Bill Russell was a couple years before him, but Attles was still in the vast minority as a black head coach. He didn’t hide from that fact, maintaining an intense, intimidating presence when it was called for. During the deciding 1975 NBA finals, in which he coached the Warriors over the Washington Bullets to the championship as the high point of a 13-plus-year coaching career, Attles, often seen wearing a butterfly collar, leaped from the bench to stop an attack on his star player, Rick Barry, by the Bullets’ designated brawler Mike Riordan. When he saw Al coming, Mike exercised discretion over valor and retreated. Al himself was invited by officials to depart the court immediately, becoming the only head coach in League history who was ejected from a championship-clinching game. After the game, he was forced to congratulate his team at the locker room door as they trotted past him amid the roar of victory.
“We were up 3-0 [games], and you play for your life. If we’d lost—and we could have—we could have lost the Finals. They were trying to get our best player out of the game and Riordan hit Rick in the face with an elbow. Then Mike ran alongside and hit him again. I know what Mike was trying to do,” Attles says, adding that Riordan wanted to get both himself and Barry ejected for fighting. “I ran out on the floor. I ignored the rule, nobody out on the floor, and I’m out there trying to protect Rick, mainly keep him in the game.
“I had tickets for the next game that had fallen out of my pocket. I’m on the floor looking for them and [referee Manny Sokol] came over and told me to leave. We end up winning and I think [getting ejected was] maybe the best thing I did,” Al says with a laugh. “If I get kicked out, fine. I never had any animosity. It was on national TV. The important thing is, we won. I’d do it again, even if I had to be kicked out.”
“He’s had an unbelievable career,” says Heffernan, adding that Attles went from obscurity when he came to training camp with the Warriors “to a high place in the NBA. First he gained the ‘Destroyer’ reputation and then he gained a lot of respect in the League because he has strong character.”
Brian Holloway, sports information director at North Carolina A&T, says Al the player was a key factor in the NBA’s growth and development. Yet he was unique at the guard position. “Al wasn’t a prototypical point guard, but he was a very physical combination of talents,” Holloway says, “mainly because of his strength and speed.”
Scouting reports emphasized his toughness and ability to stay in front of opponents on defense—even the best players, such as Oscar Robertson. He could fight off any player in the post and was exceptional in his devotion to playing tough defense. Some observers think it was his defensive ability that made him an NBA standout. His assignment was always the opponent’s high scorer, and his battles with Lakers star Jerry West are still vivid in the memories of longtime fans.
“Al was always the stopper,” says McGrath. “He is in the generation that established the game as we know it today.”
Along with Wilt and Bill Russell, Attles’ defensive commitment elevated the quality of play as the NBA’s talent developed and players’ talent reached exalted levels in the ’60s. The enhanced level of their skill meant that the old game’s deliberate pace and rare fast breaks, its emphasis on screens and cuts, its two-handed set shots and rare dunks, were gone forever. Replacing them was the brilliant athleticism of modern pro basketball at both ends of the court. Al personified the evolution.
“It was a two-way commitment,” according to McGrath. “He was unselfish as a ballhandler and invaluable on defense. Wilt believed in Al’s wisdom.”
McGrath says that Al’s technical skills and teaching ability were important factors in the NBA’s development into the brilliant sport it’s become, but the man himself is typically reticent about all that. “I really believe it was my being in the right place at the right time,” Al says. “If I’d gone to high school the year I was supposed to”—he sat out what would have been his first year at Weequahic to work in a department store—“I wouldn’t have made it. The year I graduated from A&T, the Celtics had started to run and the Warriors needed a running game. With [teammate] Guy Rodgers and me, [we] developed a running game. The game of basketball changed.”
Attles was also part of the era when the League shifted from an unwritten quota regarding the number of black players allowed per team to more of a meritocracy that improved the quality of play. It was a change that probably saved the game from a destiny similar to that of professional bowling. Yet underlying the League’s evolution from backwardness to progress is an irony that no one suspected would arise and that Al and other stars unwittingly helped to create. Ironically, says NC A&T’s Holloway, integration “depleted black opportunities.” It changed the entire game as black players “shifted to bigger schools and college ball evolved to a mega-media event that showcased basketball talent to the nation.”
That means, he said, that while major colleges currently profit from the presence of brilliant black athletes, black colleges and universities such as Al’s alma mater are severely challenged. “For today’s African-American athlete, the universe is his. Integration has changed the whole dynamic. Now there are no Earl Monroes or Al Attleses at historically black colleges.”
Holloway believes Al and his teammates and classmates were gifted with character, dedication and inner strength. And the changes helped shape Al’s perspective, enhancing his quiet, personal power and his capacity to command respect. “A guy like Al came into the situation with very thick skin. A&T taught you a sense of pride, to be proud of who you are and Al always held his head high,” Holloway says.
Al remains devoted to his alma mater, says Bill Sutton, whose friendship with Al goes back to their undergraduate days. Sutton, who ended a long coaching career in ’06, says Al is a people person: “It doesn’t take long to seem like you’ve known him for a long time because of his friendliness. You just want to get to know him,” he says. “He’s the type who enjoys helping people. He always comes back to help A&T players graduate and to steer them to where they can succeed. He’s fair and firm.”
Al Attles, a signpost for young athletes, a pure, genuine person, a leader with power—in repose. McGrath compares Al’s Warriors tenure, which included 557 wins as head coach and a three-year tenure as General Manager, with the long careers of Dodgers’ manager Tom Lasorda and the old Philadelphia Athletics’ owner Connie Mack, adding, “Al has spent an entire career, at least two generations, with the Warriors.”
And to this day, McGrath says, Al has no enemies: “He’s an approachable guy, a fair guy. He’s served four or five (team) ownerships, from Eddie Gottlieb to Chris Cohan, because he’s a decent guy. He’s a history book.”