Skip to main content
Original Issue

Attles battles no longer

As a player, the Golden State coach was called The Destroyer. Now he maintains a fists-off policy as his Warriors fight it out in the playoffs

Not long ago, before Fat Salary and No Cut Contract were married, produced their first child and named it Friendly Rivalry, pro basketball could be a nasty place for walking. For bench strength, many teams kept a guy with a belligerent lip and a midget temper. Al Attles was such a player, an enforcer. He had the shooting touch of a jackhammer, but no team ever traded Attles for cash and a fist to be named later, probably because if intimidation was what you wanted, it was clearly better to fight with Attles than against him. In 11 seasons with the Warriors in Philadelphia and San Francisco, he earned his nickname, "The Destroyer." Attles was instant terror, the bad, bad Leroy Brown of his time.

Attles is a little older now, still intrepid, but mellowed. He confines his combativeness to the sidelines as coach of the Golden State Warriors. He is still winning and has just completed about as good a regular season as a coach can have. His Warriors not only won their division but had the best record in the Western Conference, which gave them a week off before starting their conference semifinal series with Seattle. No one thought that much of the Warriors before the season started, and their preeminence is almost as much a tribute to Attles' coaching as to the fact that Rick Barry can simultaneously sink free throws and comb his hair.

Attles arrived in the NBA as a fifth-round draft pick from North Carolina A&T. He was all of six feet tall and he lasted as a player on guile, a penchant for self-sacrifice and a reputation for effective aggressiveness. He always shadowed the opposition's best guard, from Bob Cousy to Oscar Robertson, playing them all over the floor, scrapping and holding, trying to pilfer an inch here and an inch there to even the odds. He did the Bump before it was a dance. Lenny Wilkens, now the coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, was one of those he played. "Al wasn't dirty," Wilkens says, "but he was on you like a glove all the time. We came into the league the same year, and when he guarded me I knew I had to have my full concentration."

The fights Attles got into became legend. To start with, he looked ominous. His hair was shaved close and he later added a mustache, enhancing his threatening appearance. Everyone agrees that Attles did not seek out the fights, but the results were nevertheless spectacular, probably because the only ones who had the temerity to challenge him were the league's behemoths. "He was the toughest single fighter I ever saw in the league," says Tom Meschery, now Wilkens' assistant in Portland, then Attles' teammate. Meschery was 6'6" and bellicose, and Attles frequently would have to extricate him from fights.

The rivalries in those days were more like blood feuds. There were only nine teams and they played each other often, deepening feelings and fear of the unemployment line. Players literally fought for their jobs. The arenas were old and dim and the fans often ran onto the court to flail away in the brawls. "Our sport used to be almost like hockey," recalls Houston Coach Johnny Egan. It was not uncommon for players to grab chairs at courtside and brandish them. The NBA eventually banned movable chairs, and today any player who comes off the bench during a fight is automatically socked with a $100 fine.

The stories about Attles have been fertilized by age. One has it that his mother came out of the stands at Madison Square Garden to make her son stop pummeling 6'8" Bob Ferry of Detroit. In truth, Attles says, she waited until after the game to discipline him, too late for Ferry's good.

Attles never put any store in reputations and he came to training camp each year convinced that he would have to win his job all over again. In one exhibition game, an ambitious rookie came down-court and slyly hooked Attles, who was called for fouling. "Don't do it again," The Destroyer said darkly. A few plays later the rookie did it again. One punch and the youngster was flat on his back. The referee quickly jumped on him and whispered, "Kid, stay down. It may be the last time you get up."

"He saved my life once," recalls Meschery. "Wayne Embry was going to kill me. Al held Wayne off and I've been dearly indebted ever since." Embry is now general manager of the Milwaukee Bucks, but as a 6'8", 255-pound player he could shatter you with a blind-side pick. That is what he did to Meschery, snapping him like an ice cream stick. Attles remembers what happened next: "Tom didn't know who had hit him and he yelled, 'Don't do that again or...' Then he turned and saw big Wayne.

" 'Or what?' muttered Embry.

" 'Or nothing,' replied Meschery." Probably Attles' most famous melee occurred during a 1965 game with the St. Louis Hawks in Omaha, when 6'9" Zelmo Beaty slugged Meschery underneath a basket. Attles took off from the free-throw line, putting a shoulder into Beaty and knocking him well up into the stands. As they rolled among the terrified spectators Beaty grabbed Attles' nose and ripped a nostril, but all present agree that it was Beaty who came away the worse for wear.

Eddie Gottlieb, one of the founders of the NBA, owned the Philadelphia Warriors when they drafted Attles in 1960. A friend of Wilt Chamberlain, then Philadelphia's big gun, had recommended Attles to the Warriors. At the NBA All-Star game this year, in which Attles coached the West team, he and Gottlieb reminisced. "I expected to stay long enough to get a ticket back to my home in Newark," Attles remembered. Actually, a few weeks into his first training camp, the Philadelphia newspapers were predicting he would be "the best fifth-round choice in history."

