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Jenkins: Attles is the Epitome of Class

by Bruce Jenkins for the Official Hall of Fame Program

On certain evenings, high in the hills above the Golden State Warriors’ headquarters, neighbors hear the sound of drumming. It’s a tasteful, unobtrusive sound, and generally right on time. It comes from the Oakland home of Al Attles, a jazz buff from way back. He tends to go it alone, which is fitting: If humility were the No. 1 criterion for election, he would have made the Hall of Fame decades ago.

At some point in our lives, most of us have felt unwanted. Maybe it was a job turned sour, a fractured relationship or a personality clash, but it always signified transition – a time to move on. Over the course of his 54-year NBA career, Attles never had that feeling. He broke in with the Warriors in 1960 and he’s still with the organization, a distinguished, smartly dressed man representing the essence of class. When Attles steps forward to accept John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement award, he will do so as a living embodiment of the league’s history.

A number of Hall of Famers represent longtime symbols of their teams -- the Celtics’ Red Auerbach and Tommy Heinsohn come quickly to mind, or the Lakers and Jerry West -- but none can match Attles’ particular brand of longevity. Without interruption, he has represented the Warriors a player, player-coach, full-time head coach, general manager and multilayered administrator. He even held an ownership stake for several years. He was never traded, fired, or phased out. He never sought greener pastures elsewhere. In that sense, from Philadelphia to San Francisco to Oakland, the 77-year-old Attles IS the Warriors.

The odds were stacked against him, right from the start. Teams had no interest in loading rosters with African-American players in the early ‘60s, limiting their choices to outright stars or products of well-known universities. The NBA seemed an especially daunting proposition for a fifth-round draft pick out of obscure North Carolina A&T – so much so that Attles took a job as a junior-high school teacher in his native, Newark, N.J. “I even had the keys to the classroom,” he recalls. “I went down to Philadelphia for tryouts on a lark, really. This was a team with Wilt Chamberlain, Tom Gola, Paul Arizin, some really top-line guys. It’s funny, though: After that first practice, I’m thinking, “I don’t know much about the league, but I can play with these guys.”

And so he did. Salary—for the entire season—$5,500.

Tom Meschery, the rugged forward who joined the team the following year, remembers Attles as “a guy with great lateral movement and fabulous speed. He could beat everybody in a footrace, even Wilt. He would have made every All-Defensive Team, if they’d had ‘em back then, and he’d guard anyone: Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Bob Cousy. Most of the publicity went to K.C. Jones as a backcourt defender, because he was on more of a sexy team (the Celtics), so people tended to overlook Al. Not the players, though. They knew exactly who he was. Al was the single toughest fighter I ever saw in the league.”

Back then, enforcers were a vital part of any roster. There were only eight teams in the NBA, rivalries became fierce, and brawls were commonplace. “The thing about Al, though, he wasn’t dirty,” Lenny Wilkens recalled. “He was just on you like a glove, the whole time. He took pride in that. He wasn’t a guy to start any fights.”

“That’s right,” agreed Nate Thurmond, a longtime friend and teammate. “Al was a finisher.”

Decidedly kind and gentle by nature, Attles is almost embarrassed to recall some of his on-court mayhem. “I wasn’t that tough,” he says, fooling no one. “I was raised never to strike someone without good reason. But when a scuffle broke out, and I saw one of my teammates in trouble – I just couldn’t let that happen.”

Attles, barely 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, came to be known as The Destroyer. Two of his most famous knockouts were against far bigger men: 6-9 Zelmo Beaty and 6-8 Bob Ferry. Beaty slugged Meschery underneath the basket during a game against the St. Louis Hawks, “and Al drove Zelmo right into the stands,” said Thurmond. “Just picked him up, threw him into the seats, then dove on top of him and started pounding. I think Zelmo thanked all the people that pulled Al off of him.”

Ferry, then with Detroit, made the mistake of messing with Attles in a game played at Madison Square Garden – right in front of Al’s mom, who rarely saw him play but had made the trip over from Newark. “Sure enough, all hell breaks out,” he said. “After the game, she came right down on the court and let me have it: ‘This is what you do? Get into fights? I didn’t teach you to fight in public!’” I tried to explain myself, but it didn’t help the next morning when the New York Post ran a full-page photo and there I am (arms flailing, crazed look on his face). How am I supposed to explain that?”

To hear Attles speak is to realize you’ve never heard a voice quite that deep. It hardly seems real. It’s the voice of a drill sergeant, or an angry grizzly bear – “except lower,” said Meschery. “That voice is about three octaves below basso profundo.”

All of which makes it pleasantly stunning to know the real man, and to learn how he’s best remembered.

“I’ve known him nearly 40 years,” said Scotty Stirling, who worked in the Warriors’ front office from 1976-82, “and I’ve never heard him say one swear word. Not even a ‘damn.’ Guys would go out on the town, but Al was a loner, rarely left his hotel room. He’s very religious, but he’s not some nut who wears it on his sleeve. He always felt his actions spoke louder than anything he could say about it.”

