Q&A With Philadelphia and Golden State Warriors Legend Al Attles
In 1960, Al Attles crammed a week’s worth of clothing into a bag and left for a tryout with the Philadelphia Warriors. He thought little of his chances and was looking forward to a career as a PE teacher. Instead, more than five decades later, Attles is still a member of the Warriors. He shot 8-for-8 and scored 17 points in Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game, and in 1970 he became one of the NBA’s first black coaches. At just 6 feet tall, he became known as one of the league’s most legendary enforcers. The Basketball Hall of Fame is honoring Attles with the John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award, and Attles recently spoke with Grantland about his historic, memorable career.
Note: Some of Attles’s responses have been edited for brevity.
How did you feel about your chances of making the NBA after playing college basketball at North Carolina A&T State?
I had gone to a small college. Even though we had a very good basketball team, there were only eight teams in the NBA at that time. The mantra was, if you didn’t go to a big school with a big name — regardless of how they thought you played — it was more about the name recognition as far as the league was concerned. Getting drafted from a small town in North Carolina wasn’t that big of a deal as far as getting fortunate enough to make the league. I was happy that I was drafted. People at the school were happy. My family was, but it never really registered with me very much.
What put you over the edge to make the team?
Earl Lloyd, who is a great friend of mine, he told me something once after he had made the NBA, because he went to West Virginia State. He told me the equalizer is what you do on the floor. It has nothing to do with name recognition or where you went to school. I think that’s what happened with me. When I went to A&T, we had a very, very small team, but once I got on the floor, I was competing against people from a lot of the big schools and things just worked in my favor.
How big was the rivalry between the Philadelphia Warriors and the Boston Celtics back then?
That started long before I got there. [The Warriors] had Paul Arizin and Guy Rodgers and of course Wilt. There were only eight teams in the league and the two best teams in the East were the Celtics and the Warriors. They were always competing with each other when it got down to the conference finals. Paul Arizin made a great statement: He said that the Celtics were just a better team than we were. We were always fighting them. I only played in Philadelphia for two years. But for those two years, it was the Warriors and the Celtics.
What was the rivalry like between Wilt and Bill Russell?
I often tell the story about Russell and Wilt because they were very, very close friends. They were rivals on the floor, but they weren’t rivals off the floor. They were so close that when we went to Boston, Russ would meet us at the airport, regardless of what time we got in and he’d take Wilt to his house to stay. We’d go to the hotel and Wilt would go over to Russ’s house. He’d sleep at Russ’s house and then the next morning, he’d get up and they’d eat and have breakfast. Russ would bring him to the game and we used to joke about it. “Russ picks you up at the airport, takes you to his house, feeds you, you sleep there, he brings you to the game that night and then they beat us.” Russ used to go to New York and after the season — Wilt had the nightclub — he would go there and stay at Wilt’s house. They were a lot closer than people thought. But on the basketball court, we were big rivals. I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be. You’re not supposed to be buddy-buddy and there wasn’t a lot of handshaking and all that on the floor. People used to say, “You guys don’t shake hands like they do in college.” No. Your biggest rival was the team you were playing that night. We used to play them 20 times a year, counting playoffs and preseason and regular season. You’d really get tired of playing against that team all the time.
What do you remember about Wilt’s 100-point game?
“I’ll tell you what doesn’t seem to come across very often: Wilt was living in New York because he had Smalls Paradise, so he came up [to Philiadelphia] with a couple of Knickerbockers. Because he didn’t get a room, the story goes, he went right to a penny arcade and he was playing pool and so when we get to the game to warm up and get dressed, he’s telling us how hot he was playing pool. We never thought much about it. He didn’t say this until after the game, that he knew he was going to have a good game because he was playing pool all day.
The most important thing I try to get across to people is that we won the game, number one, and two, he tried to come out of the game before he got 100 points. In his mind, when the game looked like it was won, he wanted to come out. [Warriors coach] Frank McGuire all of a sudden couldn’t hear very well. Wilt wasn’t the kind of guy that he would just walk off the floor, say, “I’m tired,” and sit down. In all the huddles, he’d keep trying to talk to Frank and Frank would act like he couldn’t hear him. The game was basically won. [Wilt] never really zeroed in on 100. None of us did until later in the game. Once he saw the game was won, he really wanted to come out, because he was tired from coming down from New York. We were all happy that he did stay in the game, but I think the thing most of us are happiest about is that he scored 100 points and came out. I just think 100 points sounds a lot better than 102.
