The vision of Golden State blowing its shot at the title persists. One can still see Rick Barry standing around, hands on hips, pouting; Phil Smith slightly confused and shot-happy; Al Attles momentarily dazed and forgetting his bench; the best basketball team in the universe falling apart like a house of cards on that fateful May day in Oakland. A remarkable scene. Nothing should be allowed to diminish the tenacious Phoenix Suns: they put the defending champion Golden State Warriors on the spot in their battle for the Western Conference title. But the fact is the Warriors committed a horrible act of self-immolation. "We weren't ready for the Suns—we went out the window," says Barry. "I guess people learn things the hard way, and that's about as hard a way as I've ever known."
Following the on-court demise, the Warrior front office also fell apart when the general-management team of Dick Vertlieb and Hal Childs departed for the Seattle baseball franchise and the much admired director of player personnel, Bob Feerick, died. Attles, who took over the duties of general manager as well as coach, says that players consider the front office "just a place to get money and mail." But it is more than that, and Vertlieb was a master of detail, wise in the art of simultaneously soothing feelings and kicking tails; Golden State's famous organizational togetherness was always the keystone to success.
What these developments will mean to a team that won 59 games, led the league's toughest division by 16, scored more points than anybody, boasted the best point-spread margin (by a ton) and thus thoroughly dominated the regular season is anybody's guess. Yet Golden State returns with a pat hand, not to mention the big feet of 7-foot rookie Robert Parish, from small and (last season) NCAA-blacklisted Centenary College. Veteran Center Clifford Ray quickly ended his holdout after a couple of startling offensive board performances by Parish in the preseason. This tandem joins rejector George Johnson to give the Warriors depth in the middle. Opponents still will have to cope with Barry and the smooth Jamaal Wilkes in the corners, Smith and the rapid-firing Charles Johnson in backcourt, as well as the best bench in the pros led by Charles Dudley.
Attles ignored his double-D musclemen, Dwight Davis and Derrick Dickey, in the playoff crises, and he says he cut down on the playing time of the sometimes brilliant Gus Williams to protect him from fans intolerant of rookie inconsistency. Williams played well during the preseason, so his fragile psyche seems to have been strengthened.
If the Warriors are to restore their championship aspirations, they will do so over the tanned and talented bodies from Phoenix. As all midnight special watchers know, the Suns went on from their upset victory in the West to near immortality in the East with the Heard shot round the world. That was the basket Garfield Heard made (at the end of, what was it, the 12th overtime?) against the Celtics in the most recent of the Greatest Playoff Games in History.
At one time last season, before the apocalypse, Phoenix went 4-18 and scored eight points in one quarter of a game. The Suns finished last in NBA rebounding. But they finished as the darlings of the Sunbelt and sold 5,000 season tickets in a community that usually refuses to watch until the thermometer dips below 110°, say about February.
Coach John MacLeod was masterful in parlaying the skills of rookies Alvan Adams and Ricky Sobers, newcomers Paul Westphal and Heard, and erstwhile volleyball king Keith Erickson into a crew that took absolute control of its home court, winning 19 in a row at the Coliseum. Any team that does that has a chance to win the championship.
Phoenix has strengthened itself just where it was needed, in depth and backcourt quickness, with the addition of smart swingman Tom Van Arsdale from Atlanta and perpetual-motion Ron Lee from Oregon, who was also drafted by San Diego of the NFL and by pro soccer's Portland Timbers. Lee's non-stop, manic aggression and infectious enthusiasm have earned him the nickname Taz (for Tasmanian devil). He could be a starter by mid-season and Phoenix' second straight Rookie of the Year—after Adams. At which point the populace should have figured out which Van Arsdale is which. For the first time as pros, twins Tom and Dick are together. "I can already call them by name when they enter the room," says Westphal. "I say 'Hi, Van.' "
There was a time last winter when Portland won seven straight games in which the Mountain Man, Bill Walton, played like the best center in the division, which is to say the best center in the world. The Trail Blazers even beat Golden State on the road in a game in which Geoff Petrie had 30 points and Sidney Wicks 15 turnovers. It was. a watershed of the Portland paradox.
