Al Attles: A Warrior Through and Through
You may remember him as the second-leading scorer the night Wilt Chamberlain dropped 100 points. You may remember him as “The Destroyer.” Or you may remember him for his fashionable suits while he coached. There is one thing, however, Dub Nation knows: there is one person who is known as the Face of the Franchise, and his name is Al Attles.
Alvin Austin Attles Jr. has been with the Warriors in one capacity or another since 1960, the longest uninterrupted streak of any person for one team. He spent the first 24 years as a player, player-coach, head coach, and general manager. He then continued to serve in a variety of capacities for the team, including administrator and dedicated community ambassador; Attles has done anything and everything for this franchise.
The 39th pick of the 1960 draft, Attles came from a small school, North Carolina A&T, when many NBA teams would select players from notable universities and were unlikely to give many roster spots to African-Americans. Feeling that he was unlikely to make the team, Attles was prepared to take a job as a junior high school teacher in his hometown of Newark, N.J. He said: “I even had the keys to the classroom.”
“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 play with them he did, earning a spot alongside a number of future Hall of Famers, including long-time friend Wilt Chamberlain. Though his career stats may not jump off the page — 8.9 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists — he was a crucial piece for the team. In the era of enforcers, when teams had players inserted into the game to specifically disrupt other scorers and play stern defense, Attles was the one player who earned the nickname “The Destroyer.”
By no means did Attles play in a way that brought harm to fellow players. Lenny Wilkens, who played against Attles and would eventually coach against him as well, recalled: “Al wasn’t dirty. 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.”
The “Destroyer” nickname fit Attles’ disruptive defense and on-court play, but not the man. The late Scotty Stirling, who worked in the Warriors’ front office from 1976-82, said: “I’ve known him nearly 40 years 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 always felt his actions spoke louder than anything he could say about it.”
In all, Attles spent 11 years playing for the team, and even moved from Philadelphia to San Francisco when others did not. He finished with 711 games played, currently the fifth most in the franchise’s history. He even managed the team as a player-coach for his final season-and-a-half, taking the role part-way through the 1969-70 campaign.
Convincing Attles to become a coach took some coaxing, though. As Bruce Jenkins once noted, Attles “turned down owner Franklin Mieuli’s offer – three times – before agreeing to replace George Lee and becoming the Warriors’ player-coach with 30 games left in the 1969-70 season.”
Yes, three times. In fact, when asked if he wanted to ever coach in an interview, Attles replied: “No, I did not like it at all, at first. If not for Mr. Mieuli, you’re not sitting over there where you are and I’m not here. He was a great man. He had to be a great man to convince me to be a coach, because I didn’t want to be a coach.”
And yet, Attles eventually accepted the player-coach role, then retired from playing in order to coach full-time beginning with the 1971-72 season.
Mieuli’s faith in Attles was not misplaced. Despite his initial refusals, Attles led the Warriors to six postseasons over 14 years, including it’s first Bay Area championship in 1975 in a sweep against a heavily-favored Washington Bullets squad, and followed that up by winning a then-franchise record 59 games in 1975-76.
One notable feat does not show up in Attles’ career highlights, achievements, and stat lines: he was one of the first African-Americans to hold the position of head coach in any of the major professional sports, a fact that he downplayed at every opportunity.
Long-time Warriors broadcaster Jim Barnett, who played under Attles for three seasons, said: “Al is not a person who would ever remind you of that. This is an incredibly humble man who has never sought any attention whatsoever for anything he’s done. Even when they won it all in ’75, he deflected the praise. I think of class and grace when it comes to Al. I think of a gentleman.”
Attles brought a certain type of flair to coaching that was not often seen in the NBA, and not just in his fashionable shirts and suits. His focus was on the team as a whole.
Playing for Attles meant that everybody was involved; he frequently used rotations of 10-11 players, most of whom reached double-figures in minutes played. Warriors legend Rick Barry, who played both with and under Attles, put it this way: “We were a team of the highest order.”
“Everyone on that team knew that his time would come,” said Barry. “If you weren’t cutting it, someone else would get a shot. Al didn’t care who it was — and I should know.” In Game 7 of the 1975 Western Conference Finals against the Chicago Bulls, Barry, who had averaged over 30 points per game in the regular season, was benched by Attles after a cold shooting performance in the first half.
Barry continued: “Think about that. How many coaches would take their top player out of a game that important? But the guys picked me up.” That was The Al Attles Method.
Attles also defended his players much like he did in his playing days. Trailing the Warriors three games to none in the 1975 Finals, Washington resorted to provoking Rick Barry into a fight in an attempt to have him ejected. Though a Bullets player forcefully grabbed Barry from behind on a play, it was Attles who came into the scrum to ensure Barry was not at the center of a brawl. Attles knowingly got ejected and sacrificed his chance to celebrate on-court with the team, who won that game and the NBA championship.
Attles coached 1,075 games and amassed 557 wins, both Warriors franchise records, posting a .518 winning percentage.
Attles’ enshrinement into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame with the 2019 class is not the first time he has been recognized for his efforts: in August of 2014, he was awarded with the John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award, the most prestigious of its kind presented by the Hall of Fame to honor coaches, players and contributors whose outstanding accomplishments have impacted the game of basketball. In 2017, Attles was named a co-recipient of the 2017 National Basketball Coaches Association’s Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award, which honors coaches whose bodies of work have had a positive and powerful impact on the NBA coaching profession. Attles’ endless contributions as a player, executive and civic leader also led to his induction into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame in 1993.
Additionally, the Warriors will continue to honor the legacy of Attles for years to come with a college basketball showcase: the inaugural Al Attles Classic will take place on December 21st, 2019.
While his number 16 hangs in the rafters of Chase Center as one of only six players in Warriors history to have his number retired — along with Rick Barry (#24), Wilt Chamberlain (#13), Tom Meschery (#14), Chris Mullin (#17) and Nate Thurmond (#42) — the legacy of Alvin “Al” Attles goes far beyond his accomplishments as a player. Forever a dedicated Warrior, Attles’ nearly 60-year commitment to the team, community, and fanbase will be immortalized with his enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.
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