By TED SILLANPAA
We’ve gotten a little too used to believing that we know in advance who’ll win the game and, then, reach the playoffs. I don’t need to go back to my youth, decades ago, to give an example of how the most unlikely champions emerge, but I will because the most unlikely championship team of my lifetime were the 1974-75 Golden State Warriors.
It’s actually instructive to take a quick, if long, trip down Memory Lane to briefly revisit the championship that no one who paid any attention to the NBA thought the Warriors could possibly win 37 (38?) years ago. You think this year’s Warriors have no chance of winning the NBA title? They have far more chance, have earned far more respect, than the championship Warriors ever did.
We watch and listen to all the experts and insiders and analysts who speak and write as though they’ve got a scientific formula to determine which teams will reach the NBA playoffs and which teams have a chance of winning the championship. The current Golden State Warriors can’t win the championship. No way. It’s impossible. Ask anybody. They’re too young. They’re too small. They’re too … too … missing a superstar.
Let’s break down the roster of the world champion 1974-75 Warriors:
- Three rookies dotted the roster, with great things expected only of UCLA forward Keith Wilkes. Few expected USF alum Phil Smith to emerge as a backcourt standout in his first season. Fewer people got to see college basketball on television in an era when only the NCAA Tournament aired nationally.
- Two players with one year of experience, including completely unheralded guard Charles Dudley. He played well enough to earn a nickname “Grasshopper.” (Smith and Dudley were nowhere near the players Steph Curry is right now. He’s an NBA star. They became champions.)
- Three third-year players who, honestly, were virtually unknown in the NBA. Two became big contributors and you still don’t know them if you didn’t follow that championship team — guard Charles Johnson and center George Johnson. (Note: You’re worried that Klay Thompson’s not achieving at the level anticipated? The 6-foot C.J. had never played more than 18 minutes a game his first two seasons and became the Warriors third guard and they won a title.)
- Golden State had traded fan favorite and legendary center Nate Thurmond to the Bulls for a fourth-year center named Clifford Ray. (A reenactment of young Ted’s response to word of the trade on the 6 o’ clock news: “Who the (*&^ is Clifford Ray? And, he’s HOW tall?”) Ray was 6-foot-9, so what few analysts existed couldn’t imagine him defending 7-footers of the time like, oh, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. (Ray was experienced, but to most people he had no more chance of forming a championship duo in the post than Festus Ezeli and David Lee do right now.)
- Guard Butch Beard seemed like an old-timer. He played like the stabilizing influence Smith, Dudley and Charles Johnson needed. Beard was 27 years old, entering his fifth NBA season. Beard averaged 12 points, 4.2 assists, a couple steals and … he’d played for three different teams in his first three seasons before arriving in Oakland.
- The veterans were 10-year man Jeff Mullins, who had a nice NBA career but had been reduced to fewer than 20 minutes per gameg, and Rick Barry. Mullin was a spare part because the kid guards Smith, C.J. and Grasshopper emerged. Barry was in his ninth season as a pro, but had long been acknowledged to have become one of the most explosive, versatile forwards in the game. He could do things offensively that few did then. Barry could start the offense, as 6-foot-7 point guard. And, he could score any way and from anywhere — any time. My go-to modern-day NBA savant Stan Van Gundy actually said the other day, “Rick Barry had a game at the time where he did very much the things LeBron James does now.”
- When the Warriors realized they were really playoff-bound, they went frantically looking for a rebounder. They came up with ancient Bill Bridges — off the waiver wire. Bridges was a legendary backboard bad ass who had played in just 17 games with the Lakers. Everyone figured he was done. Useless. (Think: An old, graying Andris Biedrins.) Bridges was drafted by the St. Louis Hawks in 1961, but averaged about 4 rebounds in just over 10 minutes per game in the playoffs. Not bad for a guy who turned 36 after joining the championship-bound Warriors. Bridges in his prime was Carl Landry, with more malice in his game.
- Speaking of rebounding and how we’re absolutely certain that today’s Warriors are just too small to win anything … Bridges was 6-foot-6. Oh, he’d kill a man with his bare hands for a rebound but he was still forced to defend 6-foot-11 Elvin Hayes for 10 minutes in the NBA Finals. Which leads to the greatest story of that championship season … the 6-foot-6, 190-pound Wilkes defended opponents’ bigger, rebound forwards. They weren’t as big as big forwards today, but they were a damn stretch bigger than 6-foot-6, 190, straight out of college. Wilkes. He averaged over 30 minutes and 14 points per game, grabbed about 8 boards. He shut down the 6-foot-11, 235-pound superstar Hayes in the four game Finals sweep of the Bullets. Amazing. (Think of Wilkes when somebody says, “You tellin’ me the Warriors are gonna’ guard Kevin Durant with Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green?”)
Now, I’m not saying that the 1974-75 Warriors prove that the 2012-2013 Warriors will win the NBA title. The game has change. Players are bigger, faster, stronger. One thing hasn’t changed, though, and that is that if one most unlikely champion emerged filled with guys who were told they simply couldn’t do it … then nothing is stopping another team of fellas who are too small, too young, lacking a big center and much more from over-achieving beyond your wildest dreams.
Let’s not forget that both Warriors teams were coached by tough, former NBA guards … although I feel confident that Alvin Attles today at 76 would be more than much younger Mark Jackson would want in a fistfight. Don’t believe me? Ask Jackson.