Although his team was overmatched in the minds of most, Barry and his West teammates dominated the 1967 contest from start to finish.
Free throws have to be earned.
But there never was a bigger head-scratcher than the 1967 All-Star Game, the San Francisco treat that was played at the Cow Palace some 40 years ago this year.
On paper, the annual showcase event looked to be jayvee-versus-varsity stuff. Possibly the greatest collection of talent ever assembled at the time, the East All-Stars included luminaries like John Havlicek and Don Ohl in the backcourt, Jerry Lucas and Chet Walker on the wings and Bill Russell in the middle. And that was the bench. The first unit featured guards Hal Greer and Oscar Robertson, forwards Bailey Howell and Willis Reed and center Wilt Chamberlain.
“Ridiculous,” grouses Rick Barry, one of the sacrificial lambs on the West squad that year.
Of the 10 East team members, seven would go on to be selected among the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History, a list that included Chamberlain, Greer, Havlicek, Lucas, Reed, Robertson and Russell.
Forty years later, more than one hoops junkie will tell you Wilt, Russ and Big O were the best players ever at their positions. Period.
“The East team was positively loaded,” Barry recalls. “Wilt, Oscar, Greer, Havlicek, Lucas, Reed, Russell...I mean, isn’t there some kind of rule that limits the amount of talent that one team can have on the court at same time?”
The West squad wasn’t a bunch of second-stringers exactly, what with Barry, Elgin Baylor, Bill Bridges and Dave DeBusschere as the forwards, Jerry West, Guy Rodgers, Jerry Sloan and Lenny Wilkens in the backcourt and Nate Thurmond and Darrall Imhoff in the paint. But compared to an East team that averaged nearly a half-dozen years’ experience per man, it clearly was the new kid on the NBA block.
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Well, head coach Fred Schaus did tower over East counterpart Red Auerbach, didn’t he?
“As the only established big man on our team, I knew that a lot would be expected of me,” recalls Thurmond, a co-star with Barry for the San Francisco Warriors at the time. “I mean, how good can a team be when Bill Russell comes off the bench? I would have to be at my best for us to have a chance.”
In the days prior to the game, the buzz around the country wasn’t whether the East would claim its fifth All-Star Game in a row. The question was when Auerbach would light up his trademark victory cigar—before the National Anthem or during the game.
Turned out the Bay Area duo of Barry and Thurmond didn’t receive the telegram.
From the moment Barry set foot in the League, he was to underdogs what Jaws was to human limbs. Widely considered to be too skinny for the big time, too selfish for the good of his team, too passionate for his own well-being, Barry stuck it to the critics the previous season, when he led a rather ordinary Warriors team to an 18-game improvement and carted off Rookie of the Year honors. So the latest predictions of doom and gloom only served to throw more logs on the inferno that would rage inside him for years.
“All we heard was how the West team had absolutely no chance to win the All-Star Game let alone even hope to be competitive in it,” bristles Barry, 62, who looks like he can average double figures even now. “Personally, I didn’t want to hear it. How can you say you’re better than us until the game has been played? If you’re better than us, then prove it on the court. I never needed additional motivation to play my best, but the talk fanned the flames nonetheless.”
Thurmond tallied 16 and 18 in the West win.
“My attitude was, ‘Let’s the play the game and see what happens,’” says Thurmond, 65, who hasn’t strayed far as the owner of Big Nate’s Barbecue in the Bay Area. “If we got off to a good start and built some momentum, I knew we could make a game of it.”
In Barry and Thurmond, who had the young Warriors off to a 27-14 start en route to an unlikely NBA Finals berth, they had the right guys for an ambush. At 22, Barry already was the most dominant offensive force in the League—only weeks earlier, he went off for 203 points in one ungodly stretch of five games in five days in five different cities—while the 25-year-old Thurmond had emerged as the best young big around. In fact, Wilt considered Thurmond—not Russell—to be the most difficult matchup in his career.
