Back when I originally started this project on Lunch.com, people had barely heard of the Golden State Warriors. I believe I referred to them as an example of just how unfair basketball history can be to some teams and as the team sports fans are always forgetting when they try to name every team in the NBA. Oh my, how things have changed since then.
What hasn’t changed is the fact that the Warriors still should have a much better rap in the history books. They carry a handful of important distinctions, so their decades-long existence as the team your favorite team offers its cheap bonus ticket incentives playing against can’t help but come across as a little bit disrespectful. See, the Warriors are one of the original teams created when basketball itself was barely even a thing. They were originally created as the Philadelphia Warriors as a charter team in the Basketball Association of America. Although the BAA is the younger of the two basketball leagues which helped get professional basketball off the ground, it’s the one that’s in the books as the direct forerunner to today’s NBA. The Warriors were the baby of Peter Tyrrell, a pro sports commodity in Philadelphia who also owned an American Hockey League team called the Philadelphia Rockets. To be the GM and coach of the Warriors, Tyrrell hired Eddie Gottlieb, a longtime Philadelphia basketball promoter. The team was given its name after an earlier professional Philadelphia basketball team in an obviously less-successful league.
In the 1946-47 season, Joe Fulks emerged as a great scorer early on as he led the Warriors to the first Championship in the BAA’s history. They beat the Chicago Stags in the Finals four games to one. The title established a tone, Gottlieb bought the team in 1951, and by the 1955-56 season, the Warriors were loaded for bear with players like Paul Arizin, Tom Gola, and Neil Johnston. They won their second title that year, beating the Fort Wayne Pistons. But it was in 1959 that the Warriors picked up maybe their biggest – literally and figuratively – defining player of all time: Wilt Chamberlain. Known as The Big Dipper, Chamberlain is one of basketball’s transcendent players, and his shadow continues to loom over the way basketball is played even today. Chamberlain got right to work setting numerous scoring and rebounding records which still hold up today.
In 1962, Chamberlain had what may be the greatest basketball season ever by a single player: He scored 4029 points for his season total, and is still the only player to ever total more than 4000 points in a single season. (To compare to today, Chamberlain and Jordan are the only players to ever break 3000.) He averaged 48 minutes a game, playing 3882 of the 3890 minutes the Warriors played that year. He picked up 2052 rebounds. He averaged 50 points and 25 rebounds per game. Everything Chamberlain accomplished in 1962 is summed up in one magnificent performance he put on on March 2 against the New York Knicks in a neutral arena in Hershey, Pennsylvania. There were all of 4124 people who paid to be there – about half the capacity – the New York City press was too arrogant to consider it worthy of its time, there is no known existing footage, and there are only some audio recordings of the fourth quarter. They missed the Warriors taking a 19-3 lead after about three minutes. After the first quarter, the Warriors were ahead 42-26, and Chamberlain already put 23 on the board. By the half, he had hit 41, and teammate Guy Rodgers suggested they start shoveling the ball over to Wilt just to see how many points he could get. He had put another 28 on the board by the end of the third, and in the last quarter, the game turned into a farce: The Warriors offense shifted to getting the ball to Wilt no matter what, the Knicks tried keeping the ball out of his hands by fouling every player except him, and the Knicks trying to stop him by eating up the shot clock instead of letting him keep scoring. While the entire fourth quarter was nothing but a wild pro wrestling match played between basketball teams, the achievement deserves respect. Wilt Chamberlain walked off the court that day with a stat line reading 100 points.
A team with a player that dominant should logically be a championship contender, but that’s not what happened with the Warriors. The 1962 Warriors didn’t even get to the Finals. What they DID do that year was get bought and moved out to San Francisco, where they were renamed the San Francisco Warriors. Chamberlain managed to lead them to the 1964 Western Conference title, but they got beat up in the Finals pretty badly by Chamberlain’s great nemesis Bill Russell and his Boston Celtics. Repeat the next year? No! In fact, the Warriors sent The Big Dipper packing back to his native Philadelphia, where he became a mainstay for the Philadelphia 76ers, the team created in place of the Warriors. Fortunately, they managed to weed out Rick Barry in the 1965 draft, and Barry proved to be worthy of carrying Chamberlain’s jock. He was named Rookie of the Year, and he took the Warriors back to the Finals in 1967, where they lost to… Chamberlain’s Sixers!
Unfortunately, Barry also got royally pissed off about the Warriors’ failure to pay him a set of incentives he believed he was owed, so in 1967 he jumped to the new American Basketball Association team, the Oakland Oaks, and didn’t return to the Warriors until 1972. Ironically, at this time the Warriors started scheduling a lot of games at the same place the Oaks were playing, the Oakland Coliseum. So it was in 1971 that the Warriors decided to change their name again, this time to something that would encompass the entire state: The Golden State Warriors. They reestablished themselves as one of the NBA’s great teams during the 70’s, especially after Rick Barry’s return. In 1975, the Warriors went to the Finals and, in maybe the biggest upset in the history of the league, won the Championship over the heavily favored Washington Bullets in a sweep.
While the Warriors remained competitive for a couple more years after that, they never so much as made the Finals for a very long time. By 1978, Barry was gone, and fellow team lynchpins Jamaal Wilkes and Nate Thurmond were also out. Although they managed to find a handful of well-known standout players like Sleepy Floyd, Purvis Short, and Robert Parish, they struggled to return to what they once were. All three of those players had productive careers with Golden State, and all left the team for different reasons: Short was sent to the Houston Rockets just before his skills started to diminish. Floyd was traded to the Rockets as well, following an All-Star career. But it was the trade of Parish in 1980 that spelled out Golden State’s inability to do anything right in the front office: In 1980, Purdue University had a great center by the name of Joe Barry Carroll. The Boston Celtics had the first overall draft pick. The Golden State Warriors wanted Carroll in the worst way. So they traded Parish and their first round pick that same year to the Celtics. The Warriors got Carroll, and two picks later, the Celtics magically transformed their pick into Kevin McHale. Parish and McHale teamed up with Larry Bird in Boston to create a dynamo that won three Championships and fielded maybe the greatest team in NBA history in the 1986 season. Carroll has been called one of the biggest busts in NBA history. Carroll’s status isn’t fair to him, though. It comes more from the fact that he hated giving interviews and the fact that the Warriors gave up Robert Parish to get him. In truth, Carroll enjoyed a pretty productive ten-year career which included a selection to the All-Rookie First Team, an All-Star selection in 1987, and a points per game average of 17.
It wasn’t until 1987 that the Warriors started to undergo a resurgence… Of sorts. