- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
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.