It also didn’t hurt the West chances that the game was played in the big barn known as the Cow Palace, which the Warriors called home for much of the season. Barry referred to its friendly rims as “sewer pipes” because of their tendency to suck down shot after shot.
“I was thrilled to play the game at the Cow Palace, not only because it was in front of our home fans, but because I loved the rims there,” Barry says. “They were almost as kind as the collapsible ones they have nowadays.”
While the Westerners lacked have much size, strength and experience, they did have lots of speed, quickness and fresh legs. So Schaus played to the team’s strengths, and instructed them to pick up the pace and turn the game into a shootout.
Darn if the plan didn’t work, too.
On the backboards, Thurmond held his own against King Kong and Godzilla, which allowed the West to run, run and run some more.
“When you’re young and healthy, you just tell your legs to move a little bit faster and jump a little bit higher, that’s all,” Thurmond explains. When the pace slowed, Barry was stuck on automatic at the perimeter.
“Even though the players hadn’t practiced for any length of time, we knew how to play the game the way it was supposed to be played,” says Barry, who remains close to the game as a talk show host on NBA Radio on Sirius. “If someone had a hot hand, there was a concentrated effort to get him the ball. Nobody cared about his personal statistics. The goal was to win the game. I shot the ball very well that night, but what made it even better was that we were effective as a team.”
No sooner did the West toast his team for 39 points in the first period en route to a six-point lead than Auerbach began to fume in a way nobody thought possible. “I’m sure Red found it incomprehensible that his team could lose,” Barry says. “Competitor that he was, it was no surprise that he became so upset.” Finally, after the deficit reached double digits, Auerbach vented on officials Earl Strom and Willie Smith and was given the heave-ho, the first and last coach to be ejected in All-Star competition.
Uh, did we mention times were a tad different back then?
“In that era, the All-Star Game was more about competition than entertainment,” Barry says. “Given the salaries we were paid back then, the additional $1,500 that the winners received was a big deal to us.”
When the haze cleared at halftime, the West owned a 77-67 lead and jaws hit the floors in front of Philcos across the country. Although never seriously threatened in the third quarter, the home team didn’t take their foot off the pedal until the final minutes.
Final score: Red Klotz All-Stars 135, 1967 Dream Team 120.
“Hard to believe, isn’t it?” Barry still shakes his head at the thought of it. “It was about as much fun as I ever had in one basketball game. Here I was in my second season in the League on the same court with players who I had idolized as a kid. The atmosphere bordered on surreal for me.”
The West team set a slew of records in the shocker, a few of which still stand—field-goal attempts in one game (Barry, 27; tied by Glen Rice in ’97), minutes played in one game (Thurmond, 42) and field goals in one quarter (DeBusschere, eight; tied by Rice in ’97).
DeBusschere finished with 22 points and Baylor added 20 more. West threw down 16 points and handed out a half-dozen assists. An ex-Warrior himself, Rodgers orchestrated the attack with a game-high eight helpers.
As for Most Valuable Player honors, the voters had to choose between Barry and Thurmond. Sort of like Nicole Kidman or Halle Berry. While Barry received the hardware on the basis of his 38 points, 16 field goals, six rebounds and three assists, a similar case could be made for Thurmond, who scored 16 pounds, grabbed 18 rebounds, blocked countless shots and even saved a kid from a burning building at halftime.
OK, so Thurmond didn’t save a kid, but Barry was convinced that his teammate deserved to be the man nonetheless.
“I’ve always believed that major events such as the All-Star Game should have a Most Outstanding Player and a Most Valuable Player,” Barry says. “I had the best numbers of any player, but if Nate hadn’t given us such an inside presence, we would have had no chance to be successful, pure and simple. He would have gotten my MVP vote.”
“It didn’t bother me that Rick got the award at all,” Thurmond shrugs. “Hey, we won the game, didn’t we?”
Sorry Red, give both those men a victory cigar.