[In 2008, Philadelphia journalist Rich Westcott published an excellent book on Eddie Gottlieb, one of the NBA’s founding fathers who later famously drafted the NBA schedule out of his hat. The book, titled The Mogul, includes this wonderful passage about Al Attles:
In 1960, Gottlieb drafted guard Al Attles out of North Carolina AT & T in the fifth round. Attles went on to a 40-year career with the Warriors, first as a player for 11 years with Philadelphia and San Francisco, then as a coach for more than 13 years, during which time he became the first Black coach to guide a team (the Golden State Warriors) to an NBA championship, and finally as a top executive with the team.
A relatively unknown Black player such as Attles, a native of Newark, New Jersey, might have been short-changed by some owners. But that was not quite the case with Gottlieb. “When I went into his office to talk about a contract, he was shuffling some papers and looking real busy,” Attles recalled. “He said, ‘How much do you want? I said, ‘$7,500.’ Without looking up, he said. ‘That’s too much.’ Now, I’m thinking, I’ll go back to Newark and get a job teaching school. But he took a piece of paper, wrote something down, and slid it across the desk to me. It said $5,000. He saw the look on my face, and said, ‘I’ll give you $500 more.’ At the end of the season, he gave me a bonus, and we made some money from the playoffs, so I wound up with $7,500.”
In this article, published in the April 1974 issue of SPORT Magazine, the now long-passed, but beloved, San Francisco sportswriter Wells Twombly writes about Attles’ unlikely rise to NBA stardom as a player, coach, and GM. Attles, now deservedly in the Naismith Hall of Fame, was/is the real deal, and his story should remain an inspiration for all longshots. Good things can still happen to good people. Don’t believe it, read on.]
Blazing along the sidewalk in his powder-blue knit jumpsuit, short black leather overcoat and glistening boots, and looking out at the world through shaded glasses, Alvin Attles is the perfect picture of a got-it-made street dude, full of hep and jive. But it is strictly an illusion.
Actually, Attles is a suave, sophisticated, precise man with absolutely no desire to con anybody, which is part of the reason he has managed to keep the Golden State Warriors from collapsing into a smoldering heap of jerseys, sneakers, short pants, and soiled underwear.
The Golden State Warriors? Well, they are the only team in the National Basketball Association that represents a state’s official nickname. This is because they play their home games in Oakland, a city so supposedly lacking in chic that some sports promoters hate to admit that there’s a there there (to whip Gertrude Stein’s classic put down of her hometown to death).
Perhaps you remember the Warriors in their previous incarnations as the Philadelphia Warriors with funny little Eddie Gottlieb coaching the team and manning the ticket booth right up to game time. Or as the San Francisco Warriors with pictures of cable cars stitched to their work shirts and a geographic designation that said, simply, The City, which is what San Franciscans call their quaint little town.
Well, Alvin Attles is their coach, and some say, with excellent reason, their salvation. He keeps them alive and in contention in the NBA’s Pacific Division through his own personal cool, his big-brother style of coaching, and his ability to create first-rate basketball players out of the most-disappointing raw material.
“He’s our mother, our father, and our good friend,” says center Nate Thurmond. “There is a very personal relationship. Basketball is an intimate, emotional game. Alvin has the ability to bring the oddest mixture of personalities together in what seems like a family atmosphere. I don’t think there’s a finer coach anywhere. But I’m prejudiced.”
The Warriors’ coaching job may be the most-difficult one in either league. They are owned and operated by Franklin Mieuli, a fey, bearded character who wears a deerstalker cap, specially designed tunics that make him look like a Cossack general, and once rode his motorcycle into Rocco’s restaurant on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Avenue in order to ask the bartender to lend him $500 so he could attend the NBA league meeting. He has a curious habit of misplacing first-round draft choices, which puts a heavy strain on his coach.
One year, Mieuli contrived to trade his first selection to Atlanta for the right to negotiate with Zelmo Beaty, who already had pledged his undying allegiance to the Utah Stars. Then he went for a fellow named Cyril Baptiste of Creighton who showed up in the Warriors’ training camp with one bad habit: a $100-a-day heroin habit, which he has subsequently licked. But he was worthless to Alvin Attles at the time.
