Original Old School: Run & Shoot & Shoot…
SLAM 53: Few trios are as fun to watch play as Golden State’s Run TMC was.
Nothing really compares to the Run TMC Warriors. Don’t get us wrong, we love Monta Ellis and Steph Curry, but there was just something about watching Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin. Few teams have ever been as much fun to watch as that one was, and way back in SLAM 53, we talked with those three exciting players.—Ed.
by Ben Osborne
In the spring of ’91, I was 16 years old and considered myself something of a basketball expert. I had a lot to learn, but there were plenty of things I knew. One thing, which was being contradicted right before my eyes, was that slow 6-7 guys should not, under any circumstance, handle an NBA team’s playmaking duties. And yet, as I watched the Golden State Warriors run past San Antonio in the first round of the Playoffs (average Warrior point total for the four games: 113) and scare the crap out of the eventual conference champion Lakers in the second round (Warriors’ average for the five-game series: 116!), that’s exactly what I was seeing. For much of the regular season and Playoffs, Tom Tolbert was running a 1-4 offense. Readers who know Tolbert only as the goofy former analyst on Fox Sports or for his current gig as a San Francisco radio host must be even more confused than I was.
How did this work? Well, three of the other four guys in that offense were Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin—aka Run TMC, a trio that had a too-short run as one of the most prolific (and easily one of the coolest) trios in NBA history. And at a time when the League is preoccupied with rewriting its rule book to improve scoring (and ratings), memories of this ill triumvirate are sweeter than ever.
“The time of Run TMC, man, those were the days,” recalls Hardaway, his killer crossover and 23 ppg scoring averages fading ever further from memory as he nurses injuries in Miami. “Those were the fucking days.”
We’ll get back to the three playas soon enough, but for history, Tolbert is a good place to start. “I played point forward,” says Tolbert, who averaged 8.5 points per game during the ’89-90 and ’90-91 campaigns. “I had three options, three easy options of three great shooters. If I could get past my man—and it was always a four-man guarding me—it was even easier. That’s what we tried to do. Drive and kick, drive and kick, until we got a good shot. And Rod [Higgins] and Sarunas [Marciulionis] had the same philosophy as well.
“We fast-breaked whenever we could, and after that looked for quick shots,” Tolbert continues. “If that didn’t work out, we only had really two sets with a few plays off each one. Not a whole lot of strategy involved.”
The choreographer of all this running and gunning was Don Nelson, the Warriors executive VP in ’87-88, then head coach and GM from ’88 to ’95. “One of the first days after I joined the team,” Tolbert recalls, “Nellie came in and said, ‘My goal for the year is to lead the League in scoring.’ That’s all he said. I mean, 137-136 games were nothing for us. We had 47-point quarters, 74-point halves. They had this thing where our fans got free pizza if we scored 120 points, and people were getting free pizzas all the time. It was awesome.”
For the record, the ’89-90 Warriors did indeed lead the League in scoring, at 116.3 ppg, and then boosted it to 116.6 the following season. Nelson, the NBA mad scientist who has torn down and rebuilt the Dallas Mavericks much as he did the Warriors, may want a little more credit for his tactics as Golden State coach, but he certainly concurs with most of Tolbert’s assessments. “I think we probably strategized more than most teams,” recalls Nellie. “We had plans for the break, the semi-break and sets. We had a small team, so we had to create mismatches however we could.”
Nelson came over from Milwaukee prior to the ’87-88 season, then spent a year upstairs as the Warriors went 20-62. The next year he moved to the bench and led a bunch that included Mullin, Winston Garland, and Rookie of the Year Richmond to a 43-39 mark and the playoffs. The next summer Nelson drafted Hardaway, a jitterbug pg out of Chicago by way of UTEP. A scoring juggernaut was being created, though Nelson admits he didn’t have an exact plan for how the roster came together. “Well, I had Chris already, and the drafting of the other two wasn’t calculated at all,” Nellie claims. “My philosophy has always been to go with the best available player and that’s what we did with Mitch and Timmy. There was no way to know they would all work together so well.
“But of course,” he adds with a laugh, “that’s the coach’s job.”
The ’89-90 team included Mully, who averaged 25 ppg, Mitch (22) and Timmy (15), sandwiched around Terry Teagle, who put up 16 per in his final season in the Yay. They regressed a bit in the win department, going 37-45 and missing the Playoffs, but the fans didn’t seem to care. With a style of play that was over the top even by the standards of the Wild West ’80s—Golden State gave up an NBA-worst 119 ppg—the Warriors sold out all 41 home games for the first time in franchise history. “The entertainment value is what got the fans’ attention,” states Tolbert. “You could not find a ticket in those days, and it makes sense—there were a lot of skills on display every night.”
With minimal personnel moves, the ’90-91 Warriors did their best to entertain and win. They went 44-38, made the aforementioned mini-playoff run and maintained the high-yield offense. More than ever, that offense came from the “Big Three,” which is what TMC began the season being called. For the year, Mullin averaged 26, Mitch 24 and Timmy 23. The combined scoring average for the “true” trio (meaning each guy was within 10 points of the others) was third-best in NBA history, bested only by the Nuggets’ Alex English, Dan Issel and Kiki Vandeweghe in ’82-83 and ’83-84.
