Al Attles, an NBA pioneer
The longest tenured employee in the NBA talks about winning championships, Wilt’s 100 and race quotas
Sitting quietly on press row during all of the Golden State Warriors’ home games is Al Attles, the longest tenured employee of any NBA team with 56 seasons with the franchise. Attles, 79, joined the Philadelphia Warriors as a fifth-round pick out of North Carolina A&T in 1960 and has been affiliated with the franchise ever since as a player, coach, general manager and now a community ambassador.
He’s one of six Warriors players with a retired jersey number (16). He became the second black coach after Bill Russell to lead his team to an NBA championship in 1975 and had a 557-518 record over 13 seasons. During his 11-year playing career, he scored 17 points for the then-Philadelphia Warriors when Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain scored a still standing NBA-record 100 points against the New York Knicks in Hershey, Pennsylvania, on March 2, 1962. The Newark, New Jersey, native also was the Warriors’ general manager for three seasons and was honored by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame with the John R. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014.
A day before his reigning NBA champion Warriors took a 2-0 NBA Finals lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Attles sat down with The Undefeated at his home in Oakland Hills, California, and talked about his challenges as an African-American in the NBA as a player and coach, Chamberlain, Muhammad Ali and more.
The Undefeated: How do you feel about being with the Warriors for so long?
Attles: They haven’t caught up to me yet. I hide. I don’t want them to call me and say, ‘We want to talk to you.’ I know what ‘talk to you’ means.
The Undefeated: What was it like when you joined the Warriors?
Attles: When I got to Philadelphia, I wasn’t even going to try out for the team. They didn’t have many people that looked like us on the team. There was Wilt, Guy [Rodgers], Andy Johnson was my roommate and Woody Sauldsberry. There were eight teams in the league back then. They didn’t have more than four that looked like us on a team.
I was going to be five and I said, ‘There is no way I am going to make this team. No way, they already got four [blacks].’ But guess what? They traded Woody Sauldsberry to St. Louis. He had been [the 1958 NBA] Rookie of the Year, but the reason why they traded him was because a guy named Wilt Chamberlain showed up. When Wilt Chamberlain shows up, I don’t care if you were Rookie of the Year or Most Valuable Player, you’re gone.
The Undefeated: What was your first recollection of meeting Muhammad Ali, who passed away last Friday?
Attles: The first time I met him, he threatened me. He came and [put his fists up]. I said, ‘No, don’t do that.’ He did it jokingly. There are certain people you hear about and know about. He was an icon for all of us because he came up in a time when it wasn’t as great as it is now. He was looked at differently because of his style. Those of us who kind of got to know him really, really looked to him as an icon and somebody we wanted to back. He was just a great influence on all of us.
When he would walk into a room his presence was in [another] category. Obviously, I’d put Wilt in there, [Bill] Russell and Joe Louis, who I met early on. When [Ali] walked into a room, it didn’t make a difference who was in the room — all of the sudden he was there. He was just a great, great person.
The Undefeated: What was Wilt Chamberlain like away from the court?
Attles: “When Wilt came here [to my home], my wife said that we were going to go out and go to dinner. He said, ‘No, I want to eat here. I’m happy here. I’m more comfortable here than going out to dinner.’ It was an interesting comment, because you would think great people want to be in situations where they are recognized differently.
The Undefeated: What was Wilt’s 100-point game like?
Attles: He tried to come out of the game before he got 100 points. They wouldn’t take him out because [Warriors coach] Frank McGuire acted like he couldn’t hear him.
He was so good, but as good as he was as a player, he was even better as a person and that always resonates in my mind for people who didn’t know him. They would think all he cared about was scoring points or whatever and that couldn’t be further from the truth.
The Undefeated: Were the Knicks mad about Wilt scoring 100?
Attles: Absolutely. They started freezing the ball. I mean they were down by, I don’t know the number, maybe 20 points — or whatever the number was — and there was a 24-second clock. They were holding the ball instead of shooting the ball normally, trying to get back in the game.
The Undefeated: What do you remember about the locker room?
Attles: Probably the least most excited guy in the locker room was Wilt. I mean when you score those numbers you probably feel like, ‘Oh this is just a regular game for me.’ The only thing that surprised me about that game was years later, I used to run into people who would say, ‘Oh, yeah, you played in the game where the guy got 100 points and you lost the game.’ There was a feeling that a lot of people who were just anti-Wilt.
