Clyde Lee stood alone on the floor of the Oakland Coliseum Arena without his career-long anonymity to hide him, without a single teammate alongside to help absorb the deafening ovation of 13,175 standing, clapping, screeching, whistling fans. The din grew louder and louder, sending wave upon wave of warm tribute toward the lone Golden State Warrior, head bowed in embarrassment, rocking ever so slightly from one foot to the other. Lee is a 29-year-old individual of immense proportions—6'10", 240 pounds—yet his skin is pre-teen flawless, his features gentle, almost girlish. During the accolade, Lee's tender face was a study in confusion. His timid smile said yes, yes; his nervous eyes no, no. Then, suddenly, the doubt seemed to disappear as his teammates, coach and trainer arose one or two at a time from the bench until all the Warriors were on their feet and cheering, too, several of them applauding wildly with their hands meeting high above their heads.
It was an outpouring rarely seen during pregame ceremonies. Lee had not announced his retirement; he had not climbed out of a hospital bed, shot full of Xylocaine. He had indeed done well in the opening five games of Golden State's first-round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks, but the Warriors had not won anything—yet. In a way, the ovation was both a recognition of Lee's performance and a show of affection for this soft-spoken man who almost always has been a spear carrier among the Warriors. Even more than that, it represented a reawakening of basketball by the Bay. On the part of the fans it indicated a revival of interest in a team they had ignored ever since Rick Barry left for the ABA six years ago. On the part of the Warriors, it was acknowledgment that a team of great promise and severe disappointment this season had finally come together and that Lee's appearance in the starting lineup had a lot to do with it. And applause for Lee was especially appropriate because the NBA's Western Conference semifinals belonged to players unknown and little known, teams unfavored and little considered.
Barely had the fans in Oakland settled down from their pregame outburst than they were up and yelling again as the Warriors took charge. In the end, Lee had a game-high 19 rebounds and Guard Jim Barnett had a team-high 26 points, as Golden State won the game (100-86) and the series (4-2), an upset of considerable proportions. Meanwhile, some uncowed Bulls named Jerry Sloan, Norm Van Lier and Dennis Awtrey pushed and shoved Jerry West, Gail Goodrich, Wilt Chamberlain and the rest of the star-studded defending champion Lakers into a decisive seventh game at Los Angeles. There Chicago ran into an old playoff jinx—it has now lost 18 straight road games in postseason competition—dropping the big one (95-92) and the series.
The Warriors, whose triumph over the Bucks indicates they are indeed the title contenders they were supposed to be, opened the series with little going for them. After racing to a 28-12 start in the regular season, Golden State lost 23 of its final 42 games. In all, the Warriors lost more games this season than they did in 1971-72, when Barry was in the ABA.
From midseason on it seemed certain that the Warriors, the Western playoff team with the poorest record, would meet the Lakers, who had established themselves as the conference's best team, in the opening round. And that looked distinctly to Golden State's advantage since it had split its season series with Los Angeles but lost five of six games to the Bucks, two of them by 27 and 33 points. In the closing weeks of the season, Milwaukee won 14 consecutive games and equaled the Lakers' won-lost record. The NBA, seeing dollar signs with each additional dribble, decided a tie-breaking game would be just the thing to settle the issue of who would play whom. It was a nifty idea except that the decision was made without consulting the Players' Association, whose membership signs up for 82 games a year before the playoffs. The league then decided that the issue would be settled by a coin toss, a method that neatly avoided several statistical comparisons which might have determined the top team by criteria bearing some relationship, however faint, to the Bucks' and Lakers' abilities to play basketball. Milwaukee won the flip. The suggestion was made that the NBA could save a lot of money and wear and tear on everybody next season if it eliminated games altogether and scheduled each team for 82 tosses.
