Al Attles Has His Own Theories on Winning Basketball, 1977

[No intro needed for the great Al Attles. Toughest player on the court in the 1960s; most respected coach on the sideline in the 1970s through the early 1980s. In this brief article, written by NBA insider Phil Elderkin, Attles presents his unconventional, but successful, views of coaching. The article, which was published in April 1977, appeared in Basketball Digest.]


What is known merely as congestion in most New York City subway stations is often a two-shot foul in the National Basketball Association. That statement will introduce you to Al Attles, whose 11 years as one of pro basketball’s best defensive guards was constantly marked by turbulence.

Attles played his whole career as though he was a soldier on the Arab-Israeli border. Al wasn’t a dirty ballplayer, just an aggressive one. His nickname was “The Destroyer.” But what he destroyed were scoring reputations, not people.

Here was a man who was more crafted than gifted; more light bulb than star; more sparkplug than engine. Yet he beat the odds that say a fifth-round draft choice won’t even make it into the exhibition season.

Today, of course, Attles is the highly-respected coach of the Golden State Warriors, who two years ago were NBA champions. The man who was different as a player also is different as a coach.

Attles is not a believer in the standard pro basketball dialogue that says a team must have a super center to win—or one power forward and one defensive forward; or one playmaking guard and one shooting guard. Or that you win with your first seven or eight players or you don’t win it all. “I don’t have to believe something just because a lot of people say it’s true,” Attles explained. “What kind of logic is that? I think you can win with a good center or maybe two good centers, if they learn how to share the job.

“I’ve had forwards who relied strictly on finesse and quickness, and they could score against anybody,” he continued. “And when the shot is open, I don’t want my playmaking guard to pass to one of his teammates. I’m going to insist that he shoot.”

Attles also has repealed another NBA law by consistently playing 10, 11, and 12 men, while most clubs use only seven or eight. “A man who knows he is going to play ahead of time is more apt to come to the stadium in the right frame of mind than one who isn’t,” Attles says. 

“They can all shoot, so that’s not a problem. If they’ll hustle, practice hard, and give me everything they’ve got on defense, I’m going to find floor time for them. I’m not just talking numbers now, you understand. I’m talking quality in numbers.”

What are some of the problems of coaching?

“Motivation is always a problem,” Attles replied. “After you’ve been around for a while as a coach, more players tune you out when you rant and rave. They’ve heard it all before, and they don’t want to hear it again. So, you pick your spots for speeches and hope you get through to them.

“You also have to watch what is happening out on the court very carefully or you can get fooled,” he continued. “For example, your team appears to be running well and playing its normal game, only not many points are going up on your scoreboard.

“What happens is that a lot of players mentally take themselves out of the game. They relax. They suddenly begin shooting with the idea that maybe the ball will go into the basket, instead of making sure that the percentage is with them. They don’t even realize what’s happening. That’s when you wake them up by calling a time out.”

Players who try to rationalize defeats on the road also are a source of annoyance and concern to Attles. “I have found that when most teams lose on the road, they have a tendency to sit around and make excuses,” he said. “They’ll say things like—‘well, if we hadn’t played in Phoenix last night, we wouldn’t have lost in Los Angeles tonight. We were tired, the food was bad, and the plane ride was bumpy.’

“You let that kind of thinking get started in your clubhouse, and you’re really in trouble,” he continued. “Naturally, it’s tougher to win on the road. The advantage of playing in your own building, in front of your own fans, is always going to help the home team. But you can win your share on the road if you think you can.”

Many of Attles’ own best performances during his playing years came on the road, but there’s one in particular that stands out in his mind—and probably very few others’ minds. That was the night of March 2, 1962, when he scored 17 points for the Philadelphia Warriors on a perfect offensive game—eight-for-eight from the floor and one-for-one from the line. The trouble was that that was the same night, in Hershey, Pa., that Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points.

Perhaps the memory of that night, and the fact that so few noticed the man who had only 17 points despite an excellent game, is part of why still, as a coach, he prefers 10 or 12 good players to a single great one.

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