The Blazers went on to lead the league in injuries, Walton went on to miss 29 games with assorted ills, and Petrie and Wicks simply went on. These discordant personalities were finally traded away. New Coach Jack Ramsay drafted the ABA enforcer, Maurice Lucas, late of St. Louis, to replace Wicks. He gathered some versatile backcourt men—shooter Herm Gilliam from Atlanta, defender Dave Twardzik of Virginia in the ABA and speedy rookie Johnny Davis from Dayton—to replace Petrie. He designated lefty Lionel Hollins to direct the fast break and swingman Larry Steele to operate a tight, clawing upcourt defense. And Ramsay prays for the preservation of Walton's health.
Rid of his ponytail, Walton now is into things like grand-marshaling neighborhood parades. He still has a pin in his twice-broken wrist, which hurts him on rebounds, but he had a marvelous preseason and seems eager to take his rightful place among the giants of the game. "The atmosphere is so good now," he said after the Blazers' first exhibition, in which he outplayed and wore down Kareem Abdul-Jabbar enough so that Lucas could make a game-winning jam over the Laker center. Portland's first draft pick, Wally Walker from the University of Virginia, should help in time. But the Wunderkind, Moses Malone, also picked up in the ABA dispersal draft, is still light-years and thorny attitudes away, and dependable Center-Forward Lloyd Neal is out for two months with a torn knee, which means the Trail Blazers' potentially fast start may not be quite so blazing after all.
Then there is Seattle, where Captain Telephone, Bill Russell, has a tall man (7'4" Tom Burleson), a strong man (Leonard Gray), a bald man (Slick Watts) and an artillery man (Downtown Freddie Brown) but no leading man. That is, nobody to go to for direction in the tight spots. "I'm a shooter, not a leader," says Brown.
Last season, with Burleson maturing into a fearsome center, with Watts leading the league in steals and assists—"It takes more guts to go for assists," says the Slicker—and with Brown throwing them up from the Space Needle, Russell's ragtag legions staggered into the playoffs, where Gray's absence because of knee surgery was a harsh blow.
Russell brought his usual 8,000 destitute types into preseason camp and emerged with two genuinely tough backcourt defenders in Dennis Johnson from Pepperdine and Bob Wilkerson from Indiana. The 6'7" Wilkerson could be a star soon enough, but the Sonics desperately need help in the corners where Bruce Seals, Talvin Skinner, Willie Norwood and former ABA Center Mike Green (ex-Virginia) can't guard anything but their paychecks.
If Seattle's forwards are bad, you should see the registrants at the Los Angeles Kennel Club. It was a tribute to the abilities of the wondrous Abdul-Jabbar (an easy MVP winner what with leading the league in rebounds, blocked shots, minutes played and being second in scoring) that the Lakers won 40 games to finish in fourth place. They may not do as well this time. Second-year man Don Ford fits the plans of new Coach Jerry West (yes, that Jerry West) and rookie Earl Tatum from Marquette may be a sleeper. But for assistance Abdul-Jabbar must look to his guard mates.
Old Celtic Don Chaney lends defense. Former Virginia Squire star Mack Calvin contributes ball handling and penetration. Returnee Lucius Allen can lead a fast break. But there is little help otherwise. The Lakers are woefully slow and unintuitive, forcing West to employ set offenses and a helping team defense rather than the running, mano-a-mano game for which he was so famous. After a day of practice West contracted tonsillitis and a fever of 102°, and Abdul-Jabbar said, "Look, one day and he's already sick of us." Everybody laughed. Hoo. Hoo. But unless Mr. West is Mr. Miracle, or Jack Kent Cooke unlocks his cashbox to get some players, there will be a different sound in Los Angeles. Boo. Boo.
"There isn't really much talent here," says Calvin. No kidding.