One night several years ago, in a time when Rick Barry still roamed (the land, a prince kissed by cupidity and turned into a red, white and blue franchise, Franklin Mieuli threw back another Pimm's Cup and mused on that great day a-comin'. Mieuli, who favors neo-Sherlock Holmes raiment, is an enchanting bearded eccentric who owns the Golden State Warriors basketball team—owns it, one might say, in the way Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor own one another; that is, legally, but whimsically, and for many of the wrong reasons. "These are the kind of days I start thinking about Utopia," Mieuli allowed at that time.
And just what might Utopia be?
"Utopia," Franklin Mieuli said, "is the day when everything runs your way, only you don't have to run it." He was flat-out counting on Utopia. Most of us will gladly settle for .500 ball, but Mieuli has always been a dreamer, and, as you know, dreams can come true. And so it was that Utopia did indeed come to the province of Golden State not long ago, and, that duly obtained, now Mieuli is preparing to go sailing around the world on some kind of Chichesterian quest. His beloved team is champion of the world, its future without horizons, and where before there had been a heavy air of despair and the sense that somehow things were going to get worse, a strange kind of peace now reigns.
Now, even in their hideous uniforms, where stars, circles and maps compete for billboard space with names and numbers, the Warriors are much more than just the best team in basketball. They appear to be the logical model for success in the game today. Of course, in the zircon world, flacks feel obliged to elevate every small success to the universal: remember the Kansas City Chiefs' Offense of the '70s? Or, how could any man born of woman stay in the ring with Sonny Liston...with George Foreman? So there is a reluctance to assign lasting significance to the Warriors. Notwithstanding, the Warriors have clearly gotten on to something, and other teams are beginning to follow their example: Atlanta, most surely; also Phoenix and Milwaukee. And one wonders whether Bill Russell would have dared to unload the talented but deliberate Spencer Haywood unless the Warriors' concept of quick, balanced team play had been revealed to work.
February 16, 1976
Golden State offers nothing particularly new—just a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts. The elements have all been employed elsewhere. "We were just like the Warriors last year," says Butch van Breda Kolff of the New Orleans Jazz. "We played nine/10 guys all season, too, but we were a last-place team, so nobody took any notice of us." The difference is that the Warriors' yo-yo substitution policy is only a foundation, the basis for the team's style and spirit. Built upon it is a hell-for-leather offense, a pertinacious, gambling team defense, balanced, unpredictable scoring and a verve born of perpetual effort. Nobody (except Barry, occasionally) is permitted to play tired; perhaps because of that, few Warriors ever get hurt. And never before have quickness and selflessness—fire and water—been so well blended.
The Warriors have borrowed the best from the best two teams ever to play in the NBA: the Russell Celtics and the 1969 Knicks. But the Celts depended utterly on one man, and the Knicks were a unique blend of five good-shooting ball handlers (four guys who had played guard and a center who had played forward), a unit that could not be recreated any more than could the Marx Brothers or the Continental Congress. The crux of the Golden State is that the parts are interchangeable. No team is as quick as the Warriors—they may also be more intelligent than any other team—but the ideal that Coach Al Attles has established is one to which any team can reasonably aspire. It is not just a matter of climbing on a winner's bandwagon. The Warriors are seminal, an idea whose time has come. Their example will permeate all levels of basketball and could even extend to other sports.
Along the way, they have destroyed shibboleths. Their players, for example, fit into no carefully designated slots, as players are supposed to. "People come to assume things," Attles says. "You must have one shooting forward and one big rebounding forward. You must have one big center. You must have a lead guard and an off guard. Pretty soon everybody just accepts stereotypes instead of wondering why things work. I finally decided, if I'm not successful, let it be because I failed on my own, not because I did something the way it was supposed to be done." Attles has four guards he uses seemingly at random, two centers who share time about equally and forwards that are all slim, stylish types, none of them a monster.
It has been the mark of championship teams to get ahead and control the game from on top—and that is why the best teams are often the dullest. The Warriors are distinctive in that they play off the other fellow. They don't say "come and beat us," they go out and chase down victory. Their trademark is coming from behind, which is downright heretical for a champion. Once this year they came from 31 down, 17 in the last quarter. "You're going along together," says Phil Smith, the lean and hungry guard, "but then another bunch of us comes out to do the job, and you can see the other guys get tired." He shrugs. "And then we just get rid of them."
