Hails from Newark, N.J. Now calls Oakland home. "Mister Nice Guy." Age 39. On the road he reads books and watches television. At home Al watches game films and stays with his family. He and his wife, Wilhelmina, have one son and an adopted daughter. When he stops coaching, Al wants to go into youth work. He doesn't drink or smoke. Favorite expression: "All ri-i-i-ight." Al boasts a deep voice. Starting his sixth full season as Warrior mentor. As player, was defensive stickout and team "sparkplug." Offensive "claim to fame": he was second-leading Warrior scorer the night in 1962 when Wilt Chamberlain made 100 against the Knicks.
Attles played with the Warriors, in Philadelphia and San Francisco, for 11 years. He started only occasionally, but he was never traded. Six coaches, two cities, three different owners—a journeyman, and he was never traded. That says a great deal. He hung on as he played, tenaciously, applying his mind and grit. Clifford Ray, the Golden State center, says of himself, "I'm the type of player who does a lot of things that other players don't like to do." That was the way his coach played, why he played at all.
Attles learned what it was like to be on the fringes. "I always understood that it is tough to be a real part of the team if you don't play," he says. "Besides, with the money these guys are getting paid now, you might as well play them. When everybody plays, when everybody knows they're going to play, there is more incentive. Because you want to play more when you get out on the floor, you do play more when you are out there."
Eventually, Attles got to be elder statesman, cagey veteran, and was made assistant coach to George Lee. When, in 1970, Mieuli decided to replace Lee, he turned, naturally, to Attles. Bill Russell and Lenny Wilkens were already coaching by then, but they were also starring for themselves. Attles was the first full-time black coach in big-league sports, for which he never stops crediting Mieuli. At the time, however, Attles did not want this job, this historical asterisk. He agreed to accept it reluctantly, to finish out the season, only after Lee himself had gone to Attles' house and pleaded with him to be his successor.
"I really didn't know if I had the patience, the temperament to deal with 12 guys," Attles says. "Basically, you see, I'm a loner. I don't have an awful lot of close friends." Perspective, above all, is what marks Attles—and what marks his team. On the whole squad, Attles says, only Barry and Ray are prey to their emotions.
Unlike a lot of coaches, Attles is under no delusion that he is a master of psychological legerdemain. "Good people are what is so important," he says. "People tell me, 'Sure, this guy's a problem player, but he has great ability, and you can take care of him.' Why? Why should I think I can change somebody? You take one bad guy and pretty soon a whole team gets away from you." When the Warriors had a chance late last season to pick up a proven NBA regular at a position where they were weakest, they passed him over in part because he had a dubious personal reputation.
A basketball team is an intimate community. A sour wife—never mind a player—has been known to poison a whole club. Attles is black, coaching a virtually all-black team. (With a nod toward Barry, Clifford Ray once called the Warriors "The Golden Prince and His Black Knights.") But the racial makeup of the club does not necessarily work to Attles' advantage. What limited evidence we have so far about black coaches is that it is black players who try to take advantage of them. Attles' own growing pains as a young coach had nothing to do with race, only with age; he was reluctant to deal harshly with players who were his contemporaries.
Nate Thurmond, the towering All-Star center, blocked Attles' path to coaching maturity. To be fair to Thurmond, it should be underscored that it was his presence—not anything he did—that intimidated Attles. The coach admits now that he sensed he should have given more playing time to his reserve center, George Johnson, as he does now. But because Thurmond was supposed to be so much better, he doubted his own instincts. Thurmond was brittle, too, and lacked spontaneity in his play. There were always many wins with Thurmond but never any titles.
Mieuli adored Thurmond—and all the more so after the prodigal Barry left in 1967 to seek his fortune in the ABA for four seasons. Thurmond was charming, debonair, a gourmet cook and a gallant host, San Francisco incarnate; and Mieuli, from backyard San Jose, worships Baghdad by the Bay. For a time he cluttered up his team's uniforms with a sketch of the Golden Gate and the cloying inscription THE CITY. Barry's No. 24 THE CITY still hangs in Mieuli's office.
The irony, of course, is that Utopia never did arrive in San Francisco for Mieuli or Barry or Attles or the other hopeful Warriors. Since 1971 they have represented not the urbane hills of San Francisco but the city of Oakland, which, like the team, has always been slighted. And now even the name " Oakland" is becoming lost, submerged under that romantic zip-codian regional tag, "East Bay." While Golden State may sound like an insurance company, it is, with apologies, only a devious rendering of East Bay. That is what the Warriors are now. The games are played in East Bay, and the offices have just moved there, too. The players live in East Bay. Only 15% of the spectators come from San Francisco. And Nate Thurmond is gone; only his restaurant remains in The City.