At the end of last season the Golden State Warriors astounded almost everybody by totally disarming the Washington Bullets in the NBA championships. Their victory in four straight games was a memorable upset, but almost before anyone had time to savor the fact that Jack had once again whupped the Giant, summer was here. The series and its trappings are eminently worth recalling. Even in the playoffs, pro basketball is an intimate game, fought out on a bear pit of a court, within arm's reach of many fans. Both they and the players share the exhilaration and frustration, as is reflected in the photographs on the following pages.
Introductions, the anthem, the extra playoff touches: a floral message for Warrior owner Franklin Mieuli, sitting courtside in beard and headphones; a little pregame concert—all high good spirits at the Cow Palace and the Capital Centre. But then suddenly here was Washington's Mike Riordan, flying in frustration at Rick Barry, to be manhandled in return by Warrior Coach Al Attles. Too late Barry restrained Attles; he was tossed out of the game.
'EVEN NOW IT'S STILL HARD TO BELIEVE'
The new season is beginning, and the way the last one finished still seems to defy belief, the Warriors ripping the Bullets so completely and against all odds. As they came to camp last month, some of the Warrior players were still talking with wonder about those four games back in May. The picture at left tells how it ended. There goes grim-faced Bullet Mike Riordan off the floor of the Capital Centre after the last game, followed by Elvin Hayes and Tom Kozelko. And there is Rick Barry, the Warriors' Most Valuable Everything, emotionally and physically drained, his hair styled by champagne in the winner's locker room. What happened?
The first game was played in Washington, a matter of choice by Coach K. C. Jones. With the better season record, he could have chosen to play the first one away and, because of arena schedule conflicts, the next three at home. But he wanted to win the opener and opted for the home-court advantage. The game produced a pattern, though of course no one knew it then: the Bullets got an early lead—16 points at one time—and the Warriors went to their bench and wore the lead away, winning 101-95. The big upset had begun.
"I'm not really sure," Barry was saying in the happy confusion after the series had ended, "but I do know this is what basketball is supposed to be all about. We made reality out of fantasy. This is the type of season you only dream about. It just doesn't happen. I guess that makes us the lotus."
"I have a friend, a priest," he said. "When things look bad, he always says that from the mud grows the lotus."
Game 2 in the Cow Palace: the Bullets, all certified basketball experts assured themselves, would now assert their clear superiority. And they did—for a while. This time a 13-point Washington edge melted away. Golden State 92-91.
Franklin Mieuli, the delightfully eccentric owner of the Warriors, was on hand, sitting at the radio table and listening to the play-by-play through enormous headphones as though afraid of missing even the smallest detail of what was occurring in front of his eyes. "Like a phoenix risen from the ashes," he would say happily when it was all over.
The third game broke the pattern, or part of it. This time there was no big Washington lead to overcome, and Golden State was in control shortly after half-time in the Cow Palace, winning 109-101. But the way they did it remained the same. The Warrior reserves—Phil Smith, Charles Dudley, Derrek Dickey and George Johnson—did the Bullets in. Particularly George Johnson. He relieved Clifford Ray at center, scored 10 points and grabbed nine rebounds. Altogether in the first three games, the Golden State bench scored 115 points, Washington's just 53.
On the way home, talk among the Bullets, down 3-0, was no longer about winning the championship but of winning at least one game, maybe two, for pride. They were being beaten almost every way a team can be beaten. Hayes and Wes Unseld, the awesome rebounding combination, were being badly outplayed. "We don't have two guys getting 30 rebounds," said Warrior Coach Al Attles. "We have eight or nine guys getting six or seven each."
The final game, in which Washington again owned a 14-point lead—only to have it taken away—was memorable mostly for Riordan's assault on Barry and Attles' charge onto the floor to get at Riordan. Just trying to stop a fight, Attles would say later. But for saying something extra to Referee Richie Powers, Attles was ejected. By that time it didn't matter, and like millions of other people, he watched the Warriors seal the championship, 96-95, on TV.
"I've looked at the tapes and I've watched us win," Barry said recently. "And even now it's hard to believe. I just never thought we could do it. Funny thing, after seeing the tapes I finally understand why the fans were so excited. While we were playing it was hard to realize what was happening."
Jamaal (formerly Keith) Wilkes, Golden State's Rookie of the Year, had the same sort of feeling. "I believe it because we did it," he said. "But it still has an unreal, dreamlike quality."
Barry looked down at his hands. The ceremonial delivery of the championship rings was still weeks away. "I guess I still really won't believe it," he said, "until I have my ring on."