Finally, contradicting everything that everyone from Leo Durocher to Woody Hayes has told us, the most important thing to the Warriors is not to snarl at the opposition but to be caring toward one another. That is the priority. Mieuli's men have traditionally tended to be pampered ("It's your job to coach 'em and my job to spoil 'em," he used to tell his coaches), but only with the present bunch has this corporate goodwill actually been turned into a kinetic force comparable, say, to speed or good shooting. Indeed, the future of the team depends more on whether this amazing grace can be maintained than on injuries, draft choices, foul trouble and all the usual stuff.
Unconsciously or otherwise, teams are formed in the image of those who construct them. Sonny Werblins want Joe Namaths, and hard-noses like Fred Shero want hard-noses on the ice for them. Invariably, whenever a coach or manager fails, when it is said that the team "got away" from him, the fact of the matter is not that the boss was too hard or too soft but that he hadn't been able to bring the team's personnel into concert with himself, his personality. "Housecleanings," for this reason, are not so much seeking better players as they are the new wife getting rid of the old wife's furniture. The Warriors are a product that was shaped by the personalities of three men: Mieuli, Dick Vertlieb, the general manager, and Attles. They are, in order, Faith, Hope and Charity—although, of course, as the Bible tells us, "the greatest of these is charity." So, Al Attles:
Hails from Newark, N.J. Now calls Oakland home. "Mister Nice Guy." Age 39. On the road he reads books and watches television. At home Al watches game films and stays with his family. He and his wife, Wilhelmina, have one son and an adopted daughter. When he stops coaching, Al wants to go into youth work. He doesn't drink or smoke. Favorite expression: "All ri-i-i-ight." Al boasts a deep voice. Starting his sixth full season as Warrior mentor. As player, was defensive stickout and team "sparkplug." Offensive "claim to fame": he was second-leading Warrior scorer the night in 1962 when Wilt Chamberlain made 100 against the Knicks.
Attles played with the Warriors, in Philadelphia and San Francisco, for 11 years. He started only occasionally, but he was never traded. Six coaches, two cities, three different owners—a journeyman, and he was never traded. That says a great deal. He hung on as he played, tenaciously, applying his mind and grit. Clifford Ray, the Golden State center, says of himself, "I'm the type of player who does a lot of things that other players don't like to do." That was the way his coach played, why he played at all.
Attles learned what it was like to be on the fringes. "I always understood that it is tough to be a real part of the team if you don't play," he says. "Besides, with the money these guys are getting paid now, you might as well play them. When everybody plays, when everybody knows they're going to play, there is more incentive. Because you want to play more when you get out on the floor, you do play more when you are out there."
Eventually, Attles got to be elder statesman, cagey veteran, and was made assistant coach to George Lee. When, in 1970, Mieuli decided to replace Lee, he turned, naturally, to Attles. Bill Russell and Lenny Wilkens were already coaching by then, but they were also starring for themselves. Attles was the first full-time black coach in big-league sports, for which he never stops crediting Mieuli. At the time, however, Attles did not want this job, this historical asterisk. He agreed to accept it reluctantly, to finish out the season, only after Lee himself had gone to Attles' house and pleaded with him to be his successor.
"I really didn't know if I had the patience, the temperament to deal with 12 guys," Attles says. "Basically, you see, I'm a loner. I don't have an awful lot of close friends." Perspective, above all, is what marks Attles—and what marks his team. On the whole squad, Attles says, only Barry and Ray are prey to their emotions.
Unlike a lot of coaches, Attles is under no delusion that he is a master of psychological legerdemain. "Good people are what is so important," he says. "People tell me, 'Sure, this guy's a problem player, but he has great ability, and you can take care of him.' Why? Why should I think I can change somebody? You take one bad guy and pretty soon a whole team gets away from you." When the Warriors had a chance late last season to pick up a proven NBA regular at a position where they were weakest, they passed him over in part because he had a dubious personal reputation.
A basketball team is an intimate community. A sour wife—never mind a player—has been known to poison a whole club. Attles is black, coaching a virtually all-black team. (With a nod toward Barry, Clifford Ray once called the Warriors "The Golden Prince and His Black Knights.") But the racial makeup of the club does not necessarily work to Attles' advantage. What limited evidence we have so far about black coaches is that it is black players who try to take advantage of them. Attles' own growing pains as a young coach had nothing to do with race, only with age; he was reluctant to deal harshly with players who were his contemporaries.