“We were the perfect combination,” says Mullin, now back in G.S. after three years in Indiana. “We were all different, but we got along. Our talents really meshed. Timmy was the ball handler, the dominant personality, the leader. I was more of an outside shooter, a finesse guy. And then we mixed with that power guard in Mitch, who could go in the post. We really complemented each other.”
All three were leaders, something Nelson acknowledged when he named them tri-captains, and the players acknowledged with the dope little “C” each wore on his jersey. And all three could ball like crazy, which they had to in this system, each averaging 39 or more minutes a night. All were great passers, and while Mitch was the best team defender, quick hands allowed Mullin and Hardaway to each average more than 2 spg.
“They were a great team to watch, but horrible to play against,” recalls Mark Jackson, then and now a member of the Knicks. “They played the game with reckless abandon and were a torture to defend. You just knew at least one of them would heat up any given night.”
Of course, any good phenomenon needs a good nickname, and “Big Three” wasn’t getting it done. Midway through the ’90-91 season, with Mullin an All-Star and the other two on their way, the San Francisco Examiner sponsored a “Name the Warriors Trio Contest.” The paper took the best suggestions—among them “Three Warriors Not Named Joe Barry Carroll”—and took them to the players. Given the era, “Run TMC” was the obvious choice.
“Run DMC was one of the first rap groups that most people really took notice of,” Richmond remembers. “Even though Chris was the only one from New York like they were, we all liked them. They were doing ‘My Adidas’ and all that. We definitely liked that nickname.”
Sam Perkins, most recently a Pacer, was on the Laker team that beat G-State in ’91. “The thing I remember most about that team is they actually had Run DMC perform at one of our Playoff games,” recalls Smooth, who dropped his career-high (45 points) on a TMC outfit. “But I didn’t worry much about the matchups. They were tough for our guards, but they didn’t have much of a frontcourt.” Indeed, most around the League agreed that the Warriors had to get bigger if they wanted to go further in the Playoffs.
It’s moments after a late-season game in Philly, and the visiting Wizards’ locker room has that familiar defeatist attitude wafting through it. Mitch Richmond has just completed a rather bad outing, and as such, politely asks the handful of reporters around his locker if they could leave him alone. But I take a chance.
“Man, I know you aren’t trying to talk,” I start, “but you think you could just give me a few words about the old Run TMC teams?”
Richmond’s frown turns upside down. “Happy times, happy times, that’s what I think of,” he says. “Going out every night and just wondering what teams would try and do to stop us, that was a really fun time. Our approach was all about outscoring people. A lot of that came from us practicing so well together, knowing where the other guy would be. Mullin was always a specialist at moving without the ball, setting picks, getting open, and that’s stuff that Timmy and I learned when we got there.”
Richmond acknowledges that the team was missing a piece—”to win it all, we needed a center like Divac that can pass, post up and run”—but he certainly didn’t think he’d be used as a pawn in Nelson’s plan. The night before the ’91-92 season opener, Nelson sent Richmond to Sacramento for Billy Owens, a rookie with height and agility. He wasn’t a center, but Nellie thought he could fill the Warriors’ needs. “People weren’t satisfied with us being a good team—they wanted great. I was under pressure to get bigger, and at 6-9, 6-10, Billy was that,” says Nellie, who had to be mindful of his coaching and GM duties. “Of course, he never turned into that type of player. I’d never make that trade again. I regret it to this day.”
Richmond takes little solace in Nellie’s regrets. The trade hurt on so many levels—Mitch loved the Bay Area, loved his teammates, loved the franchise’s future—and suddenly he was on his way to the NBA’s hinterland, a place CWebb can’t stand even now that the Kings are good. Back then, they were awful. “That was a tough call to get,” Richmond concedes. “I think it was a bad move, and even Nellie commented on the fact that it was a bad move, later on. He broke up something special that could have went on for a long time.”
Interestingly, the Warrior franchise did not immediately implode upon Richmond’s departure, but the end of the ’91-92 regular season marked the end of the glory years. Golden State, still lacking a center, was bounced by Seattle in the first round of the ’92 Playoffs and crashed the next season, going just 34-48. The problem? While Richmond rarely missed games as a Warrior, Marciulionis missed 10 games the first season after Mitch, and a whopping 52 the next. “All of a sudden, we didn’t have Mitch, and it was tough,” Tolbert says. “He and Chris were just such hard workers. On nights they played 30, 32 minutes, they’d be riding the bike afterwards, talking about how they ‘had to get their minutes.’
“Sarunas was good that season,” Tolbert adds. “He could flat-out score, but he was worse than Mitch defensively. And with the language barrier he couldn’t be much of a leader.”
Besides a one-year renaissance—thanks to Webber’s brief tenure-the Warriors haven’t been much fun since. On many nights, neither has the League. Sure, the Bucks have a formidable trio that can light it up, and you can’t hate on the Kings, but no team plays like the Run TMC Warriors did. “I was a huge fan of that team,” says Oakland native and current Phoenix star Jason Kidd. “You had a dominant backcourt and then a shooter like Mullin at the three, plus they had this incredible knowledge of the game. There aren’t really any teams comparable to them as far as how they play.”
I know I think back to those days, 10 years ago this spring, and feel sad that a team like that was taken apart. But the real pain is reserved for those who were a part of it. “I think we would have been right there if they’d kept us together. We were only one or two players away…” Richmond says before pausing. “It was just a special time. I enjoyed it.”