When I look back on the old days of basketball, the time before expansion and $100,000 contracts and big, bright arenas, I always think first of Syracuse. I was there longer than anywhere else, as both a player and coach. It was one of the smallest towns in the league, the fans were friends, the players were always congenial. We all had a deep, abiding interest in the game and in each other. I remember Johnny Kerr and his wife would throw a big Christmas party every year, and there wasn't a player who didn't want to come. We were all happy with management, because that was Danny Biasone, who was one of the greatest sportsmen and innovators in the game.
But while Syracuse was special, it was not unique. In the early days of the NBA we were all very close. It could be rough—I mean, it was really a great deal rougher then—but you would go out after the game and drink beer with the same guy you had battered all night. Charlie Share at St. Louis gave me worse beatings in practice than I got in games. We called Charlie "Lovable." He took enormous pleasure in setting tough blind screens. But he had a lot of company in that sort of thing.
Travel was more communal, too, in cars or trains. Believe me, you can get pretty close to each other when you're driving over icy roads, four or five of you crammed in together, your legs draped all over each other. At Oshkosh, Wis. the only trips we took by train all year were to the big faraway cities, Denver and Syracuse. The worst trip we had was to Waterloo, Iowa for a Sunday afternoon game after playing Saturday night in Oshkosh. We seemed to run into a blizzard every time we made the trip. We would drive through the snow till 3 or 4 in the morning, stop somewhere for a few hours and then go on. Often, the schedule was so tight that we had to dress in the car. Believe me, that was gamy.
At home in Oshkosh we played in the gym of the South Park Junior High, capacity 2,200. When we had our preseason training camp, we had to be in the gym at 6 sharp in the morning so we could get in a couple of hours and be off the floor by the time the kids came to school at 8. It was even harder on the rookies, because everyone tested you right away, first your own teammates in camp, then your opponents in the exhibitions. My teammates worked me over pretty good, especially a former league scoring champion named LeRoy (Cowboy) Edwards. LeRoy had been around a long time and knew all the tricks. He also knew that Lonnie Darling, our coach—and the business manager and the publicity man and so on—had a thing about making the first basket in a game. Although he could hardly get off the ground, LeRoy jumped center and he never failed to get the tap that set up the first basket—as long as Lonnie slipped him a five in the locker room before the game.
November 25, 1968
I do not want to leave the impression that rookies today get the red-carpet treatment. I know of two cases, one quite recent, where potentially excellent players were busted psychologically because they could not take the rough treatment dealt out to rookies. I know that if my players won't test a rookie, I, as the coach, will. I want to find out what they can take. Two years ago Matt Guokas came in as the 76ers' first choice. He was all suntanned, his feet soft from lying on the South Jersey shore all summer, and I about ran him into the ground the first two days. But he took it. I don't know who Matt could beat in a fight, as skinny as he is, but I found out quickly that he wouldn't back off from anyone.
Of all the rookies I ever saw break in, Rick Barry was the most special. It was something to remember, that first day as a Warrior, when he scrimmaged against Tom Meschery, whom we called "The Mad Manchurian." After a while they were just going one-on-one, at and over each other and ignoring everyone else. I was refereeing and I let a Barry basket go on a dubious play, but then I whistled a charging foul on Meschery when he came through Barry like the Normandy invasion. Meschery went into a rage. It was so bad I had to rearrange things so they were no longer guarding each other. But as soon as Tom got the ball again, Barry left his new man, picked Meschery up and stole the ball as he blocked the shot. Meschery was so enraged I had to call off the whole practice.
Half an hour later, calmed down and getting dressed, Tom couldn't contain his enthusiasm. "Hey, Alex," he said, "that Barry's going to be a great one." The pride for the new kid was all over his face. That was the way it used to be when you made it as a rookie. You were accepted—and, more than that, you were looked after.
Maybe the toughest guy I ever saw in the game was Al Cervi, the little player-coach of mine at Syracuse. Cervi came off the streets of Buffalo and never went to college. He was controversial and did not have the respect of all his players, but he was called "The Digger" and that's what he was. I saw Al back down only once. It was my first year in Syracuse, when a tough rookie guard named Leroy Chollet, in from Buffalo like Cervi, joined the team. Cervi did not use Chollet much, and Chollet did not agree with this appraisal of his talents. In fact, he did not agree with much of anything Al did.
Near the end of the season we clinched the division title on the road. Before the next game Cervi and Chollet got into one of their regular arguments. Among other things, Leroy told Al he would make a better coach. "All right," Cervi said. "Tonight's game, you're the coach."
Cervi would always end every pre-game speech by announcing the lineup. "All right," he'd say, "we'll start Peterson at center, Ratkovicz and Schayes, Gabor...." Then a pause, as if he was really mulling his fifth choice over, followed by: "annnd Cervi." He would snap his own name off quickly, then lead us onto the floor.
When Chollet took over that night, he imitated Cervi perfectly, naming the lineup (mostly his buddies, not the regulars) and then finishing up: "annnd Chollet." Cervi was boiling inside, but I've got to give it to him, he didn't go back on his word. We won the game, too, and as a final insult Chollet did not send Cervi in until the last 30 seconds or so—about the usual time Cervi sent in Leroy.
Afterward, Leroy got to thinking about his accomplishments of the evening. He stormed back to the hotel and up to Al's room, where he told him point-blank he was going to beat him up and throw him out the window. Cervi stared back at Chollet, tensed for a moment but at last moved away as some of us came between them. Al knew that if he lost, Leroy was going to toss him out the window.
Cervi's hands were in a constant state of motion and repair, because his advice to his players—which he followed in the extreme—was to use your hands at all times on the court. You got to be hitting someone. His other major exhortation was for us to play what I, a fancy college man, had always known as backboards. To Cervi they were bangboards. "Hit the bangboards, hit the bangboards, hit the bangboards," he would scream at us.
Sometimes, in the old Coliseum in Syracuse, that was not so easy to manage, since the fans would jiggle the guy wires and shake the bangboards back and forth. The place was also so smoky you often had real trouble seeing through the haze. Opponents were not helped either by the fact that someone would change the lights at halftime, so that there was always a bright light shining in a visitor's face when he was shooting free throws. A fan called, appropriately, "The Strangler" sat behind the opponent's bench and could be reliably counted on to start squeezing the life out of a visitor in the event of a fight. Bob Cousy missed so many games in town we used to say he was coming down with "the Syracuse flu." The fact is, nobody, nobody wanted to play in Syracuse. We were 36-2 at home that first year I was there, 1949-50.
I may be foolishly nostalgic but I miss the trains. We would climb on them at night. Usually the owner had gone out to a good delicatessen and bought a bunch of sandwiches for us, because the diner would be closed by the time we got on. Besides, with $5 a day in meal money, we couldn't afford diners. With the sandwiches it was all a big picnic, and we played cards and talked the game into the night. Sadly, that kind of camaraderie is gone now from the pros, a victim of progress.
The shortest train trip from either Syracuse or Rochester was five hours, on the Empire State to New York City. That's just about the same time as the longest air trip now, yet we still hear all the talk about how debilitating travel is for the modern players. Don't tell me it's harder flying five hours across the country than it is going five hours on a train from Syracuse to New York.
Oh, this really tells it. When I was coaching the Warriors, a rookie showed up in his new car at the airport and turned the car over to valet parking, because the Warriors paid the bills. He sat in his assigned seat, a pretty girl handed him a magazine, the movie went on and then it was time for a steak dinner. I'll never forget, the kid took one look at the tray and frowned. "Look at that," he said. "The potatoes are overdone." I wanted to throw him off the plane.
Travel is one of the two factors that have most affected the pro game. Airplanes are just not conducive to group interaction, although I did notice last year that when we chartered flights for the 76ers some of the old train atmosphere reappeared.
The other factor is the entrance of Negroes into the game. No matter how friendly whites and blacks may be on the court, they usually go off in different directions after the game. It is more difficult now to get everyone together to relax and laugh. The two years I was with the 76ers, we had two great Halloween costume parties for just the players and their wives. The Hal Greers gave the first one, and last year Chamberlain was the host at his apartment. But you have to struggle to get this sort of team gathering. Last year, when we traveled to the Coast, I wanted to have a team dinner, just us—laughs and shop-talk. I had to order two of the players to come, declaring that it was an official club function. You defeat the whole purpose of a gathering when you have to do that.
At least indirectly, this dissipation of team unity has adversely affected my coaching, because unlike most professional coaches who try to remain aloof from their players, I want to stay friendly and sociable with mine. I want to go out and laugh and drink and argue with them after a game.
I acknowledge that a coach must maintain stature and respect, and certainly it is easier to manage this if you isolate yourself and don't get personally involved with your players. But I could never do it that way. I think it is a greater challenge and a deeper reward if you can mix with your players and still retain your stature.
If anything, this closeness of coach and player has become even more important since race entered the picture. It is my feeling that bigotry is founded on a lack of understanding and knowledge of the other race. If you know about something or someone, then you are not liable to be afraid. I think that I have very little fear, and, therefore, very little prejudice. But I've seen prejudice run wild at me during a riot and I lost my understanding very quickly in return—so I know.
That was extreme, of course. My main concern in basketball is that my players know each other and know me. I want them to understand exactly what I am like, how dedicated I am, what my motives are, what I am out to accomplish. If I can help my players know that, then I don't have to waste a lot of our time trying to baloney them into thinking I am some kind of genius. It comes to this: if they can understand me, they can trust me and they can like me.
My only criterion for any player is: can he help the team, can he get along with it? I do not care how many whites or blacks I have on the team, but how many grunts. You'll never have a good team if you are top-heavy with grunts. A grunt is a word we use in the construction business in California to describe a man who will do exactly what he is told and no more. He either waits for new orders or makes the one job last all day.
Grunts don't make suggestions. In fact, I never coached a good player who was a grunt. The good ones are forever involved, forever thinking, even if you don't always agree with their schemes—and I demand that the coach retain a veto power. Still, the interest that players show in a game or practice can never replace the all-day commitment that we had to the game in the old days. There was no aspect of the game we did not discuss. Bob Pettit and I, for instance, used to speculate on freak plays and wild impossibilities, and because of this almost managed to bring the championship to St. Louis in the last second of the final 1957 playoff game in Boston.
Our scheme went back to when I was playing at Rochester with Bobby Davies. A marvelous athlete with a fine baseball throwing arm, Davies could stand out of bounds at one end of the court and hit the backboard with a basketball at the other end 49 times out of 50. This was not an idle talent either, because it could theoretically be put to use if your team needed a quick basket and had the full length of the court to go for it. The clock does not start until the ball touches a player in bounds, so if you could throw the ball the length of the court and ricochet it off the backboard, your man could get the ball right in front of the basket with time to shoot. The opposition, looking for a direct pass, would surely be caught unprepared.
St. Louis was a young and improving club in 1957, and, while we were lucky to have reached the final playoffs, there we were, making the Celtics work against us, right down to the seventh game. We wouldn't quit. Jack McMahon and Slater Martin held Cousy and Bill Sharman to seven points in the first half and 21 for the whole game, and Boston couldn't get away from us. It was 103-103 after four quarters and 113-all at the end of the first overtime.
Easy Ed Macauley, my center, fouled out with 3:35 left in the next overtime. Everybody was fouling out by then, and all I had left on the bench was me and Irv Bemoras, who was 6'3". I had to go with height, so I put myself in. It was to be my last game. Boston held onto a slim lead and got a break near the end when I thought the Celtics should have been called for flagrant goaltending. I missed a good shot myself, but down 124-123 with one second left I managed to foul Jim Loscutoff. He made the free throw—125-123—and I mumbled to Pettit to get down the court and watch the backboard. Even though I hadn't practiced it, I threw a line drive that luckily was true. Unluckily, it came off the backboard like a rocket. Pettit caught the ball a few feet from the basket, but it was going so fast that he could not gain full control as he desperately pushed it toward the basket. As it was, that ball rolled around the rim for what seemed an eternity before finally flopping off tothe side and beating us.
The next season, '57-58, we came back to win the championship from Boston—which was to be the only time the Celtics were to lose until we beat them again at Philadelphia in 1967. According to some recent accounts, our '58 championship was tainted because Bill Russell was injured. The way the story has been told lately, it has begun to sound as if Russell wasn't even in the country when we won. The truth is that he was not hurt until the third game, when we were already well on the way to our second win. And the Celtics won the next game without him. In fact, only in the fifth game, which we won, did Boston feel Russell's loss. Certainly, he was hurting in the last game and only played about half of it, but I don't think anything would have stopped Pettit from bringing us to victory that night. He scored 50 points—which is the only time that any player has ever scored that many in the deciding game of a championship series.