In a league full of hard drinkers and carousers, “Al never took a drink – and I mean, to this day,” said Thurmond. “Never smoked a cigarette. Off the court, he wouldn’t think of getting into a fight; just walked away. We always wondered how he was always up so bright and early for a Sunday-morning bus trip on the road. It’s because he’d already been up to attend church service. He and his wife (Wilhelmina) have been married 51 years now. Al’s the kind of guy, when people say they want their son to be like somebody, and they mention Al’s name, you know they mean it.”

As Attles explains, “I don’t know why I’ve never taken a drink, or touched a cigarette. I just didn’t, ever. I’d see guys at a party just falling-down drunk, making fools of themselves, and I knew I never wanted to be seen like that.”

For a player overshadowed by his own backcourt teammate (the late Guy Rodgers, also part of this Hall of Fame class), he had his moments. He ranked fourth in the NBA with a 50.3 shooting percentage in 1965-66. He once had 17 assists in a game. In the shadow of Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game against the Knicks in ’62, Attles didn’t miss a shot – 8-for-8 from the floor, 1-for-1 from the line.

And he is vastly underrated, historically, as a coach. Over 14 years, he led the Warriors into six postseasons and notched a franchise-record 59 wins in 1975-76. Not bad for somone who never had any intention to coach and turned down owner Franklin Mieuli’s offer – three times – before agreeing to replace George Lee and become the Warriors’ player-coach with 30 games left in the 1969-70 season.

If Attles doesn’t get enough credit, it’s because he’s more comfortable diverting it toward others. A couple of black player-coaches, Wilkens and Bill Russell, had gained NBA acclaim before Attles assumed that role. But how many people realize that when Attles took the Warriors’ full-time head coaching job in 1971-72, he became the first African-American man to hold that distinction in any of the major professional sports?

When the Warriors reached the 1975 Finals against K.C. Jones’ Washington Bullets, here were two black men facing each other in another American sports landmark. Attles feels the pride, but not the glory. “K.C. and I never talked about it – then, or ever,” he said. “People say it shouldn’t be a big deal, and they’re right. That’s how K.C. and I felt about it. Just went about our business.”

Rick Barry, the lone superstar on a team of relatively obscure players, remembers the Warriors’ 1975 championship as “the biggest upset in the history of the three major sports. We were supposed to have no chance. We would get swept in four. And we swept the Bullets. We made reality out of fantasy.”

Less debatable, to be sure, was Attles’ historically creative use of a roster. It was common to see 10 Warriors averaging double-figures in minutes played, and even the 11th man became significant at times. That hadn’t been done before, and the strategy has rarely been sustained in the ensuing decades. Attles even had the temerity to bench a cold-shooting Barry for nine minutes, lasting halfway through the fourth quarter, during the Warriors’ 83-79 victory over Chicago in Game 7 of the ’75 Western Conference Finals. That’s how much faith he had in the rest of the team.

“When I was playing, eight guys played and four didn’t,” he said. “Today, it’s common to see playoff rotations whittled down to seven, eight guys. I wanted everybody wearing a uniform to be involved. People thought I was crazy, but I was lucky to have players who accepted their roles, knew Rick was the star, and didn’t get jealous. We had a two-center setup (George Johnson and Cliff Ray) that really worked. Guys on the court were always fresh, ready to play tough defense every second. It was beautiful. I’ve always said, once in their life, every coach should have a team like that.”

Heaven knows, Attles knew the meaning of a one-man team. He was regularly on court during the 1961-62 season in which Chamberlain averaged an astounding 50.4 points, 48 minutes and 25.7 rebounds per game. He was especially close to Wilt, and although he didn’t follow the big man into those after-hours night clubs, the two shared many quiet moments off-court.

“I’ve always defended Wilt, as a man, because he was so misunderstood,” Attles said over lunch recently. “You think about being Wilt Chamberlain: seven feet tall, larger than life, and every single time you walk into a room, everybody notices. Most of ‘em want to make some kind of connection. But if he turns down an autograph here and there, then he’s the bad guy.

“Here’s the Wilt I knew: One time on the street we came upon a man who was really down and out. Wilt went over and started talking to the guy, finally handed him a hundred bucks. Says, ‘Go get some food for yourself. It’s on me. Just do me one favor. Don’t tell anybody. I mean it, don’t tell a soul where it came from.’ I’ve got many stories just like that, piled on top of each other. That kind and generous man – that was Wilt to me.”

They’ll always have one basketball thing in common: enjoying their career-best performances on the same evening in ’62 against the Knicks: 100 points for Wilt, nary a missed shot – or a shred of publicity – for Attles. Years later, Chamberlain presented his old friend with a commemorative basketball, mounted on a pedestal that read, “To Al, who did all the right things at the wrong time.”

Maybe that was true, long ago, on a night in Hershey, Pennsylvania. But it doesn’t define the man. Through more than a half-century in the NBA, Al Attles’ timing has been impeccable.

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