First saw the light of day in the "City of Angels." Dick was all-league high school hoop ace. Called "Pee Wee" then, "Richie" now by close friends. After college at Southern Cal, he roomed with Marty Milner and David Janssen! Was L.A. stockbroker. You'll often find Dick with a cigar in his mouth. Better half answers to Joan. One son, Adam. Got into NBA as business manager of SuperSonics; later "G.M." Dick's a southpaw.
As Attles and the Warriors represent new types, so is Vertlieb the model of the modern sports executive. He knows basketball well as a game, but he is first of all a promoter and administrator. War is too important to be run by the generals; the Warriors' budget is $3.2 million, about $1.4 million of which pays the 12 players, Attles, his assistant Joe Roberts and the trainer. When Vertlieb took over, the Warriors were losing an average of about $400,000 a year. Last year they broke even, with attendance rising to 8,799 a game. This year attendance is up to 11,684 a game, 90% of capacity in the small Oakland Coliseum Arena. Season-ticket sales have gone from around 400 in the 1973-74 season to nearly 3,000 under Vertlieb. Like Attles, the general manager runs his shop by his own book. He has a curious habit, for example, of giving extra tickets to season-ticket holders—not throwaways but the best seats for the best games. As a sure sign of both his genius and morality, Vertlieb has been voted down 17-1 at NBA meetings.
Vertlieb is, shall we say, violently enthusiastic. Once, at Seattle, he hurtled over the scorer's table and onto the court to take on Gus Johnson, one of the strongest men in sports, who was tussling with Al Bianchi, the Sonics' coach. With one poke, Johnson sent Vertlieb flying to the other side of the court. He has ripped phones out of walls, put a fist through a wall, and so on. He can only watch his team play for a few moments at a time. "I ran on the court once this year during a preseason game," he says, "so I don't let myself watch anymore because I end up making a fool of myself." Instead, after the tipoff, he roams the bowels of the coliseum, checks ticket booths 88 times, meanders through the parking lots, ostensibly to see if any car lights have been left on, and finally in desperation climbs in his car and drives the East Bay streets aimlessly. Not long ago, in the middle of a game, he ran out of gas. At last, like a bomb-squad detective gingerly defusing a big one, he reaches for the car radio. If the Warriors are safely ahead or well behind, he drives back to see the finish. If the game is close, he resumes his lonely voyages about East Bay.
Even victory can upset his delicate equilibrium. After the Warriors had won a playoff game last year, Vertlieb was given a ticket for making an illegal turn as he drove away from the arena. He went to court and pleaded "elation" as a defense, so flabbergasting the bemused judge that he let him off. Last spring, as the playoffs approached with the Warriors in a slump, Vertlieb went to the bank, drew out $25,000 in big bills, brought them to the locker room and dumped them on the trainer's table. This was his idea of graphic inspiration. "I get very clich�d," Vertlieb admits sheepishly.
His problem is that as a child of the 1940s he still grants majesty to athletes and innocence to their games. In 1967 Vertlieb and his partner, Don Richman, took over management of the new Seattle SuperSonics. A decade later Vertlieb still cannot get enough of working in a major league front office. Richman is every bit as much a sports fan as Vertlieb, but after one year he became bored and disillusioned with the sports business and left it for good. The two offer a perfect illustration of the contrasting ways Americans look at sports today.
Richman, who left: "The challenge went out of it very quickly. I had built up these men who run basketball, who run all pro sports, for that matter, but I found out that they were a very ordinary lot. It was so easy to succeed. Very quickly I began to think: Do I want to limit myself to this?
"Besides, I started to sense the erosion in the relationship between athletes and management. It happened to be the first year of the ABA, and I could see what was coming. I wanted to run a team. It was certainly never my life's desire to work for athletes, and that's what you do in sports management today. Of course, that's not to say that the owners weren't just as greedy. You could see that quickly enough, too.
"Sports are fun. That's my perspective. They're games. Well, it's not fun anymore. There is no feeling for the institution."
Vertlieb, who stayed: "I probably respect athletes so much because I was not a good one myself. I've never been very creative. I'm a salesman, but I always wanted to do something. What impresses me the most is when a man is operating at the full potential of his talent. Well, athletes operate at a higher percentage of efficiency than most of us do. That's why they're special people to me. That horse that broke her leg—what was her name? Ruffian? That really hurt me, and I don't care about horses. But she was using her talent so, trying so. That's why she broke her leg, that's why she died.
"It was fashionable to say that if there got to be too many black players in the NBA, the whites wouldn't come out to see them. But you see, people appreciate talent. They appreciate that athletes are so special. When I was at SC, and I wasn't good enough to make the team, I worked as a spotter for the P.A., at the stats table, wherever. Athletes were just the people I've always wanted to be around."