Publish date:

Cable cars on a hardwood court

In their dazzling new uniforms the Warriors are a cinch to win the NBA's fashion award of 1966

The San Francisco Warriors are simply stunning this season in their uniforms of California gold and San Francisco Bay blue, uniforms designed by—not a word of this to Lady Bird—a billboard artist. The jersey deserves special attention. On the back is the silhouette of a cable car climbing toward the right shoulder blade, where a cluster of stars is embossed. On the front is a circle with the outline of the Golden Gate Bridge. Above the circle are the words "The City." Everybody is supposed to know which city, because, after all, it was not Manhattan where Tony Bennett left his heart. The pants have the word "Warriors" down each side and a small war-bonnet on the left front. The back of the warm-up jacket has a detailed end view of a cable car. The total effect is camp on the court, but somewhat overlooked in this fashion parade is a more important San Francisco innovation—the return to the sport of one of its favorite alumni, Bill Sharman.

The old Boston Celtics shooter is the new coach of the Warriors and he does not mind that his somber suits make him stand out on the bench like a penguin among peacocks. Last week was his debut as an NBA coach after five years of less hectic labors, and his team was, in no particular order, defeated twice on the road, shoved, held, scolded, elbowed, rained on, backed and cheered on to two home victories. Bill Sharman felt right at home.

He was hired by Warriors Owner Franklin Mieuli to replace Alex Hannum, a respected and popular man who was fired because he did not want to make The City his off-season home. It was Mieuli's contention that the Warriors should have organized workouts all summer to keep up with the Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. Mieuli gradually talked most of his players into making their homes in the Bay area, but he could not persuade Hannum, so he gave Alex walking papers rather than offer an ultimatum.

The dismissal has turned out well for everyone, at least so far. Hannum is now head coach of the powerful Philadelphia 76ers, and Mieuli is pleased with Sharman, who was once a teammate of Hannum's at USC. Sharman moved his family to nearby San Mateo and conducted clinics and practice sessions all summer. For nearly a decade the most popular athlete in Boston, a city whose press is most reluctant to help create heroes, Sharman undoubtedly will win friends for the Warriors regardless of his success as coach. He greeted most of Mieuli's ideas with enthusiasm, especially a $16,000 Sony videotape setup—the first of its kind in pro basketball—with zoom lens, slow motion, stop action and sound. It enables the team to watch itself in action at half time and right after each game. Sharman even thought the new uniforms were "nice-looking." The team "image" is important to Mieuli, who thinks like and is an advertising man. He took a lot of care to get just what he wanted on the jerseys and he thinks they will be widely imitated, just as the L.A. Rams' idea of painting team symbols on their helmets was copied by most of the teams in pro football. "I think, after four years of struggle, we've got a good, good team," said Mieuli. "I think we are going to start an era." Modesty forbade him from saying dynasty.

There are, indeed, good men to put into the jerseys. Forward Rick Barry, with his "original European razor hair-styling," was Rookie of the Year last season and a starter in the All-Star Game. Center Nate Thurmond, 6 feet 11, is a top scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker as long as his bad back holds out. Guard Paul Neumann can shoot, and Alvin Attles and Tom Meschery are fine defensive players. Sadly, however, Guard Guy Rodgers missed out on his chance to carry a cable car on his back. Sharman, Mieuli and General Manager Bob Feerick figured they had enough scoring punch up front (where Guy likes to maneuver) but not enough backcourt size, so they traded the flashy Rodgers to the Chicago Bulls for Guards Jim King, 6 feet 2, and Jeff Mullins, 6 feet 4.

Moreover, this is a team of nice guys—successful, mild-mannered chaps from fine schools like Davidson, Duke, Stanford and Vanderbilt. Neumann is a minister's son. Attles, a devout Catholic, is a playground instructor in the off season. Barry has a local radio program, Forward Fred Hetzel is a stockbroker, Meschery is in the insurance business, and so on. Coach Sharman fits this particular image, too. When Mieuli offered to have a case of beer in the locker room after each game, Sharman said no. "But I always supply one to the visiting team," said Mieuli. "Send them ours, too," answered Sharman. Whether nice guys can survive the violence of pro ball—if they play like nice guys—is another matter.

The summer work seemed to pay off in exhibition games. San Francisco played Hannum's 76ers five times and all five games were decided in the last 30 seconds. The Warriors won two, lost three. They took two of three from the Lakers and beat Cincinnati. Few fans were unduly disappointed when the team opened the regular season before the usual 13,909 zealots at Boston Garden and lost to the world-champion Celtics. Sharman was honored by having his old jersey hung in the arena's rafters, and the Warriors had the game tied with four minutes to go before Larry Siegfried went on a scoring spree for Boston. Handsome, blond Rick Barry had 41 points.

The second road game figured to be a victory for San Francisco. The host Chicago Bulls, playing their first home game, were a bunch of second-stringers picked up in the not-too-generous expansion draft—except for Rodgers, of course. Still, the Bulls had opened the season with a win over the Hawks at St. Louis.

But San Francisco was sloppy in its passing and a poor second in the pants-grabbing, push-and-pull byplay and left at half time one point behind. Rodgers, as usual, was driving up the middle and either putting in a dipsy-doodle layup or passing to an open man. The Cable Cars had as much as a 13-point lead in the third quarter, but little Guy led a fourth-quarter surge that won the game for Chicago 119-116.

Off the court, through an abandoned cafeteria, up some back stairs and into a cramped locker room trudged the Warriors. The door was closed tightly and when Sharman allowed it to be opened a few minutes later his face was red from anger or embarrassment or both. "It was the same story," he said. "The other team just outhustled and outpushed us. We're too nice." To cap a miserable night, the taxis Sharman had ordered were not waiting outside the Chicago Amphitheatre and had to be called again. The Warriors waited glumly by their luggage in a drizzle that was more annoying than wet.

The next day's practice lasted more than two and a half hours, during which Sharman told his team, "They were pushing us all over and we weren't pushing back. We're still not aggressive enough." In other words, if an opponent elbows you in the Golden Gate Bridge, elbow him right back.

They were ready Thursday night in their home opener, in San Jose Civic Auditorium. (They also have home games in Daly City, Oakland, Fresno, San Diego, Phoenix and even The City.) Again the opponents were the Bulls, who had beaten the Lakers the night before for their third win in a row. Shortly after the tip-off Rodgers, as the videotape later showed, provoked Paul Neumann with an elbow to the left cheek and some whacks to the shoulder. Neumann swung at Guy, Guy swung back and before you could say Tony Bennett the benches were empty. Barry and Attles went after Rodgers and had to be dragged off. A double foul was called, but nobody was ejected or hurt. Minister's son Neumann had picked a good time for the first fight of his life. The Warriors improved markedly thereafter in the shoving and grabbing departments and won, not easily, 121-111.

Two nights later, the last night of Sharman's inaugural week, his team ran all over the weak Detroit Pistons 136-119. Attles had a fine defensive game and Thurmond and Barry had 63 points and 32 rebounds between them. Naturally, it was soft drinks and jubilation in the Warriors' locker room after this laugher. Forward Tom Meschery, a Bay area boy who had banged his nose against a stray knee while diving for a loose ball, was understandably optimistic: "We can't let guys rub our faces in the wood or we'll lose. As long as we play roughly and tenaciously, we're The Team in the Western Division—no doubt about it."

"The Team" sounded nice to Bill Sharman, but it better not be quoted to Franklin Mieuli. The only advertising space left on those uniforms is the seat of the pants.