Nate Thurmond, the towering All-Star center, blocked Attles' path to coaching maturity. To be fair to Thurmond, it should be underscored that it was his presence—not anything he did—that intimidated Attles. The coach admits now that he sensed he should have given more playing time to his reserve center, George Johnson, as he does now. But because Thurmond was supposed to be so much better, he doubted his own instincts. Thurmond was brittle, too, and lacked spontaneity in his play. There were always many wins with Thurmond but never any titles.
Mieuli adored Thurmond—and all the more so after the prodigal Barry left in 1967 to seek his fortune in the ABA for four seasons. Thurmond was charming, debonair, a gourmet cook and a gallant host, San Francisco incarnate; and Mieuli, from backyard San Jose, worships Baghdad by the Bay. For a time he cluttered up his team's uniforms with a sketch of the Golden Gate and the cloying inscription THE CITY. Barry's No. 24 THE CITY still hangs in Mieuli's office.
The irony, of course, is that Utopia never did arrive in San Francisco for Mieuli or Barry or Attles or the other hopeful Warriors. Since 1971 they have represented not the urbane hills of San Francisco but the city of Oakland, which, like the team, has always been slighted. And now even the name "Oakland" is becoming lost, submerged under that romantic zip-codian regional tag, "East Bay." While Golden State may sound like an insurance company, it is, with apologies, only a devious rendering of East Bay. That is what the Warriors are now. The games are played in East Bay, and the offices have just moved there, too. The players live in East Bay. Only 15% of the spectators come from San Francisco. And Nate Thurmond is gone; only his restaurant remains in The City.
The Warriors' '73-'74 season ended with a series of calamities, and when it was over, Mieuli, beaten and depressed, hired Dick Vertlieb to be his general manager. Then Mieuli stood back out of the way and watched as the new man unloaded Thurmond for Ray, a draft choice and cash. Then, one way or another, Cazzie Russell, Clyde Lee and Jim Barnett were gone, too, and Jeff Mullins was hurt. What remained at the beginning of last year appeared to be the leftovers. But together with the draft, they were, in fact, the heart of the artichoke, Attles' team: young, fast, bright, willing and lots of them.
Probably no man ever felt as ambivalent as Franklin Mieuli did when this team of his won the league title last spring. It was, on the one hand, the culmination of his dreams. He carted the NBA trophy around in his car, showing it off for his old buddies to see. But the championship, coming as it did in the very year he gave up management of the team, could also be read as his repudiation—and his friend Thurmond's, too. As generous as he is, no one has ever heard Mieuli utter a complimentary word about the new front office regime. Having someone else do it meant, in the end, that only the shadow of Utopia fell upon him.
Vertlieb understands Mieuli. Mieuli gave him his chance to get back into the NBA, but if Mieuli cannot in his heart ever really relinquish his Warriors to another man, Vertlieb can appreciate the emotions involved. Vertlieb had been general manager at Seattle, but in 1973 he was an investment counselor and looking for some way to return to the sport. He found an angel willing to buy an NBA team, and he went after the Warriors. He met with Mieuli in a hotel room. As usual, Golden State was losing money. Mieuli's partners were looking to get out. Vertlieb asked him to name a price, and Mieuli named a high one.
Vertlieb went into an adjoining room and telephoned his backer. "Franklin wants $X million," he said. "It's high but O.K. Why don't you add a million more? Then he can't say no." The angel agreed.
Vertlieb came back. Mieuli was sure he had priced him out. "All right," said Vertlieb. "You want X. We'll give you X and a million more."
The blood drained out of Mieuli's face. Terrified, he shook his head and almost ran from the room. He said, "I'm sorry. I can't sell my children."
While there is not between them the mutual affection that exists between Attles and Mieuli, Attles and Vertlieb share a common thread in their backgrounds. Attles went to Weequahic High in Newark, N.J., which was overwhelmingly Jewish; Philip Roth grew up as Portnoy there. Through elementary school, Vertlieb lived in the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles, abutting Watts, where he engaged in playground sports. Both he and Attles may be described as upwardly mobile; they proceeded.
Only a series of flukes brought Attles into the NBA. He was an unknown fifth-round draft choice from North Carolina A&T at a time when few second-round picks made the league and blacks stuck only if they could start and had big-college-name value. Attles would not even have gone to preseason camp if he had not given up a teaching job when he was drafted and then was caught with nothing to do when the service tagged him 1Y because of a slight injury. At the Warrior camp he had to beat out a handsome local Philadelphia hero, one Pickles Kennedy, to make the team. Attles asked for $7,500 and settled for $5,500. He has now been a member of the same NBA squad for 16 straight seasons.
