One night several years ago, in a time when Rick Barry still roamed (the land, a prince kissed by cupidity and turned into a red, white and blue franchise, Franklin Mieuli threw back another Pimm's Cup and mused on that great day a-comin'. Mieuli, who favors neo- Sherlock Holmes raiment, is an enchanting bearded eccentric who owns the Golden State Warriors basketball team—owns it, one might say, in the way Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor own one another; that is, legally, but whimsically, and for many of the wrong reasons. "These are the kind of days I start thinking about Utopia," Mieuli allowed at that time.
And just what might Utopia be?
"Utopia," Franklin Mieuli said, "is the day when everything runs your way, only you don't have to run it." He was flat-out counting on Utopia. Most of us will gladly settle for .500 ball, but Mieuli has always been a dreamer, and, as you know, dreams can come true. And so it was that Utopia did indeed come to the province of Golden State not long ago, and, that duly obtained, now Mieuli is preparing to go sailing around the world on some kind of Chichesterian quest. His beloved team is champion of the world, its future without horizons, and where before there had been a heavy air of despair and the sense that somehow things were going to get worse, a strange kind of peace now reigns.
Now, even in their hideous uniforms, where stars, circles and maps compete for billboard space with names and numbers, the Warriors are much more than just the best team in basketball. They appear to be the logical model for success in the game today. Of course, in the zircon world, flacks feel obliged to elevate every small success to the universal: remember the Kansas City Chiefs' Offense of the '70s? Or, how could any man born of woman stay in the ring with Sonny Liston...with George Foreman? So there is a reluctance to assign lasting significance to the Warriors. Notwithstanding, the Warriors have clearly gotten on to something, and other teams are beginning to follow their example: Atlanta, most surely; also Phoenix and Milwaukee. And one wonders whether Bill Russell would have dared to unload the talented but deliberate Spencer Haywood unless the Warriors' concept of quick, balanced team play had been revealed to work.
Golden State offers nothing particularly new—just a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts. The elements have all been employed elsewhere. "We were just like the Warriors last year," says Butch van Breda Kolff of the New Orleans Jazz. "We played nine/10 guys all season, too, but we were a last-place team, so nobody took any notice of us." The difference is that the Warriors' yo-yo substitution policy is only a foundation, the basis for the team's style and spirit. Built upon it is a hell-for-leather offense, a pertinacious, gambling team defense, balanced, unpredictable scoring and a verve born of perpetual effort. Nobody (except Barry, occasionally) is permitted to play tired; perhaps because of that, few Warriors ever get hurt. And never before have quickness and selflessness—fire and water—been so well blended.
The Warriors have borrowed the best from the best two teams ever to play in the NBA: the Russell Celtics and the 1969 Knicks. But the Celts depended utterly on one man, and the Knicks were a unique blend of five good-shooting ball handlers (four guys who had played guard and a center who had played forward), a unit that could not be recreated any more than could the Marx Brothers or the Continental Congress. The crux of the Golden State is that the parts are interchangeable. No team is as quick as the Warriors—they may also be more intelligent than any other team—but the ideal that Coach Al Attles has established is one to which any team can reasonably aspire. It is not just a matter of climbing on a winner's bandwagon. The Warriors are seminal, an idea whose time has come. Their example will permeate all levels of basketball and could even extend to other sports.
Along the way, they have destroyed shibboleths. Their players, for example, fit into no carefully designated slots, as players are supposed to. "People come to assume things," Attles says. "You must have one shooting forward and one big rebounding forward. You must have one big center. You must have a lead guard and an off guard. Pretty soon everybody just accepts stereotypes instead of wondering why things work. I finally decided, if I'm not successful, let it be because I failed on my own, not because I did something the way it was supposed to be done." Attles has four guards he uses seemingly at random, two centers who share time about equally and forwards that are all slim, stylish types, none of them a monster.
It has been the mark of championship teams to get ahead and control the game from on top—and that is why the best teams are often the dullest. The Warriors are distinctive in that they play off the other fellow. They don't say "come and beat us," they go out and chase down victory. Their trademark is coming from behind, which is downright heretical for a champion. Once this year they came from 31 down, 17 in the last quarter. "You're going along together," says Phil Smith, the lean and hungry guard, "but then another bunch of us comes out to do the job, and you can see the other guys get tired." He shrugs. "And then we just get rid of them."
Finally, contradicting everything that everyone from Leo Durocher to Woody Hayes has told us, the most important thing to the Warriors is not to snarl at the opposition but to be caring toward one another. That is the priority. Mieuli's men have traditionally tended to be pampered ("It's your job to coach 'em and my job to spoil 'em," he used to tell his coaches), but only with the present bunch has this corporate goodwill actually been turned into a kinetic force comparable, say, to speed or good shooting. Indeed, the future of the team depends more on whether this amazing grace can be maintained than on injuries, draft choices, foul trouble and all the usual stuff.
Unconsciously or otherwise, teams are formed in the image of those who construct them. Sonny Werblins want Joe Namaths, and hard-noses like Fred Shero want hard-noses on the ice for them. Invariably, whenever a coach or manager fails, when it is said that the team "got away" from him, the fact of the matter is not that the boss was too hard or too soft but that he hadn't been able to bring the team's personnel into concert with himself, his personality. "Housecleanings," for this reason, are not so much seeking better players as they are the new wife getting rid of the old wife's furniture. The Warriors are a product that was shaped by the personalities of three men: Mieuli, Dick Vertlieb, the general manager, and Attles. They are, in order, Faith, Hope and Charity—although, of course, as the Bible tells us, "the greatest of these is charity." So, Al Attles: