Original Old School: Rock Steady

In our quest to educate young fans, we’ve been dropping an Old School feature that ran in SLAM every weekend. This week, we’ve got a feature on Al Attles; the same one you may have seen recently in SLAM 138.–Ed.

SLAM 138 Old School, Al Attles

by Joe Ruklick

Fifty years ago this fall, Al Attles was a muscular 6-0 rookie guard of few words in an era when newcomers didn’t boast or talk trash around NBA veterans. In return, established players usually feigned indifference when a rookie performed well.

During his first preseason, Al’s teammates with the Philadelphia Warriors (predecessor to the San Francisco Warriors who became today’s Golden State Warriors) honored his build by nicknaming him “Atlas” after the mighty Greek god. Wary that the fine young player might snatch a roster spot from an old-timer, the veterans were awed, too, because he looked strong enough to heave any of them into Philadelphia’s Convention Hall mezzanine. Al, ever the gentleman, took it all with aplomb and went on to play 10 years in the NBA, rarely raising his voice. Of his quiet dignity, says Bill Sutton, a former coach at Al’s alma mater North Carolina A&T, “He’s a pure, genuine person.”

In action on the floor, his intelligence, his skill—his game—made it clear without making it look threatening that he was a force. Off the court, Attles’ low-key, thoughtful personality is the reason he hasn’t showboated his way to celebrity status in the noisy sports world. Yet the current Warriors Legend & Ambassador (his official title in the Warriors’ media guide) has been an NBA institution as player, coach and executive since Oscar Robertson and Jerry West were in college.

“It goes back to your mother and father. You take up their values and you apply yourself,” he says of his reticence. But Al’s folks had help. When he was a high school star at Newark (NJ) Weequahic, he recalls, “One of my coaches coached me onto the right trail. I played football, baseball, made all-star teams, and one day in football practice I wasn’t getting calls.” Al complained, loudly, and the coach called him into his office. “He told me to turn in my uniform.”

And that’s what Al did. On his way home, he says, “I spent the whole time thinking. I saw the evil of my ways. The next morning, back at school, I went to the coach’s office and said, Sorry for what I did. But it wasn’t easy. It took me a long time to watch myself, to learn to avoid losing my temper. Then one day my coach told me, ‘You’re not a bad guy. You had a bad day.’ That started me on the right track.”

He had reached a decisive moment, and he adapted. He realized that losing his temper meant losing his dignity, so he changed course and dedicated himself to being a thoughtful gentleman. “You go through life, and there are certain signposts. You remember certain people who stand out, who help you become who you become,” he says.

Over the years, Al’s relative quiet has resulted in thin media coverage of his accomplishments. Few fans know of one of his most notable feats, which came in a performance against the Knicks during his second NBA season. It was the night that, while his teammate Wilt Chamberlain famously scored 100 points, Al connected on every shot he took, going 8-for-8 from the floor and 1-for-1 from the line [The writer of this story certainly remembers—he was on the Warriors then, too.—Ed.].

Wilt’s reporting wasn’t so restrained. Tongue-in-cheek, he told everybody who would listen that Al’s complaints about media unfairness in the days following The Big Dipper’s big show were so loud that he, Wilt, was forced to give Al the game ball as a gift to “stop his whining.”

That he cajoled Wilt into making the gift of the historic ball is doubtful, but Al has always had a subtle sense of humor. He tweaked Wilt’s ego because it was there. While on an airport stopover during Al’s first season, Wilt laughingly said to him about his nickname, “Al, you’re too quiet to carry everything around on your shoulders like Atlas.”

“Big Fella,” Al replied in his basso profundo tone, “You never heard Atlas going around making speeches, did you?”

Attles’ combination of fierceness on the court and reticence off it helped get him to the top echelon of pro basketball management. He earned his reputation as an exemplary gentleman early in his pro career, all of which he’s spent with the Warriors organization. His playing career lasted from ’60-71 and featured career averages of 8.9 points, 3.5 assists and 3.5 rebounds for teams that twice lost in the NBA Finals.

Al’s is a tale that’s rich in heroics as well as irony. It’s set in a sports world where reigning idols fall and new idols come from nowhere to win championships and where few stars resist the urge to get more famous. It’s about a sports hero who’s proven he’s a man of rectitude, dignity and self-restraint, but in whose psychic architecture there throbs a competitive fire that’s discouraged scores of aspiring basketball brawlers from getting physical with him or his teammates.

“He was great. He’d run into anybody, step in front of anybody, but he didn’t talk trash or anything like that,” says Jim Heffernan, who covered the Warriors for the Philadelphia Inquirer during Al’s rookie year. “He’s a tough guy from Newark. He sacrificed himself for the good of the team. And if trouble found its way to him, he wouldn’t step away from it.”

He was given the nickname “Destroyer” by an opponent his rookie year. “We were playing against Syracuse in the first game of a doubleheader in Boston,” Al says. “Tom Gola, Dolph Schayes and I were going after a loose ball. I threw my body at them and ended up with the ball. The two other players went down. I had run into Dolph and shattered his eye. After the game, [Syracuse guard Larry] Costello said, ‘That destroyer really knocked you down, Dolph.’ The nickname was picked up, people wrote and talked about it. I was a rookie fighting for a job.”

Dan McGrath, former Chicago Tribune executive editor for sports, covered Al for newspapers in Philadelphia and San Francisco. “He was called the ‘Destroyer,’” McGrath says, “yet he’s one of the nicest, most pleasant gentlemen I’ve ever met. On the surface he was fearsome and on the floor he was feared. But he has no enemies, even among the guys he cut when he was the Warriors’ coach.”

Beginning with the last 30 games of the ’69-70 season, Attles was a player-coach, moving to full-time coach halfway through the following season.