Al Attles is the soul of stability. He had played in the Bay Area for a decade before he stopped thinking of Newark as his home—and only then, he says, because he realized that his son was growing up in California and so California really must be his home.
Vertlieb's history is not dissimilar, at least in terms of determination and perseverance:
First saw the light of day in the "City of Angels." Dick was all-league high school hoop ace. Called "Pee Wee" then, "Richie" now by close friends. After college at Southern Cal, he roomed with Marty Milner and David Janssen! Was L.A. stockbroker. You'll often find Dick with a cigar in his mouth. Better half answers to Joan. One son, Adam. Got into NBA as business manager of SuperSonics; later "G.M." Dick's a southpaw.
As Attles and the Warriors represent new types, so is Vertlieb the model of the modern sports executive. He knows basketball well as a game, but he is first of all a promoter and administrator. War is too important to be run by the generals; the Warriors' budget is $3.2 million, about $1.4 million of which pays the 12 players, Attles, his assistant Joe Roberts and the trainer. When Vertlieb took over, the Warriors were losing an average of about $400,000 a year. Last year they broke even, with attendance rising to 8,799 a game. This year attendance is up to 11,684 a game, 90% of capacity in the small Oakland Coliseum Arena. Season-ticket sales have gone from around 400 in the 1973-74 season to nearly 3,000 under Vertlieb. Like Attles, the general manager runs his shop by his own book. He has a curious habit, for example, of giving extra tickets to season-ticket holders—not throwaways but the best seats for the best games. As a sure sign of both his genius and morality, Vertlieb has been voted down 17-1 at NBA meetings.
Vertlieb is, shall we say, violently enthusiastic. Once, at Seattle, he hurtled over the scorer's table and onto the court to take on Gus Johnson, one of the strongest men in sports, who was tussling with Al Bianchi, the Sonics' coach. With one poke, Johnson sent Vertlieb flying to the other side of the court. He has ripped phones out of walls, put a fist through a wall, and so on. He can only watch his team play for a few moments at a time. "I ran on the court once this year during a preseason game," he says, "so I don't let myself watch anymore because I end up making a fool of myself." Instead, after the tipoff, he roams the bowels of the coliseum, checks ticket booths 88 times, meanders through the parking lots, ostensibly to see if any car lights have been left on, and finally in desperation climbs in his car and drives the East Bay streets aimlessly. Not long ago, in the middle of a game, he ran out of gas. At last, like a bomb-squad detective gingerly defusing a big one, he reaches for the car radio. If the Warriors are safely ahead or well behind, he drives back to see the finish. If the game is close, he resumes his lonely voyages about East Bay.
Even victory can upset his delicate equilibrium. After the Warriors had won a playoff game last year, Vertlieb was given a ticket for making an illegal turn as he drove away from the arena. He went to court and pleaded "elation" as a defense, so flabbergasting the bemused judge that he let him off. Last spring, as the playoffs approached with the Warriors in a slump, Vertlieb went to the bank, drew out $25,000 in big bills, brought them to the locker room and dumped them on the trainer's table. This was his idea of graphic inspiration. "I get very clichéd," Vertlieb admits sheepishly.
His problem is that as a child of the 1940s he still grants majesty to athletes and innocence to their games. In 1967 Vertlieb and his partner, Don Richman, took over management of the new Seattle SuperSonics. A decade later Vertlieb still cannot get enough of working in a major league front office. Richman is every bit as much a sports fan as Vertlieb, but after one year he became bored and disillusioned with the sports business and left it for good. The two offer a perfect illustration of the contrasting ways Americans look at sports today.
Richman, who left: "The challenge went out of it very quickly. I had built up these men who run basketball, who run all pro sports, for that matter, but I found out that they were a very ordinary lot. It was so easy to succeed. Very quickly I began to think: Do I want to limit myself to this?
"Besides, I started to sense the erosion in the relationship between athletes and management. It happened to be the first year of the ABA, and I could see what was coming. I wanted to run a team. It was certainly never my life's desire to work for athletes, and that's what you do in sports management today. Of course, that's not to say that the owners weren't just as greedy. You could see that quickly enough, too.