Last year, Mieuli drafted Kevin Joyce, a guard from South Carolina. Joyce asked for a three-year, no-cut contract. The Warriors said one was the limit, and Kevin Joyce went to work in the American Basketball Association. Other high draft selections in recent seasons have been squandered on Bob Portman, Dave Lattin, and Fritz Williams, none of whose rubber-soled shoes will ever be encased at the Hall of Fame.
Fortunately for Mieuli, Attles has been able to handle the situation by simply refusing to panic, a tribute to his cool, if there ever was one. He made miracles by sheer dint of coaching skill. He turned Jim Barnett from a semi-flakey reserve into a reasonably well-disciplined starting guard. He made Clyde Lee over from a plodding, unsure second-line center who was booed with consistency to a powerful rebounding forward. Attles managed to do something with Cazzie Russell that the New York Knickerbockers failed to do, bring out the consistent star quality that marked his years as an All-America undergraduate at Michigan.
It is recycling unwanted basketball players that has helped Attles replace the lost draft choices. He brought in Charlie Johnson from the University of California, liked the little 6-foot guard’s quickness as well as his jump shot. Attles kept him with the Warriors all last winter. During the summer, Johnson was paid to work in an especially rugged league that operates out of the Los Angeles State University gymnasium. Lots of professional and college players show up and shove each other around. Johnson came back, not a great ballhandler or playmaker, but a rough guard able and willing to push people around.
“What Alvin Attles did for me was teach me to be cool,” says Charlie Johnson. “When I made a big play, one I wouldn’t have made a year earlier, he yelled over to me, ‘C.J! Hey, C.J., fantastic play, old buddy.’ I felt like I would jump through the ceiling after that. Most basketball coaches think that if they aren’t tough and they aren’t running your tails into the floor, they aren’t doing their jobs. They ought to come around here and take notes.”
It was unthinkable that George Johnson, 6-foot-11, would ever earn a paycheck in the National Basketball Association, but Attles turned him into a fine backup center behind Thurmond. Taken by the Chicago Bulls on the fifth round out of Dillard University, he was unemployed so early in the club’s training camp that he hardly remembered the colors of a Chicago uniform. He tried the Harlem Globetrotters. But, he said all that strutting and eyeball-rolling and jabbering just didn’t set too well on the soul of a Phi Beta Kappa who wanted to go into banking eventually. Besides, his knee wasn’t too good. Attles found him moldering in an obscure semi-pro league in nearby Vallejo.
“I’m no superstar, and I don’t ever expect to be one,” says George Johnson. “But Alvin put me through the damnedest conditioning program you ever saw, and he made me love it. He made me believe that I could substitute for the great Nate Thurmond and not hurt the team one bit. I sometimes wonder how he did it.”
In the midst of the chaos that the Warriors’ franchise had become four years ago, Alvin Attles was the ideal man to coach the team. Given hindsight, one is struck by the perfect logic of it all. Alvin Attles. Of course! When somebody asked him if he was the fourth or fifth Black man to get a head coaching job in the NBA, he looked up and said, “Well, I guess if you’ve lost count, it’s pretty irrelevant by now.”
On an evening when the Warriors met the Seattle Sonics and Alvin Attles sat as coach on one bench, and Lenny Wilkens sat on the other—well, Lenny sat when he wasn’t playing—somebody looked up the other shattering fact. “Do you know,” said a San Francisco sportswriter, ”that was the first time two Black coaches faced each other in a major league professional sports contest in America?”
“So Lenny’s Black, is he?” said Attles, again with ultimate cool. “I wondered what he was. What’s the record for Yugloslavians?”
The matter of race amazes Attles to this day. He does not understand why anyone should actually care. He understands the dynamics of the problem. He simply can’t comprehend why it makes any difference.
“Someone asked how was I going to get along with my white players,” he says. “I didn’t know what to tell the man. I just see faces. I don’t see Black and white. I have to stop and think sometimes about who’s Black and white. I see Jeff Mullins. I see Cazzie Russell. I see Nate Thurmond. I see the faces of my friends and my players, but I don’t see Black and white.”