Despite a low scoring average and a tendency to get pulls in his heavily muscled thighs, Attles ran his share of talent out of the league. If a rookie got lazy against him, he was gone. Those were hard times. Attles would not even know the names of the new players in camp and rarely spoke to them. One of his coaches, Alex Hannum, cut players by asking them to breakfast, and an imaginative rookie told Attles, "If he asks me, I'm going to say I'm not hungry." Attles was always hungry, in a different way.

He once had 17 assists in a game and in his best season he averaged 11.2 points, but for the most part he was relatively inconspicuous. Playing with such stars as Chamberlain, and later Nate Thurmond and Barry, Attles was never a loudmouth. In fact, his outbursts of fighting were hard to reconcile with his generally nonbelligerent demeanor. A delicate interior membrane apparently separated patience and fury, the clenched jaw and the clenched fist. Mostly, Attles saw himself as a professional, a man who worked hard at his craft, and that attitude is still with him.

The Warriors won this year with winged feet, adequate defense and new faces. Attles boldly traded away Thurmond, his big center and a popular figure in the Bay Area. He lost Cazzie Russell and Jim Barnett when Russell played out his option and Barnett went to New Orleans in the expansion draft. Clyde Lee went unexpectedly, too, in the aftermath of a complicated deal made years earlier. Only three first-round draft choices are on the Warriors' roster: Barry, Butch Beard and Keith Wilkes.

Wilkes, the rookie from UCLA, is the first top draft choice the Warriors signed since Attles took over in 1970. Crippled by dwindling finances, the team in effect gave away the rights to Pete Maravich one year and twice lost its top pick to the ABA. Another first-rounder turned out to have a drug problem. One spring the team even tried to draft a woman, but league officials vetoed it.

For a man who once ran over rookies, Attles has an uncommon sensitivity to their problems. For example, he rarely uses the word "rookie." He does not like its connotation. Instead he says "first-year player." His basic theory of coaching is that "I've got to be honest. When I first started, I had guys under me that I had played with. One night it all hit me. I thought, 'Maybe I'm trying to be too much of a good guy.' I took things for granted. Perhaps I was hesitant to exert my authority."

At practice, Attles' deep bass voice dominates the activity. He sounds as if he has an amplifier in his throat. Occasionally, veterans such as Barry or Jeff Mullins interject opinions. The coaching style is low-key. When a player makes a mistake, Attles is not abrasive. To make his point, he is liable to jog over, clap the offender on the back and ask mildly, "Who nailed your feet to the floor?"

Last fall, Golden State played a series of exhibitions with Los Angeles. "You could see that Al was putting their team together," says John Barnhill, the Lakers' assistant coach. "They were going to go out and hustle a team to death. He just seemed to lift them right up and make them go, and that's a tribute to Attles the coach. A couple of their guys were telling me about practice coming to a close one day. 'How do you feel?' Al asked them. 'Fine,' said one. 'That's good,' he said. 'You can run two more laps and you'll feel even better.' They enjoy it. He makes it fun. And that's how you make a good team go, the way Attles does it."

Attles' intensity can be contagious. Even his wife Wilhelmina is a tough competitor. She and Kansas City-Omaha Guard Jimmy Walker played Al and another fellow a tennis match recently. Wilhelmina fell during the game and went off to the hospital to get a few stitches in her face, but returned to finish the game and to win.

As a player, Attles never made more than $30,000 a season. Now he lives with his family in a handsome, well-appointed contemporary house that sits so high in the hills above Oakland that occasionally there is snow on the driveway. The house is part of the evidence that Attles ranks among the league's successful coaches. The 239 regular-season victories he has had since taking over in the middle of the dismal 1969-70 season are additional proof. In his second full year as coach, the Warriors won 51 games, and they have been winning ever since.

When they were teammates Attles and Chamberlain were close friends and they still see each other if circumstances permit. They are an incongruous pair, since Chamberlain has the reputation of being a playboy while Attles does not drink, smoke or use angry words and likes nothing better than to stay home and eat ice cream with the family.

One of the stories about Attles involves Chamberlain's 100-point game. That night in Hershey, Pa. Attles had perhaps his biggest thrill, too, hitting on all of his eight field-goal attempts and making his lone free-throw try. It was a perfect game—and the story goes that he was peeved that no one noticed. That, says Attles, is pure embellishment. He was not upset at being overshadowed. In fact, he says, only two weeks before Wilt's accomplishment he had predicted to a newspaper friend that some day Chamberlain would score 100.

It was Chamberlain who once offered testimony to Attles' proficiency with the bolo punch. During his fight with Bob Ferry in Madison Square Garden—the one in which his mother did or did not intervene—Attles spun Ferry to the floor and jumped on top of him. Chamberlain, meanwhile, was wading through the rest of the players, scaling them left and right like so many Frisbees. He reached Attles, pulled him from the senseless Ferry and carried him off under his arm, like a loaf of bread. Later the writers wanted to know if Chamberlain was worried for his buddy's safety. "Worried?" sputtered Wilt, his face equal parts disgust and incredulity. "I had to get to my boy before he killed Ferry."