"Sports are fun. That's my perspective. They're games. Well, it's not fun anymore. There is no feeling for the institution."
Vertlieb, who stayed: "I probably respect athletes so much because I was not a good one myself. I've never been very creative. I'm a salesman, but I always wanted to do something. What impresses me the most is when a man is operating at the full potential of his talent. Well, athletes operate at a higher percentage of efficiency than most of us do. That's why they're special people to me. That horse that broke her leg—what was her name? Ruffian? That really hurt me, and I don't care about horses. But she was using her talent so, trying so. That's why she broke her leg, that's why she died.
"It was fashionable to say that if there got to be too many black players in the NBA, the whites wouldn't come out to see them. But you see, people appreciate talent. They appreciate that athletes are so special. When I was at SC, and I wasn't good enough to make the team, I worked as a spotter for the P.A., at the stats table, wherever. Athletes were just the people I've always wanted to be around."
Vertlieb was a big-time big-bucks broker at Merrill Lynch in L.A., but since the market closed at 12:30 on the Coast, he became an assistant coach at USC, then head coach at a prep school. Next he decided he had to get into sports full-time. His friend Richman, a writer and producer of commercials who had helped run the old AFL Los Angeles Chargers, agreed to come in as the general manager if they could buy a team. Just to get into the act, Vertlieb was satisfied to be the business manager, to handle all the details and dirt. Richman was the front man, and Vertlieb always pushed him out there as soon as he chased down an angel. "I'm not kiddin' you," he says. "I would go across the street if I saw a rich man, and stop him and say, 'How would you like to own a basketball team?' "
At various times, Vertlieb and Richman almost had three teams, but, finally, in 1967, Vertlieb found Gene Klein and Sam Schulman, who owned the San Diego Chargers, and the Seattle deal was made. Next year when Richman scurried back to L.A., Schulman settled for Vertlieb as the new general manager, but he never really accepted him. Vertlieb was the guy from the back office who drank his whiskey from shot glasses, whose tie always seemed to be knotted just where Schulman's friends' shirts were monogrammed. The arrangement never took. Vertlieb quit and went back to the game where they divide dollars into eighths. But right away he began looking for another high roller who might be willing to shoot for a hard-way six and buy him another NBA team to run.
One morning he heard that a guy named Harry Glickman, who owned the expansion rights to Portland, was having a little problem, liquidity-wise. So Vertlieb called up one of his clients, a construction magnate named Herman Sarkowsky, and asked him if he was interested in a deal. Sarkowsky said what the hell. They got on a plane and went to Portland. At lunch Sarkowsky learned that this particular deal was an NBA team. He listened to the details, told Glickman what piece he would take and then beckoned for a phone.
Sarkowsky spoke to his office in L.A.: "How much in CDs we got on hand...? Good, O.K., listen to me. You take 500,000 of them and go to the Century Plaza and look up a guy named Kennedy. Uh, Walter Kennedy. All right, you give this Kennedy guy the 500,000. Hurry, I'll tell you later what we bought."
And so, baby, do they buy franchises in the NBA. But for his trouble, Vertlieb got only more brokerage business from Sarkowsky; he did not get the Portland basketball job. He didn't find his way back into the league for five years, until Mieuli turned to him. The fantasy that followed stunned everyone—Barry, for example, couldn't conceive that the Warriors could win until they were ahead in the finals—but Vertlieb not only admits to his surprise but also to his personal incompetence. It is his style to do that, to play the buffoon.
Don Richman says, "Richie has great rapport with athletes and coaches, and it's my lay opinion that much of this comes because he constantly denigrates himself. He's a throwback, you know—really a very colorful guy. But he works hard at not appearing colorful. All his life he has played this game of not being as sharp as he lets on. Don't let Richie kid you. He knew Thurmond was through, and when you come down to it, that's why they won the championship."
While Barry is certainly the mainstay of the Warriors, Ray, who came from Chicago for Thurmond, sets the tempo for the club. It is obvious enough that Barry and Jeff Mullins are the only white players, but this obscures the pertinent fact that they are also the only two guys on the team over the age of 27. The other Warriors average less than 25. Thus Ray, with five years in the league and all of 27 years old, seems almost venerable to some of the kids. He plays only about half a game, but his example of spirit is enormously pervasive.