As a player, Alvin Attles was a screaming buzz bomb, hurtling himself around the court like an inanimate object. Still, there was a discipline there that most people missed. The constant frenzy was only a show. It meant nothing. Attles always hit the open man with a pass. He could break up the most cautious dribble. He took only the surest of shots.
The damnedest things were always happening to Attles when he played for the Warriors. Back in that almost forgotten era when he almost shaved his skull and wore non-hip clothes, he became the only man in NBA history to be thrown out of a game at halftime. There he was walking to his dressing room and telling the official, Richie Powers, his sins in the first half. Powers listened carefully and watched the door close behind his antagonist. After thoughtful consideration, Powers called on the Warriors before the start of the second half and yelled: “Attles, I’ve been thinking it over, and you are out of the ballgame.”
On another memorable occasion, his mother came down out of the stands at Madison Square Garden and personally told him to stop fighting. It happened in a playoff game against the New York Knicks, and there he was throwing punches at a player in front of the scorer’s table. It was at this point in history that Mrs. Geraldine Attles of Newark, New Jersey, left her seat behind the Warriors’ bench and marched out upon the floor, delivering to her son a short, but memorable sermon: “Alvin Attles, your mother did not bring you up to brawl in public.”
With vast resolution, she grabbed her son by the arm and marched him back to the Warriors’ bench, an act that literally stunned everybody in the Garden. The incredible part was that she had never been to see Alvin play a game of basketball before, not at Weequahic High School in Newark and not at North Carolina A & T. It took enormous coaxing to get her to attend a professional game. After all, she had wanted her son to become a professional man, a doctor, a lawyer, or something compatible with his intellect.
When she saw her first game, however, Mrs. Attles became a dedicated basketball freak. “What gets me is she waited so long,” says Attles. “It’s good that she lives in New Jersey, because if she were here in California, she’d be trying to coach the Warriors. She’s an expert on the game now. Imagine that?”
Never in his young life did Alvin Attles consider the possibility of playing professional basketball. It was an insane notion, something best left to taller, quicker men. When he graduated from North Carolina A & T, he had only one professional urge—to get a master’s degree and teach. The Philadelphia Warriors drafted him on the fifth round, which wasn’t flattering.
Attles was selected only because Vince Miller, who played with Wilt Chamberlain at Philadelphia’s Overbrook High School, kept telling Philadelphia’s little Eddie Gottlieb that he couldn’t afford to pass Attles by. For the record, Gottlieb tried very hard that year, selecting people named Al Bunge, Pickles Kennedy, Bob Mealy, and Charlie Sharp on the first four rounds. Then, with all the quality players in the nation seemingly gone, he took Alvin Attles of North Carolina A & T, a school not universally known for its brilliant basketball players.
“When I reported to my first training camp, I was absolutely convinced that I had no future in the game. I only brought one change of clothing with me. I figured only a fool would be expecting to stay overnight. But I made it through the first week, and my underwear started to rot. I didn’t have money enough to buy any more, and I didn’t have confidence enough to send home for a replacement.
“I can’t imagine why Vince Miller had so much faith in me. Fifth-round draft choices aren’t supposed to be anything except dog meat. I guess that’s why I pay so much attention to guys who walk into camp looking for a tryout.
“You know how many guys in the last five years who have been drafted fifth or lower have lasted one year? There’s just one. Hell, it hurts being considered nothing more than just another dog.
“Maybe I stick with some guys longer than I should because I know the feeling. There was a player at Seattle a few years back named Joe Kennedy, and he was taken something like tenth. He lasted only one season, but he told me the reason he hung on so hard was because he knew the Warriors had drafted Alvin Attles on the fifth round. If I could make good, so could he. That made me feel like a real champion.”
This simplicity of Attles’ personality is close to being overwhelming. Despite the flash of his fashion, he lives in austerity with his family. More than once, he has been given the opportunity to go somewhere else to coach. The Seattle Sonics are still convinced that he is the best coach in the country, and his alma mater, North Carolina A & T, wants him badly. One Ivy League school, anxious to demonstrate its liberality, thought of him first when it was seeking to hire a Black basketball coach.
