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.