Unless they change the scoring system, I don’t think it’ll ever be done again. In fact, the Knicks tried not to let it happen. They started freezing the ball and keeping it away and then they started fouling him intentionally. But it was a great performance and one that I am really happy to be a part of, but I’m sorry it wasn’t on a bigger stage because it’s one for the ages.
At the time, did anyone realize its significance?
No, because you have to understand, we’re talking about Wilt Chamberlain now. He just was such a phenomenal player. I had played in games where it wasn’t 100, but you could just tell he was head and shoulders above everybody as far as scoring the basketball. And it was against defenses — they knew he could score. They would try to do everything that they possibly could to stop him from scoring and yet, he was still that good. After his first year, because they were double- and triple-teaming him, he got frustrated, and because he was playing with the Globetrotters over the summer, he wasn’t going to come back to the Warriors because of the way the game was played and because of the way they stacked it against him. That’s why he left college in the first place, because they played all the zones against him to try to prevent him from scoring. He didn’t feel that the game was being played the way it should be played. We were all very happy he decided to come back to the Warriors.
Did the team go out and celebrate the 100-point game?
The funny story about that was he was in New York [before the game], so he came down with Willie Naulls and Johnny Green [of the Knicks]. They drove down to Hershey. We took a bus from Philadelphia. After the game, he had Smalls Paradise in New York and that’s where he lived in the offseason. But Wilt used to do something I like people to hear. New York is about two hours from Philadelphia. He would live in New York, drive down to Philadelphia every day for practice, drive back to New York after practice, come back for a game and drive back to New York. He was never late for practice, never missed a practice. He played every minute and never came out of the game. His reasoning was that he felt if he came out of a game, it took him too long to get going again.
Do you agree with K.C. Jones that you were the greatest fighter in the NBA?
It’s all counterfeit. No, no, no. My problem was, for some reason and I don’t know why, the people that are bigger than you assume you’re afraid of them, number one. And two, that they are tougher than you are. And the tough part never bothered me. I didn’t consider myself tough. I wasn’t afraid of a lot of people, but the reason I wasn’t afraid is I tried not to get into confrontations where I had to defend something. My position was this: If I got into a confrontation with a guy much bigger than I was, if I got lucky enough to win that, it would make him look bad and if he did [win], he would come out looking bad.
I never caused any problems with anybody. I was hoping nobody would cause anything with me, but I think some guys who are bigger than you assume that you’re afraid of them and I think that’s what caused the problem. I had a saying: Once it starts, you’re not going to be able to stop it. Somebody else is going to have to stop it or end it. I got into a couple of confrontations — nothing that serious. I tried to stay away from it as much as I could. Sometimes people won’t allow you to stay away, and fortunately I was able to defend myself.
Your most memorable confrontation had to be against Zelmo Beaty, who was 6-foot-9 and who you had played against in college, right?
With him, when I was a senior, I think Zelmo might have been a junior and they were better than we were. His team was better because he was a big, strong guy and we didn’t have a center at A&T who could physically play him. So they beat us in the tournament. For some reason, I have no idea why, when he went to St. Louis, he must have had a flashback or something and he got into it. He got after Tom Meschery, and Tom was a teammate of mine. I just got out there, trying to separate them, and I guess Zelmo had a flashback on me at A&T, so now he’s challenging me and the rest is history. To make a long story short, it didn’t go real well for him. And like I said, once it started, it was hard to stop. He was a terrific player, though.
In 1970, you became a player-coach. What were those dual roles like?
It’s very simple. If you look back then, there were five player-coaches. There was only one who was really successful, and his name was Bill Russell. I say it all the time: The reason Bill Russell was a great coach was because Bill Russell the coach had Bill Russell the player playing for him. I had Al Attles playing for me, and we never won the championship. If you look down, even a guy like Lenny Wilkens, as good as he was, they never won a championship when he was a player-coach. The reason that teams did it was you saved the salary. You pay one guy one salary and it takes two jobs. Money was a problem back then. All you have to do is look now; you don’t see player-coaches any longer.
Was it tough to multitask and try to do everything?
Oh, absolutely. Here’s the problem when you become a player-coach: You can’t change what you do as a coach and then go in the game and change it as a player. For instance, when you go on the floor, you can’t say, “OK, now, I’m a player, and I’m going to think like a player,” and turn to a guy on the bench and say, “You monitor the coaching.” What happens is when you’re on the floor, as a coach, you’re supposed to think like a coach, but you’re thinking like a player. How can you start getting on your players for making mistakes at halftime when you’re making the same mistakes? You’re throwing away the ball, missing shots, taking bad shots, not playing defense. As a coach, you can say all those things, but as a player, they gonna look at you and say, “You’re making the same mistakes.” It just doesn’t work.
