A WALK & TALK DOWN MEMORY LANE WITH HISTORY & AL ATTLES
We met in what was a different day and age. Yet, it seems like yesterday. I remember the team arriving … It was amid a lot of excitement back then. It was 1962. Professional basketball was coming to San Francisco and the Bay Area! Meet the NBA … Meet the Warriors … Meet Al Attles.
It was just a few years before, in 1958, Major League Baseball had just successfully moved the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles and the New York Giants to San Francisco, becoming the first two professional baseball teams west of the Mississippi. In 1962, the National Basketball Association (the NBA) followed, and successfully moved the Minneapolis Lakers to Los Angeles and the Philadelphia Warriors to San Francisco, becoming the first two professional basketball teams west of the Mississippi.
It was quite an era here back then. John Kennedy was President, no sign yet of the Beatles (and their concert at Candlestick Park coming just a bit later in 1964) and our San Francisco Giants, in just their 5th year here and playing in what was a “beautiful” new Candlestick Park, were playing the New York Yankees in the World Series. It would be two later, in 1964, San Francisco would host the GOP National Convention here at the San Francisco Cow Palace, starring Barry Goldwater. It would be 23 years later, in 1985, for Super Bowl XIX at the older Stanford Stadium and 54 years later, in 2016, for Super Bowl L to return to the Bay Area. During this time, the 49ers have won 5 Super Bowls, the Giants have won two World Series and the Warriors have won one NBA Championship, in 1975, with Al Attles as the Head Coach.
Fast forward to the present day and it’s the same wonderful Al Attles. The same warm, friendly smile, the same positive endearing energy and the same unforgettable and most recognizable voice. And, now, there’s all this wonderful history, stories and people we can talk about, too. Al is everyone’s best friend and everyone is Al’s best friend. Case in point, to this very day, his North Carolina A&T basketball teammates are all still extremely close. They won championships playing together as a team some 50+ years ago and they still talk with one another, frequently, all the time, and as recently as just yesterday.
In 1960, Al’s rookie year, he didn’t think he’d get beyond the team tryouts. He thought no more than two weeks. Upon graduating from North Carolina A&T, he had already applied for a teaching job, got it and thought, being realistic, he would be heading soon in that direction. 50 years in the NBA? Al would have laughed at the thought of five years, or let alone one.
And, now? Now – Al is very humbly the NBA Patriarch. That’s 55 years, all with the same team – as a player, as a coach and in the Executive Office. He didn’t quite appreciate the term, “NBA Patriarch”. He simply replied, “That just means I’m getting old.”
Al was born and raised in Newark, New Jersey. He went to college at North Carolina A&T. He studied Education, Physical Education and History and graduated in 1960.
In 1960, Al was drafted into the NBA by the Philadelphia Warriors. His father had grown up in Philadelphia and they often spent summer vacations there visiting his father’s sister, Al’s aunt. So when he got drafted by Philadelphia, he was happy. It was like home.
Philadelphia, in those days, was a hub of great basketball. Great basketball players, teams and coaches. The funny thing is, Al thought he wouldn’t make it in the NBA beyond those two weeks. In addition to the teaching job, he had also signed up for a weekend basketball league. How history would have been so very different.
Al said in our conversation, there is so much to be said about timing. He saw how easy it was to be in the right place at the right time, but also at the wrong place at the wrong time. A person’s career can be shaped by that simple fact. He has seen it so many times for others and how for himself it was definitely true – in his case, he was always at the right place at the right time, thanks in great part to his team’s ownership and coaches and all their support.
Al indeed made the team, but shortly thereafter, in 1962, he and his teammates heard this: “Pack up your bags, we’re moving to San Francisco.” Back then, 3,000 miles away from home was a big thing. Looking back, however, according to Al, it turned out to be a great move. Al feels so fortunate to have been in and around the game this long … and to have received all the support that he has had all along.
There is so much beautiful history here talking with Al and going down memory lane. All these years and the various generations of great teams and great players. The game has certainly changed, but in essence, Al hasn’t. Only his clothes, perhaps (no more bell bottoms, not now anyway). But it’s the same warm heart of a champion (an oxymoron, of sorts, when his nickname is “The Destroyer” – you just want to make sure he’s on your team), with a great mind and love for the game, a wonderful sense of humor and laugh … and that voice that is so distinct – truly one in a billion. Indeed, you can be blind and not have to ask who it is.
I asked Al what are some of his proudest moments. He replied: Off the court, it’s his gratitude for his wonderful wife, Wilhemina, and their two children and four grandchildren. It’s also his graduating from college.