No man reveals more of himself in the introductions than Clifford Ray. Announced, he rockets from the bench and in three huge purposeful steps he crashes to the foul line to join the other starters. A dark, menacing-looking man, long-bearded and strangely hunched, Ray resembles a great buffalo. By contrast George Johnson, his replacement at center, is pale, thin and long, with a fluffy Afro like the glorious comb of some bird. Johnson suddenly appears: a crane swooping into play. The sudden change from buffalo to bird discombobulates many opposing centers; the Warrior players believe that only one team in the NBA properly defenses its big men.
There are, then, some advantages to being faceless. "I'll bet there are many teams that just don't have any idea how to guard, say, Derrek Dickey or Charles Dudley," Mullins says. The Warriors, at practice on the road, have laughed to discover that the opposing teams have left diagrams of Golden State plays up on the blackboard—and got the plays all wrong.
The Warrior guards are the least noticed. None was a college celebrity, none a first draft choice. Attles helps them out by calling most plays from the bench. Of all the Warriors, Dudley, the fourth guard, is most like the portrait of the coach as young man. Like Attles in his salad days, Dudley has a high forehead, and a clear, open face and, like his coach, he had to struggle. He is known as Hopper, from the TV Kung Fu character.
The Warriors are very deep in nicknames. The Johnsons—George and Charles—are Newpie and Jack, the latter a trim little man with a beard so neat he appears to be out of a 19th century daguerreotype. Ray is known as Yo, which comes from his signaling stewardesses, "Yo, Hon." And there are Silk, Bubbles (rookie Robert Hawkins) and Sarge. It says all the more of him, then, that the second-year guard Phil Smith is just Phil or, increasingly, the more formal Phillip. Mullins compares him favorably to Jerry Sloan of the Bulls: a plugger, solid, industrious. But he is dour. Smith's mournful expression never changes, and when he is in the backcourt with Gus Williams, all of the attention is drawn to the rookie.
On Williams' puckish face there is always the sly hint that he is up to something mischievous. His halfback thighs bloom suddenly off thin legs, and he is conceded to be one of the quickest men ever to play in the NBA. There is a great deal of talk among the cognoscenti about how Williams plays the passing lanes, which means he makes a bunch of steals. Everything Williams does he does easily and with flair. He will be very famous as a basketball player soon. He wears uniform No. 1, and high-top sneakers with the laces tied in back. Eleven years ago Rick Barry brought tennis wristbands to pro basketball. If there is anything sure in this world, it is that the playground children of America will be wearing high tops and tying their laces in back by next season at the latest.
The bench forwards are the bearded Double Ds, Derrek Dickey and Dwight Davis, who support Barry and Jamaal Wilkes—Silk—the Rookie of the Year last season. A quiet, understated player, Wilkes is like a character in a novel whose true importance is not revealed until it is time for the message to be delivered or the princess rescued. While the Warriors pride themselves on their team defense, it was Wilkes who had to personally face Spencer Haywood, Bob Love and Elvin Hayes in the playoffs last year. Each of the three All-Star scorers had a big game against him early in the series, but that told him what he wanted to know, and thereafter they all folded, Haywood shooting .337 for the series, Love .384, Hayes .416.
Barry seems to have come to terms with himself. On the court he still rails at the referees, convinced that a conspiracy against him exists—twice already this year he has been thrown out of games—but he has lost that great passion he once had to get his hands on the ball. His scoring is way down, from 30.6 last year to 21.7, and now he concentrates more on passing, steering the ship, or just waiting in the wings until he is needed in a tight spot. A lot of great scorers have mellowed this way, rather like leading men adapting to character roles.
When the Warriors drafted Barry he was disparaged by many scouts as "just another skinny white kid." College recruiters tend to categorize prospects as "playground players" or "suburban players." The best thing you can say about a prospect is that "he is a playground player with a suburban jump shot." Barry always was a playground player; that is, he played black. (By contrast, Wilkes is a classic suburban player.) In preseason sprints Barry proved he is still the fastest man on the team, but he does not drive for the basket as much as he used to, preferring instead to shoot outside. Barry has apparently decided, though, that when the other team gets in foul trouble the odds improve for the driver. Watch for him to take it in in the last stages of the quarters.
After a brief separation, Barry has patched up his marriage, and he and his wife, like the Attleses, have adopted a daughter. When a deal with CBS fell through last summer, Barry agreed to go on playing under a contract that had three seasons to run. He is an excellent commentator, one of the best of the jocks with a microphone, well-informed, articulate and candid on the subjects that matter to him.