Did it have any significance for you, being one of the first African American coaches in the league?
Let’s be honest: Back then, it was something that didn’t happen very often. Like I said, Bill was the first; Lenny and I came the same year. I think you have to be very, very careful — Bill was able to coach a championship team, I was able to coach a championship team, Lenny was able to coach a championship team, Doc Rivers, but it hasn’t been done very often. I think anytime you start thinking it was you as a coach, you better start looking at your bench and who those players were, because if you don’t have the players out there, you are not going to do it. And, of course, K.C. out in Boston. Actually, he did it in Washington and Boston. But you’ve got to get the right players. You’ve got to be careful that you don’t get it twisted: I just had very, very good players. Without those players, we wouldn’t be talking about it today. That’s the way that works.
You coached the Warriors to the championship in 1975. What was that run like for you?
I’ve often said this: Any coach on any level, they all would have one team that they said was special. Coaches that were fortunate to have more than one championship team, if you asked them, they’d always say there’s one team that stands out above the rest. We only won one championship, we missed another chance, but if you take the coach who’s won the most championships and asked Russell or anybody who has won more than one championship, and you said, “Who’s your favorite team?” — they’d always come up with one team, because it’s something special that happens.
In our case, no one thought much of us. I remember after we lost the first game of the season, someone wrote an article to call the season off, because we’re going to be terrible all year. We ended up winning the championship, and the same writer acted like he never said it. But that’s OK: Opinions are like noses, everybody’s got one. The one thing that resonated with that team is that they never, ever believed what was said about them, good or bad. When things didn’t go well, they never believed what was said about them, and then when we started winning and things started changing, all of a sudden people started saying so many nice things about us that we never believed it anyway. Here’s what they believed in — they believed in each other, the total team, and they did the things necessary to win. That was a special team and I was fortunate to be a part of it.
You guys swept Baltimore in the championship and you ended up being ejected in Game 4 for rushing onto the floor to confront Bullets forward Mike Riordan. Why go out there?
I saw what they did to [Warriors star forward] Rick [Barry] and I understood the thinking. The thinking was, We were playing a team that we should be up 3-0, because we’re much better than they are, but we’re down 3-0. We have to do anything we possibly can to get this thing turned around. I’m not too bright, but I do know one thing: If you give a team life, maybe all they need is one game and then they can win four in a row. I didn’t want them to have life, and that’s why I got up there when they were trying to attack Rick.
Could you imagine a coach in today’s NBA going after a player on an opposing team?
If I said I couldn’t imagine that, it would mean I’m not very bright. But the one thing I want to get across is I didn’t go out to find anybody. I went out to prevent anything from happening to one of my players. Now, if something happened beyond that, then that would’ve occurred. But that wasn’t my main focus. I wasn’t going out there to physically fight a person, I was going out so that a person didn’t get my player.
Rick Barry was one of the all-time great players in the NBA. Mike Riordan [was] a good basketball player but not on Rick Barry’s level. If those two get into any kind of confrontation and the referee puts both of them out of the game, who wins that battle, the Warriors or the Bullets? That’s our best player against a good player for them. It wasn’t Elvin Hayes or Wes Unseld. What happens is they win that battle and get a better chance to win that game. But if I get kicked out of the game and my assistant coach is still here, my players are still here, the most important thing is Rick is still here. It was a no-brainer to me, but I never envisioned getting kicked out of the game. I didn’t start the confrontation.
You’ve been a player, coach, general manager, vice-president, and consultant with the Warriors. What has it been like being with one organization for so long?
I thought I was going to be with them for one year, so I think we’ve outlasted that. It’s not something I think about on a daily basis. A lot of times people will come to me and say, “You know how long you’ve been there?” I’ve never thought about it that way. When it’s time to go, I’ll go. But I still enjoy it. The one thing I can say is that over the years, you’ve seen the management side change. For instance, when I got into the league, we had a general manager, owner, and coach. Over the years it’s changed to where you’ve got a lot more people involved. When I first got into it, we didn’t have an assistant coach. We had one coach. Now, it’s four, five, six assistants, scouting and all those things. The league has come a long, long way. When it changes, you get more and more people involved. But even if you get more people involved, you still have to have an anchor at the top, and then you go down from there. Years ago, we never had a community relations side. Now you have to get out and be part of the community, just like you want them to be part of your organization. I go over to that side now, but I still have the necessary ingredients to be on the other side, too. It’s been a nice relationship as far as I’m concerned.