On the court, it was his making the Warriors. “I never thought I’d make it”, he said. Mr. Muelli, the Warriors owner, was such an important person in my life. I was so very fortunate and am forever grateful. Also the great relationships that I have been so blessed with over the years, people like Guy Rogers (my roommate with the Warriors and very close friend), Wilt Chamberlain, Nate Thurmond, Paul Arizin, Tom Gola, Tom Meschery, Rick Barry, Jeff Mullins … and many others.”
Also, there was the evening when Wilt went off and scored 100 points. Being facetious, Al said: “We were the two top scorers with a combined 117 points. If you were to divide that by two, I also had one amazing night. Please know, what is important to know, what most people don’t know, is that Wilt wanted to come out earlier in the game, not wanting the 100 points. The most important thing was, that we won the game. But people don’t know Wilt. He was so unselfish and he didn’t want this to appear as if he were. Our Coach, Frank McGuire, wouldn’t take him out … and we were all glad. We believe that is one record that will stand the test of time; that it could happen, but only if the rules were somehow changed.”
And, then, of course, there was winning the NBA Championship in 1975. “What we did, we did as a Team. We were so focused – wanting to win it all for Mr. Meuli – for all that he did, all he went through, to keep the team in the Bay Area.
“It was a great thing. Winning an NBA Championship here had never been done before … or since. That year we were picked to finish last in our division, last in all the league. We wanted to prove the pundits wrong by our play on the court. And then once in the Finals, facing the very tough at-the-time Washington Bullets … they were picked to sweep us … when it was us who would sweep them. The critics were hard on us and we grouped together to face that. Out of all the negativity came all this positivity.
The Opening Game that season, the Lakers beat the Warriors in LA quite convincingly. A sportswriter at the time said it was feudal, that we might as well end the season there. Instead, we proved everyone wrong about us. I was so happy for our Team. It was very exciting. I was especially very happy for Mr. Meuli. He did everything one possibly could for us to be able to stay in the Bay Area. I was happier for him than I was for me.
I asked Al about coaching, was he the first African-American coach in the NBA? Actually, it was Bill Russell; however, he was a player / coach. Al was next and was the first African-American bench coach. He was offered the position of player / coach, too (it was thought to be a smart thing then, to save money, paying the one person to do the two jobs); but, Al turned it down. He realistically felt that he could not be at his best doing both.
Al explained: “The game has much to do with mistakes. The team that makes the fewer mistakes generally wins. As a coach, it is difficult to get on somebody for their mistakes when you yourself are making similar mistakes. Following Bill Russell, Al Attles opened the door and led the way for others. We soon then also saw the likes of Lenny Wilkins, KC Jones and Doc Rivers, all of whom, African-Americans, who were also legendary guards, like Al, all of whom became head coaches and have coached on to win NBA Titles.
In the case of Bill Russell, Al added, with a smile and a chuckle in his voice: When Bill Russell coached, he also had Bill Russell, “the player”, play for him. That was a real good deal.
Al talked about the love and respect they would have not just for the game, but also for each other. “In the 1960’s, Willie Mays got threats. So, too, did Hank Aaron and also Bill Russell. Things were different back then. The Warriors for example had three African-American players and the Celtics, for example, four. We would fly into a town and there was no team bus; instead, we got our own rental cars. We would meet at so-and-so’s home and we enjoyed one another’s company … That is, until we went to the Arena. Then it all quickly changed.”
Wilt Chamberlain would say, “You know, I would pick Bill up at the airport (Bill Russell, his “nemesis” with the arch-rival Boston Celtics). I would bring him to my Home, feed him and host him. We’d always enjoy each other’s company. Then, you know what he’d do, every time. Once at the Arena, it was as if he didn’t know me or any of us, and he’d whip us … badly.
Al has for many years been a visiting Professor at Stanford’s Business School lecturing on sports. Clearly, he is such a big fan and information tank of everyone and everything about basketball, sports and life. About history. He has seen and experienced and been in the center of so much of it.
“If you don’t remember the past,” he would say, “you will be lesser for it.” There have been generations of great players, yes. However, the game and the people have evolved so much. You can’t really compare. Time periods change and so do the levels and strategies of play. You just try to do the best you can. It’s always about the Team, but people today still want to single out and praise the individual.
Al, for sure, has seen his share. He is such a fun and exciting wealth of knowledge, both on and off the court, and unlike any other. Indeed, as he so well knows and would be the first to say: “It’s always about the Team.”
P.S. It was March 2, 1962. Played in Hershey, PA, it was one of the Philadelphia Warriors last games before heading west. The attendance was only 4,124. It was Warriors 169 vs. New York Knicks 147. Two great stats: Wilt was 28 of 32 from the free-throw line (amazing) … and Al was 8 of 8 from the field (couldn’t have been better). The coach perhaps pretended like he did not hear Wilt’s request to be taken out of the game. A good thing, that sound of silence. History was made. Al was definitely in the middle of it … and that is one special moment in time and special record in sports history everyone will always remember.