The Undefeated: What do you think about the 100-point game not being on film?
Attles: It was in Hershey, Pennsylvania. They didn’t have lights and all those things you [need] to film the game. It wasn’t in our regular arena. It was where we had our training camp. If it had been at Convention Hall in Philadelphia, it would’ve been filmed.
The Undefeated: Do you think Stephen Curry could get close to scoring 100?
Attles: I just think that the defenses now would make it almost virtually impossible to score 100 points. What is the easiest way to stop a guy from scoring 100 points? Take the ball out of his hands. They’re going to send a second guy at you. [The Warriors] play the game the way it’s supposed to be played. What are they going to do? Pass the basketball.
The Undefeated: How would you compare Stephen Curry and Rick Barry [Attles former teammate and legendary shooter] from a jump-shooting standpoint?
Attles: How would you compare apples and oranges? Both good fruit. I’m not smart enough to make that comparison.
The Undefeated: You were named the Warriors’ head coach midway through the 1969-70 season and became a full-time head coach when you retired after the 1970-71 season. What was it like being a player-coach?
Attles: I may be wrong, but I don’t think you can be a player-coach. You can only be one or the other. I said that if I decide to do this, I won’t be a player, I’ll just be a coach.
The Undefeated: Did you like coaching?
Attles: No, I did not like it at all, at first. If not for [Warriors owner] Mr. [Frank] 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.
The Undefeated: How’d you feel when you found out Bill Russell had become coach?
Attles: I wasn’t surprised because of who he was because of what he had done in Boston. It was just a natural progression. You think about it, there were eight teams in the NBA and one African-American coach. Well, we didn’t call them an African-American coach, we called him whatever you wanted to call him back then. Then all of a sudden, they came to a guy named Al Attles and a guy named Lenny Wilkins.
I don’t credit myself with it. I credit Mr. Mieuli with it, because it was not a very easy decision for any city to do that.
The Undefeated: So, is it true that before the 1975 NBA championship the Warriors were almost sold and moved?
Attles: For as happy as I was that we won a championship, I was happier with Mr. Mieuli. Only because I knew what he had to go through to keep the team here. I was in a meeting with him and I’ll never forget. A guy [tells Mieuli] that he wants to buy the team. At first, Mr. Mieuli agreed to sell the team to the guy.
“That’s what happened. But, see when Mr. Mieuli [initially] agreed to sell the team, the man [he was negotiating with] never intimated that he was going move the team [out of the Bay area]. But in the last part of the meeting, the man said he was going keep the team in the Bay Area for another year and then move it to Texas. Mr. Mieuli, myself and his attorney were in the room. [Mieuli] took all the information, turned it over and said, ‘I can’t do this.’ The guy was shocked, because if he hadn’t said he was going to move the team, if he had not revealed that, the team would’ve been sold.
The Undefeated: What do you remember about coaching the 1975 NBA champion Warriors?
Attles: If you go back and look, we had two Caucasians on that team in Rick Barry and Jeff Mullins. And the rest of us were African-Americans and I remember sitting in Mr. Mieuli’s office and I told him what the racial mix of this team was going to be. And the man slammed this thing down on his desk, like I stole something, and said, ‘If there’s anybody in this Bay Area that doesn’t like what you’re doing, then I don’t want them in my building.’ And to me that spoke volumes.
The Undefeated: Did you ever face racism as a player?
Attles: It was hidden. But see all that had been done before I got there. Because certain people set the stage: Elgin [Baylor], Wilt, Earl Lloyd. Those guys had gone through all the tough times. They used to tell you stories about things that were going on. We never faced too much. They had set the stage for us by the time we got there.
The Undefeated: What did it mean for you to see the Warriors win a championship last year?
Attles: I’ve been very, very fortunate – I’ve played with some great players, I’ve coached some great players, fortunate to be a part of a championship before. There’s an old saying, ‘Great things happen to great people,’ and it’s nice when you have good people. I was happy for [last season’s Warriors]. It goes from the ownership, to the players, to the workers — to everybody. There’s only one championship every year.