“It’s pretty chic to have a Black basketball coach,” he says. “If that’s what you want, anybody who passes the skin test will do. I would go only if that was the last item on the list. It’s just as demeaning to be wanted because you’re Black as it is demeaning to be told you can’t have a job because you’re Black.
“Hey, I’m here. If you think I can coach your basketball team and do a better job, then you can have me. I’d like to go to sleep and wake up when this preoccupation with race is a thing of the past.
“Sure, I feel sorry for the plight of the Black man in America. I also feel sorry for the plight of the poor white. When I go out to the playgrounds and a little white kid wants to get some basketball training, do you think I give him a lecture about Black power? No sir. He’s a human being, and I love him and I do the best by him I can.”
Yet, with all his love, Attles counts his real friends on the fingers of one hand. He is aware that too many people simply don’t give a damn about him but simply want to know the man who coaches a professional basketball team.
“I consider myself a reasonably understanding man,” he says. “But I select my close friends perhaps too carefully. I don’t want too many. If you have more than five, you have a problem. I have a number of fine acquaintances. There is a difference between being respected and being liked. Being liked is something that happens to me. Being respected is something I have to earn.”
The lights are going out all over the Oakland Coliseum, which is about as cold and as impersonal as a sports arena can get. The customers are long gone, and Alvin Attles sits in the press lounge listening to the nasal remarks of sportswriters. Here is a man who honestly believes that positive thinking can be a tremendous help. Losing to the Chicago Bulls and falling behind a Los Angeles team that does not own Wilt Chamberlain or hold title to a healthy Jerry West is illogical and intolerable.
“I’ll say this,” he says. “All through the year, even when things were going bad and it looked like we wouldn’t hold onto the division lead, we’ve played like a team. We’ve won as a team and lost as a team. We don’t have anybody going into the game saying, “Well, I’ve got my 20 points, so the hell with everybody else.’ That’s not my kind of basketball.”
From a long way away comes Franklin Mieuli, who looks like he just dropped off the noon balloon from Rangoon. There is a pained expression on his face, suitable for use at funerals and defeats. He claps Attles on the right shoulder and says something appropriate.
“Be cool, Franklin,” says Attles. “Be cool. We’ll win.”
There are times when it seems that the only real adult in the organization is the head coach. Defeats come and defeats go, but Alvin Attles, age 38, stays cool.
“What matters most,” he says, “is to take everybody on their own merits. I had some guys tonight who shouldn’t have been out there. But I put them in there, and that’s my fault. Still, they were there for a reason. That’s what is important.
“I never wanted to coach a pro team, not really. I figured that I’d do it for a year, and if it felt comfortable, I’d keep after it. If it didn’t, I’d find something else to do.
“You know what the toughest part of coaching is? It’s trying to be tough with guys you like and respect. I tell you, it’s hard as hell to stand there and tell somebody you honestly admire that he’s doing a lousy job. I had to stand there and put that kind of thing on one of my closest friends tonight. That hurts. It really hurts. Man just did a bad job, and it was up to me to tell him so.”
The fans of the Golden State Warriors are unusually low key. They don’t honestly get worked up over anything, let alone a basketball game. It makes no difference if they come from San Francisco or San Leandro or Burlingame. They stay cool. In New York, the supporters of the Knicks may lose their emotional control on the slightest provocation. In the wonderful world of Golden State, wherever that may be, nobody gets too excited. That may or may not be a good thing for the team.
“I played a whole lot harder, because I had to,” Attles says. “I wish I could somehow make that idea a living reality to my players. I was scared. I was scared every day that I played in the NBA. These people are wonderful, but they aren’t scared. I guess they don’t have to be. It’s something that I understand, but yet I don’t understand. Explain that for me.”
A blond lady, slightly old and nervously overweight, comes by and tells him she thinks he is a miracle worker for keeping the Warriors high in the standings.
“Some miracle man I am,” he says, very gently. “Some damn miracle man.”