The luckless Warriors, struggling for a foothold among the hills of the Bay City, fell back into the valleys of depression last season. They came dressed to kill in bright new uniforms. And they were killed—63 times for a new NBA record. Coach Alex Hannum, acclaimed as a genius the season before when the Warriors won their division, was suddenly just a big man without much hair. Midway through the nightmare, the club traded Wilt Chamberlain in a St. Louis restaurant. Promptly, Wilt's replacement, Nate Thurmond, held up the management for a big raise. Trouble didn't end with the season. Forward Tom Meschery went to Algeria on a State Department tour, and that's when the revolution broke out there.
Coming onto a scene like this, how can Rick Barry lose? The lanky rookie forward from Miami is blond, handsome and was last year's top college scorer (37.4). He ranked almost as high in rebounds and shooting. Indeed, there are few flies on Rick Barry. He even married the boss's daughter, Pamela Hale the daughter of Miami Coach Bruce Hale. A team that was 17-63 can use a guy with moves like this. The Warriors desperately need shooters. With Wilt, the rest of the team shot .383. After he left they got all the way up to .387. The next worse team hit .414, and the difference is at least three baskets a game. So Barry, the good shot, steps right in as a starting forward with Meschery, a rugged hustler. That gives San Francisco the desired forecourt combination—muscles in one corner, finesse in the other. Barry played his role well in the exhibitions and was often high-point man. Said an impressed General Manager Bob Feerick: "He knows how to get the ball up there against the tough defense. Not only that, but he's performing so well in the other ways that we're really pinching ourselves." The only things that may hold Barry back are his slight build (6 feet 7, 200 pounds) and his proclivity for worry. He came up so jittery in his first match with the Celtics that he was lucky to scratch out seven points. Hannum looks for Paul Neumann to bring scoring punch to the backcourt. Neumann, who came in the Chamberlain deal, has the best eye on the team, but has been reluctant to shoot. The playmaker is there—Guy Rodgers, who is showing even more verve with his clever passing now that Wilt has gone—and there are other people eligible to score. In the pivot, Thurmond is back at his natural spot. He showed his gratitude for that (and the raise) by averaging 20 points and 20 rebounds a game after Wilt left—and those are figures that only Chamberlain and Jerry Lucas maintained for the full season. Thurmond has another good rookie, Davidson's Fred Hetzel, behind him, but Hetzel is out for a while because of a finger operation. The Warriors' defense deteriorated along with the offense and the morale last year, but Hannum is still a superb coach and will bring it back to his demanding standard.
Shortly after jazz came up the river from New Orleans, Ben Kerner brought Bob Pettit up from Baton Rouge and the rest of his motley Hawk franchise down the river from Milwaukee. The Milwaukee citizenry had not yet learned to pursue departing franchises, probably because, in the case of the Hawks, no one knew they had been there, much less that they were leaving. But in St. Louis things picked up right away, and within three years Kerner had a world champion—the last in New Testament times besides Boston.
Now Pettit is gone, back to the bayous. His sidekick, Cliff Hagan, who also recalls another era when 6-foot-4 forwards roamed the land, still plays a few minutes a game, but for the most part the Hawks are a colorless lot. Little Lenny Wilkens is the leader now, Zelmo (Mr. Clean) Beaty (16.9) is a pretty good man at center, and Player-Coach Richie Guerin still cuts up once in a while. But mostly the Hawks depend on precision, depth and good morale. Only Boston had a better defense last year, but the Hawks scored much less than any other playoff team. They finished second again in the West only because their tenacious type of play forces bad teams into mistakes. St. Louis had an amazing 26-4 record against the three nonplayoff clubs, but was only 19-31 against its own kind. Pettit was not himself. He missed 30 games and his average was down (for him) to 22.5; still, the Hawks are desperate for someone to replace him. The problem was not helped any when Paul Silas, who rebounded well as a rookie, was shot in the foot this past summer. Journeymen Bill Bridges and Mike Farmer and John Tresvant are what is left, so Pettit's halo is being measured for Jim Washington, the handsome 6-foot-8 first-draft choice from Villanova. Washington, who almost signed on with a Milan, Italy semipro team this summer, never averaged more than 15 points in his three seasons at Villanova, but the Wildcats always had good-shooting guards who got first crack at the basket. Washington demonstrated a pretty good eye in exhibition games. There has never been any doubt about his quickness or agility around the boards.
Guerin also needs quick improvement from Jeff Mullins, a second-year man who picked up a great deal of experience riding airplanes and the bench after the Olympics last year. Mullins shoots well but not often or quickly enough to replace Guerin in the backcourt. Richie wants to concentrate on coaching, which may not be the best idea around Kerner, who has already fired four of the other eight coaches in the league. (It is possible that he has not fired Schaus, DeBusschere, McMahon or Schayes only because he has so far been unable to hire them.) Guerin has done a good job, though, and the team likes him. But unless the Hawks can keep on murdering the humpty-dumpties they had better resign themselves to fourth place.
The Pistons have not become the saddest team in NBA history through any isolated happenstance. The credit must be shared. This status has been painstakingly achieved through the combined offices of bad management, good food, Demon Rum, John Law and Uncle Sam. And now nothing in the negative is impossible for Detroit this season—neither San Francisco's mark of 63 losses, nor the old Providence Steamrollers' .143 winning percentage. Detroit is bad now but, on the other hand, as the season wears on it might get worse.
Least accountable for the disaster is Dave DeBusschere, the youthful player-coach, who just gave up baseball in order to suffer this agony year-round. You can't blame Dave because the Army took his leading scorer, Terry Dischinger; because the Detroit police took his leading rebounder, Reggie Harding; because Owner Fred Zollner has made some atrocious trades in the past. This year Zollner's mistake is contracting for the Pistons to play 80 NBA games. DeBusschere is a yearling Job. He just turned 25 last week, but birthdays do not cheer him. It was, said Harding, then the Pistons' 7-foot center, merely a "birthday drink" with friends that he was having when the cops busted in. It was also 4 o'clock in the morning, and the Pistons' training camp was opening that afternoon. The week before, Reggie had bopped a police officer in the face, and that had not set well with either the police or the NBA. So Dave lost his center. The Pistons moved Forward Ray Scott to the pivot and started negotiating again with Bill Buntin of Michigan, their top draft choice.
Buntin is only 6 feet 7 and figured as a forward, but the Pistons were desperate. Finally, they gave in to most of his demands and Buntin showed up fat and happy. He was three weeks late and 30 pounds overweight, but teammates were without rancor. "We need all the help we can get," said Corner Man Jackie Moreland, a longtime sub and, obviously, a realist, before he was put on waivers. DeBusschere, his own best player, will be at one forward and Eddie Miles and Rod Thorn are set at the guards. Tom Van Arsdale jumped the team for a while, but is back and may eventually move up as a starting guard. Last year's top rookie, Joe Caldwell, is a front-court contender, and Buntin may switch to forward, too, if Detroit can ever dig up a real center. Even if he trims down, however, there are doubts that he is fast enough in the corner, but he is very strong and rebounds well. At center, opponents have up to half a foot on him, and Buntin is already working on drawing them outside with his good soft touch. Detroit considers him as just a warmup in the local-boy department. The one the Pistons really want is Cazzie Russell, who graduates in June. Now that the territorial draft is pass�, they must finish last to get Cazzie. They have nothing to worry about.