Whether he is on the court, on the tube or just eating toast in a coffee shop, Barry invariably produces a strong impression on anyone who watches him. Usually the feelings are negative, for he carries a certain natural imperiousness that tends to put people off. It is a sensation hard to describe, but when most basketball players do something spectacular, it thrills the crowd because the athlete is excelling at the game. When Barry does something out of this world, the reaction is strangely different. The crowd does not give as much because somehow its primary response is not that Barry is excelling in a pure sense but that he is lording it over the unfortunate opposition. Oscar Robertson was another who elicited that attitude.
Last year Barry had a simply incredible championship season. With his runaway enthusiasm, Vertlieb declares, "He had the greatest year of any athlete at any point in history," and if it was not quite that, Barry was still awfully good. Yet in the MVP voting, he finished fourth. He wasn't even in the hunt—an absolute travesty. In baseball, where the writers determine the MVP, black players have suggested that some recent white victors have been selected because of the bias of white electors. In the NBA, the MVP is decided by a vote of the players, and the league is predominantly black. Barry refuses, however, to attach any racial implications to his dismal vote total. "These kids all come together in college now," he says. "They're more subdued, and race just isn't that important. The MVP vote was just all personalities. That's all."
Meaning players don't like you?
"Yeah." He shook his head. "Listen, there are better things. I got my two oldest boys working as ball boys for the team. Nobody can imagine what a kick it was for me playing for the championship of the world, and to turn around at a time-out and get a drink of water from my own son. I saw the films, and there was this one time where I patted one of them on the head. Right there, in the middle of the game. What's a vote? Whoever had anything like what I had before? This team, this is the way I always thought it could be."
And so, even as the Warriors rush Rick Barry toward beatification, they move themselves to a class alone. They have won one championship and currently have the best record in the league (perhaps soon they'll be far enough ahead not to mind if Barry take a couple games off to work the radio broadcasts, which he did last year when he was injured), but they are still too young to be anywhere near the height of their powers. They still tend to relax when they get ahead, letting lesser teams catch them off guard. "These guys are exceptional people," Ray says of his teammates, "and they play the way they are as people. They understand that the only concept in basketball is winning. But they're young, they're still searching. You see them sometimes, it appears they're trying to show off. But they're not trying to be fancy, they're just kids trying to emphasize what they have, trying to make an impression."
Of course, a team that depends so much on anything as ethereal as attitude is vulnerable in ways that more conventional teams are not. The Los Angeles Lakers, for example, are contenders every day that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar gets out of bed. But the Warrior balloon floats only because the gases are mixed just so. Golden State wins now because everybody is fresh, ambitious, willing. Everybody except Barry is unknown. But they are known together, and Barry aside, all make about the same kind of money. Will it work when Wilkes and Smith and Williams arrive at greatness? Will there be just as much to go around then? Will they still play 10 men a night? "Yeah, will success spoil Rock Hunter?" Barry says. "I get it. But listen, you can't have too many great players on a team. If you're a great player, you play team ball or you're not a great player. It's that simple. And if anybody changes his attitude, Al gets rid of him. It's that simple, too."
If Attles can continue to get his Warriors to drink his elixir, something wonderful and needed will have been brought to sports. So long have we prized all the sterile things in our games—efficiency and order—with victory and defeat reduced, one way or another, to chatter about turnovers. Teams, more or less, do not exist anymore. In the pros there are organizations; in college there are programs. This is a great organization. We've got to build up the program.
"When I was at Seattle," Dick Vertlieb says, "I had the Vince Lombardi slogan up on the wall: WINNING ISN'T EVERYTHING, IT'S THE ONLY THING. I was so proud of that. Now I'm ashamed to tell you about it. I'm embarrassed. Winning is not the answer. Character, personality, effort—that is what I'm interested in. We will have won if each player can answer 'yes' to this question: Did I work hard enough to make coming out worth the people's while? And if I, if the front office, can answer 'yes' to that. We get so mixed up in this business, all of us. Most general managers think that you have giveaways—T shirts, posters or whatever—in order to get the people to come out. No, no! You have the giveaways so that they will enjoy the evening. That's the point. You have to be competitive, but you don't have to win, and we'll all do better in sports when we understand that."
So, more than any pro team, the Warriors have been fashioned primarily out of love, out of the positive. "Of course," Vertlieb says, "you can go too far with this equality bit. All this speed and character. I don't ever want them to forget to go to Barry when it gets down to the wire."