So, to their dismay, the Warriors found themselves facing the Bucks, who won the first game 110-90, with Oscar Robertson scoring 22 points and passing for 12 assists. As Coach Larry Costello had maintained ever since Robertson became a reluctant scorer following the Bucks' 1971 championship, all Milwaukee needed to return to the top was for Oscar to work for more shots and shoot them. It was a tactic Robertson could not, or would not, follow until the closing weeks of the season, when he averaged more than 20 points. Oscar claimed a series of nagging minor injuries had cut down his scoring during the previous months. Some think there was another reason for his spurt besides renewed health. They named the late-season moves to the basket by Robertson "salary drives"—his three-year contract expired with his team's playoff hopes.
When the Warriors won the second game 95-92 a pattern was established: the Bucks would win the 20-point games—their other victory came by a 113-93 score—and Golden State would take the rest. The Warriors did it by holding Milwaukee under 100 points four times with tight defense, especially by Nate Thurmond on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In no game did Abdul-Jabbar, who long ago rated Thurmond as the league's best defensive center, score more than 27 points—his regular-season average was 30—and he shot just 43%, 12 percentage points below his average.
"You can't block that hook shot of his," Thurmond said, "but I've found when I shoot my own hook that if the man guarding me works hard at keeping his hands up and leaning up toward my shooting arm, my shot is affected even though I know mine can't be blocked, either. What it does is make you shorten the arc of your arm and that makes the arc of the ball lower. That's what I try to make Kareem do." The strategy worked. Abdul-Jabbar hit enough of his favorite shots to average 23 points a game, but many of the hooks which are sure baskets against other defenders did not go in.
On offense, the Warriors had balanced scoring. Six players averaged between 11 and 16.5 points and in each win a different player was high man. In the second game Cazzie Russell, who lost his starting job to Lee, came off the bench after an injury to Barry and got 25 points. In the 102-97 home-court win that evened the series 2-2, Barry got 38. Lee, with 21 points, and Barnett were the high scorers in the two final victories.
That kind of offense proved that the Warriors had solved one problem which had bothered them all season. With Barry's return, some of his teammates apparently thought he would carry the scoring and decided to concentrate on other facets of the game. But Barry figured that for the first time he was playing on a team so talented he need not dominate the offense. As a result, Golden State's game was often sluggish and disjointed. "We weren't a very complementary team," said Guard Jeff Mullins. "Except for Nate, we were all trying to do things we weren't really that good at. We're a great shooting team and some nights we'd just win that way, but if our shots were off we were in trouble. And the thing that hurt us the most was that we couldn't rebound. That's why I think every guy on this team would agree with me in saying that Clyde has been the difference for us in this series."
It was a difference Coach Al Attles spotted long ago. But Attles couldn't start Lee regularly until the playoffs for he was injured much of the second half of the season. Over the year, he played only 22 minutes a game, averaging six points and nine rebounds. In the playoffs he was on the floor more than any other Warrior, pulled in more rebounds (17 a game) than anyone on either team and, in the fifth game, the 100-97 win that turned the series Golden State's way, it was Lee who led the Warriors.
Lee describes himself as a player "who has no moves, who can't jump and who doesn't have any kind of shot from more than a few feet away from the basket." What Lee can do is box out a freight train, tap in rebounds with the fingertip touch of a safecracker and do both of those things aggressively and tirelessly for 48 minutes. He is, in short, a consummate rebounder. He performed that job admirably in all four Golden State wins, but in the fifth game he added a couple of extra dimensions to bring the fans to their feet. He hit eight of 13 shots, two of them tough, short jumpers on which he was fouled, converting the free throws for three-point plays. More important was his defense on Abdul-Jabbar in the second half, when Milwaukee was rallying and Thurmond sat out 13 minutes after drawing his fifth foul with 7:58 to play in the third quarter. Lee guarded Kareem for all but 19 seconds of that time, holding him to one basket. It was that performance that made the folks back in Oakland, and the Warriors, stand up and put on a show of their own for Clyde Lee.