Pettit was a coach's joy all the time. He was hardworking and organized, and, even when I played with him at Milwaukee in his rookie season, it was obvious that he was destined for success. Pettit played things straight down the line. He would not, for instance, allow himself to get very emotional about who was coaching, which was particularly sage at St. Louis since Kerner kept bringing in new coaches all the time. But Kerner and Pettit were good for each other, and Ben knew it. That very first year at Milwaukee, he took three of our league games into Louisiana so he could show off Bob before his home folks, even though he knew this would cause problems. We had Chuck Cooper on our team. This was 1954 and Chuck was a Negro. I roomed a lot with Chuck that year, which kind of amuses me when I read nowadays that teams in other professional sports are suggesting that they are making such great strides by rooming whites and Negroes together for the first time. As far as I know,we have been doing that without much fuss in basketball since Chuck came into the NBA in 1950.
The next year, when he moved the franchise to St. Louis, Kerner was told he was going to a graveyard sports city, and I think it was already part of his thinking that he was just getting Pettit closer to home in Baton Rouge. Bob was definitely aware that St. Louis was better than Milwaukee for him. He always planned to go back home after he finished playing, and it was very important to him that the Hawks' games were on KMOX, a 50,000-watt station that reached into Louisiana. When the time was right, Bob quit the game, got married and went home to Baton Rouge to be successful, just as he had always planned.
Pettit was an All-Star from the first, but Cliff Hagan had a much more trying start. He had spent two years out of college in the Army while Pettit was in the league, and in the next year Kerner picked me up from Fort Wayne, probably because Hagan, who was only 6'4", wasn't working out up front. At just about the time they made me coach, they were also in the process of trying to convert Cliff into a backcourt man. I told Ben it was out of the question. I had scrimmaged against Cliff, and it seemed to me he just didn't have the talents of a guard. He had definitely lost his confidence playing the position. The first thing I did was tell him that he would never be in the backcourt again.
What I usually tried to do was get myself into the game with Cliff. I could vacate the pivot, draw my man out and we could then splash Cliff down into the pivot and get him the ball inside. I was good at this. I couldn't do much with the ball itself but I could get it to someone who could.
Cliff was beginning to pick up confidence, when all of a sudden Kerner told me he was ready to trade him. I urged Ben to hold off, and he did for a few days, but then one night Hagan did something wrong in a game, we lost, and when I met Kerner the next day all he could say to me was, "Hagan's stealing from me."
He had already made a deal, Hagan for Dick Schnittker of Minneapolis, straight up. I pleaded with him not to go through with it, invoking team spirit, a winning combination and everything else. At last, reluctantly, Ben agreed not to make the trade. Schnittker played one more year in the league. Hagan retired from the Hawks nearly a decade later. At the time he was the ninth leading scorer in NBA history.
It is not fair, though, for me to single out Ben for a bad early judgment. Everybody in basketball has guessed wrong on some of the best players. You could fill a room with the guys who told Red Auerbach that K. C. Jones wouldn't make it. I saw that great Ohio State team play and, while I liked Jerry Lucas right away and thought Larry Siegfried would make a fine pro guard, John Havlicek struck me as merely a good athlete who did what he was told and played defense. Right after we drafted Rick Barry, Franklin Mieuli tried to trade him to Los Angeles for Gail Goodrich.
I can match that myself. I tried to trade Nate Thurmond when he was a rookie and now I think Nate may be the most valuable piece of property in basketball. At that time, though, he was just a big center playing out of position at forward. He didn't like it in the corner and saw no future for himself as long as Chamberlain was there. At one point early in the next season Nate actually quit basketball because he was so disappointed. I spent almost a whole day with him, convincing him to stay in the game.
By then I sensed what a great player he was, but the season before Eddie Gottlieb and I had actually closed a deal for Thurmond, trading him to Detroit for Bailey Howell and Don Ohl. Then Charley Wolf, the Pistons' coach, and Fred Zollner, the owner, asked for a little more time to think it over. They left and never came back. One of them had second thoughts, but I never found out which one. They traded Ohl and Howell to Baltimore for Terry Dischinger and Rod Thorn at the end of the season, and Detroit is still looking for a first-rate center.
