the way.
The “T” was Tim Hardaway, the floor general with perhaps the ugliest shot in the league. Ugly it might have been but his knuckleball went in often enough to cause problems. Who do you cover and who do you leave open with three deadly scorers? He was also the leader on the floor and tough enough to go at it with anyone in the league including one surprising moment with Karl Malone. Tiny Tim refused to be intimidated.
The “M” was Mitch Richmond, an unabashed slasher and glue guy. Strong and quiet, able to do pretty much anything he set his mind to and in some ways the least replaceable of the trio. Add in a variety of parts that seemed to come from a basketball hardware store, they were a tough team to match up with and a joy to watch.
Finally, the “C” was for Chris Mullin. Mully was silky smooth and while not particularly fleet of foot used a change of speeds to get through traffic no matter how heavy. Defenders were stuck with giving him space to put the ball on the floor or playing him up close to prevent one of the most accurate jump shots in the league and the range to hit from anywhere on the floor.
With Run TMC, no deficit was big enough to overcome and no lead was safe enough to protect. In many ways, this was the perfect regular season team and that in itself was a problem as everything that worked for the first 82 didn’t once the playoffs began. So what to do?
Nellie thought he had the answer. In November of 1991, Richmond was traded to the Sacramento Kings for Billy Owens, another in a long line of young men who would be dubbed the next Magic Johnson. In the regular season, the Warriors won 55 games, mostly by outscoring the competition. The defense was an issue, and became evident in the playoffs. Owens had height and handles but very little else was Magical. Not only did he not lead the Warriors to the promised land but the Warriors were bounced out early in the playoffs in the first round in two of the next three years.
Nelson has said many times that trading Richmond was a bad idea and the dumbest trade he’d ever made. SF Chronicle writer Bruce Jenkins framed the Warriors in a way that many NBA writers would mock today: When it came to the state of the Warriors, Jenkins cautioned that their pursuit of more success in the playoffs would cost the team what it had in spades – fantastically exciting basketball. The sort of fun that in many ways created the fan base that they still enjoy (myself included) and one that would endure the lean years ahead.