It is only happenstance that Mullins is still a basketball player after a spectacular three years at Duke and his part in the Olympic team's victory in Tokyo. The Hawks, then of St. Louis, drafted him, and he spent two unhappy years with a bench-eye view of the action, while Len Wilkens and Richie Guerin (also on this cover), the team's player-coach and a couple of other seasoned guards did the work. During those two years Mullins averaged a rather unimportant 4.9 and 5.8 points a game. To a young man as intelligent and otherwise promising as he was, it seemed a waste of time, and he so told the Hawks.
"I can't really blame Guerin," Mullins replies in answer to the suggestion that there might have been bad feeling between the rookie and the veteran coach. "The Hawks were always in contention for No. 1, and they couldn't afford to take out a couple of All-Star guards to teach a young player the game. The only misunderstanding I had with Guerin was that I was a jump shooter, and he wanted me to drive more, because he was a driver. As a result, I became a driver myself. So he helped make me a more complete ballplayer."
In the expansion draft for the new Chicago Bulls, Mullins was taken from the Hawks, and he reluctantly showed up at training camp unsure of whether he wanted to play. After the first week he and King, another draftee, were traded to the Warriors in exchange for that fine old guard, Guy Rodgers. For once the clich� held up: it was a trade that was beneficial to both teams.
Mullins broke in at San Francisco in Rick Barry's final year, when the team lost in the playoff finals to Philadelphia. With an 18-point average in the playoffs, he proved he could shoot against the pros. So, when Barry defected to the new league the following year, Mullins seemed to be one who might help take up the slack. Franklin Mieuli, one of those ebullient types from the world of broadcasting, had bought control of the team, and he had visions of Jeff Mullins as the looming superstar who would make the world—or, at least, that part of it within sight of the Top of the Mark—forget Rick Barry.
With the team in third place and just barely .500 for the season, one could hardly say Barry is out of mind. But since the All-Star Game, Mullins has been averaging about 26 points per game, fourth in the league among the guards, and his 49% field-goal shooting average leads them all. More important, since the Warriors have begun to click in the late season, winning six of their last seven games and 15 of their last 22, it has been Mullins' steady 25 points or so, with a career high of 42 against Detroit, that has kept the team moving.
Closing out the season with a winning streak and beating the super Lakers in a playoff are two different things entirely, like having a good day at the races and breaking the bank at Monte Carlo. No one knows that better than the Warriors, who finished the season 3-4 against Los Angeles. The victories included one triple-overtime victory, and another came on a basket in the last second. Meanwhile the Lakers had beaten them once by more than 30 points. What confidence there is must come from last week's convincing win at the Cow Palace, when the Warriors came from eight points behind in the third quarter to win by 12.
"The matchups are the thing," says Rudy LaRusso, the ex-Laker forward who is now so important to the Warriors that they let him live in Los Angeles and commute to San Francisco for games and practice. "Thurmond against Chamberlain, that's got to be a standoff. Neither can do very much against the other. Wilt will get a few dunk shots, and Nate will get a few hooks, and that's about it. They'll be about even in rebounds." As if to prove the point, in last week's Warrior victory Chamberlain scored five points, Thurmond six; the former had 20 rebounds, the latter 26.
"Baylor, West and Mel Counts are the answer then as far as L.A. is concerned," LaRusso continues. "You know Elgin and Jerry are going to get their 20 to 30 points shooting those 17-footers unless they're way off. And Counts has been the really bright spot for them this season with his outside shooting and his rebounding. Jeff and I are just not in a class with Elgin and Jerry, but our bench is a little better than theirs. A little more versatile."
At first glance, Rudy LaRusso hardly seems the athlete best equipped to intellectualize on any sport, including his own, basketball. There is something about his prognathous jaw and the occasional scowl on his big, shaggy face that tells you not to annoy him. Players claim that meeting him head to head on a basketball court is a little like playing a game of tag on the freeway during rush hour. Yet Rudy LaRusso, Dartmouth '59, is one of only two Ivy Leaguers who have made it big in pro basketball in recent years. The other is a Rhodes scholar from Princeton named Bradley. To complete the paradox, LaRusso is a devout student of Don Rickles, and his Rickles routines are worth more to the Warriors in times of stress than a truckload of Miltown. George Lee, the Warriors' soft-spoken young coach, is apt to use LaRusso almost as much as Attles as an extra set of brain and eyes during the heat of a contest.
So what LaRusso says about playoffs is worth listening to, and what he says is this: "The key to playoffs is winning at home and then winning one game on the road. I figure there's a little advantage opening the playoffs away from home, as we do this year against the Lakers. Before the momentum gets started it's sometimes tough for the home team to win two in a row at home right away.