That's a funny thing about trading. Once you talk seriously about trading a player, even if it falls through, you are now more prone to trade the guy to someone else. It just seems that he should be traded. If you can catch a team on the rebound, after a trade collapses, it is often most vulnerable. I think you make the perfect trade when you obtain a player who fits in with your team, while the one you give up in return may be technically better but at his peak and more valuable strictly as a property than as a team player. I have encountered one pure case where this was all in evidence. It came in late November 1965. The player was Guy Rodgers.
Chamberlain was gone from the Warriors by now. Thurmond was in the middle, Barry, a rookie, was already lighting sparks in the starting lineup and the Warriors were starting to come on again after the disastrous previous season. We still lacked the one thing I never had at San Francisco—dangerous outside shooting. Rodgers was our leading guard, an All-Star, the only guard ever to make more assists than Oscar Robertson, but with Wilt no longer in the middle I could see that Rodgers' many talents were not well suited for the new Warriors.
Then, to really accent the situation, Rodgers had to take over everything in the backcourt when two injuries almost crippled us. Suddenly, for a guy who had never been a good shot, he not only started shooting but he went on a spree of better than 35 points a game, way over what he had ever done before. He always was an exciting ballplayer. San Francisco now idolized him.
We returned from a road trip, and I walked in to see Bob Feerick, the general manager. "Bob," I began, "you know how we've often talked about when was the best time to trade a ballplayer?" He nodded. "Well," I said, "I think we ought to trade Rodgers now." I remember Bob's mouth flew open and he dropped his pencil.
Mieuli called me in two days later. He began by assuring me that he was only the owner, knew nothing of basketball and made it a policy never to interfere with a coach's decisions concerning basketball. But what the hell, trade Guy Rodgers? No way.
I persisted, though, and we talked for about two hours as I kept explaining that it was simply the best chance we would probably ever have to trade a ballplayer at his highest market value for someone who had qualities we especially needed.
"All right, just out of curiosity, who do you think we could get?" Franklin asked me.
"Look," I said. "I don't know the full price we could get for Guy if we got lucky, but I'll tell you a player I know we can get and I'd be satisfied with him even though the Lakers aren't even playing him now. I'd settle for Jimmy King today, straight up. He'd work in well with this team and he can shoot."
Mieuli nodded but he still made it plain he wouldn't trade Guy, so there wasn't anything more said for the rest of the season. We finished a game out of the playoffs after Nate got hurt. Then Mieuli fired me. And then Chicago came into the league and took Jimmy King in the expansion draft.
Mieuli started getting very chummy right away with Dick Klein, the Chicago general manager, and bingo—Johnny Kerr and Al Bianchi, the Chicago coaches, were standing out on the practice court one day in September when Klein walked out and said, "I got you Guy Rodgers."
"For who?" asked Kerr.
"Jimmy King and Jeff Mullins."
Kerr said, "No."
Bianchi said, "Arghhh." Or something like that.
"You've got to go back and tell them it's no deal," said Kerr.
Klein did just that, but Mieuli got tough and told Klein he'd make sure that Klein never made another deal with anyone in the NBA.
Klein took the bluff and the deal went through. As it turned out, it was a good trade for Chicago, and both Kerr and Bianchi almost immediately saw how a veteran leader and ball handler of Rodgers' talents could help their young team. It made the Bulls a draw that year too. Last year, though, Rodgers was dealt to Cincinnati, while King went on to make the All-Star team for the Warriors, and Mullins is now averaging almost 20 points a game. Both of them are several years younger than Guy.
The man I did not want traded was Wilt. But Mieuli's mind was made up. We were flying to the All-Star Game in St. Louis, and he told me point-blank: "He'll be traded before I go home." And he was. Philadelphia raked Mieuli over the coals getting Wilt. At least if he had waited till the off season, I think he could have made a better deal.
I don't know how much money, if any, was involved, but, any way you look at it, the Warriors didn't get enough in return. I just hated to give up such a great ballplayer so quickly, so arbitrarily. Besides, I like Wilt. We had our words at San Francisco and Philadelphia and once we almost came to blows, but we always got along.
Incidentally, I do not subscribe to the theory that I was the only coach who could ever "handle" Wilt. Wilt will accept coaching and he has tried, in his way, to cooperate with every coach he has ever had. What are usually forgotten are the circumstances. Until I happened to come along, Wilt had, since high school, been coached by a series of men who were all virtually without experience. At Kansas, Dick Harp had never held a major-college post before. Another rookie coach, Neil Johnston, had Wilt in his first year at Philadelphia. Frank McGuire succeeded Johnston and, although Frank had been a fine college coach, he had never had a pro job. McGuire wanted scoring records that year, and Wilt went out and averaged 50.4. In the playoffs McGuire asked for more balanced team scoring, and Chamberlain responded agreeably, going over 40 points in only three of 12 playoff games to help bring the Philadelphia team to within a bounce of the ball of beating the Celtics.
Then Wilt and the Warriors moved to San Francisco, where Bob Feerick—who previously had coached only one year in the pros, and that 12 years before—was named the new coach. Like Dolph Schayes, who had Wilt later on the 76ers, Feerick has only one fault: he is too nice. And Wilt is complex. He tends to respond to the situation, and you have to prepare for that. For one thing, he is reliably impossible in the morning. On the 76ers, Hal Greer was the same way. We called him "Bulldog." Wilt and Greer—the two worst guys in the world in the morning. If I possibly could, I just stayed away from both until after lunch.
Wilt can go through great moods of rejection, where he will be bitter and very nearly mean. But his natural disposition is to be warm and friendly. There have been several times when I saw him start to make a dunk and then suddenly withdraw the shot or just drop the ball easily because he saw some defender's hand in the way. He knew that if he carried the dunk through he was liable to seriously injure the other player. Once I told Wilt: "You know, maybe if you came down once and maybe broke somebody's finger, people wouldn't be so anxious to try to stop you like that anymore." But he wouldn't do it.
Another reason we got along so well is that Wilt has a fine mind. He is quick to grasp ideas and offer his own suggestions. He is no grunt. But sometimes his logic becomes a little too exotic for me. I remember that first season in San Francisco, when the team and Wilt were following our plan and scoring less. There was a lot of talk almost right away about "the new Wilt," the one that was taking fewer shots.
It was more than a month into the season before we came into New York to play Cincinnati in the first game of a doubleheader. Early in the game I noticed Wilt wasn't going to the hoop much and called time to remind him that Cincinnati was a team he always scored well against. I told him to go for the basket. The same thing at halftime and even into the second half, before I finally stopped bothering. Wilt hardly shot at all—even for the new Wilt—and the Royals beat us easily.
When we got back to San Francisco, Eddie Gottlieb sought me out right away and said, "Alex, I owe you an apology. I should have told you that Wilt was sure not to shoot in New York. With all that talk about the new Wilt, he just had to prove to everyone, when he got to the big city, that he was the greatest playmaker there was."
Last December I really became exasperated with Wilt after we had played a game against St. Louis. In my opinion he just wasn't going to the basket enough, and I told a reporter so. I added that I thought that Wilt might have lost some of his moves simply because he wasn't using them anymore.
The next morning, on the airplane, Wilt came to me with a copy of the paper. "Did you say this?" he asked.
"If it's there, I guess I did," I replied. Remember, this was the morning and the wrong time to get into any debates with Wilt. He mumbled something from under his beard and went back to his reading. The next night, though, he went for 68 against the Bulls, and then we went on to Seattle for two games, and he scored 47 and 53 there. It was the only time all year he did anything like that.
Coaching is almost always a bewildering experience, never precise or predictable. Sometimes you make one little remark and you get the most amazing results. Other times you can talk yourself blue in the face to no avail. You see your whole team get cold, you try everything and everybody and they're still cold. All right, coach, what now? Well, I'll tell you, the first thing a pro coach should be is glue. You must hold things all together, or you just can't do anything else.
I suspect that operating a whole franchise is probably much the same as running a team. There are more elements to consider, but the principles are the same, and I am applying them at Oakland, on the floor and off. I looked forward to this opportunity and chased it all over the country, thought about it and planned it and dreamed it for too long to start doubting or changing my basic premises. If you get everyone involved and working together and understanding, then, at the least, they're going to have to come to you to see how you take the challenge.
In a way, maybe I was lucky that I couldn't do much with the ball myself and had to learn to get it to somebody who could. That way maybe you learn to look around a little more, and you're ready when that ball comes off the bangboards.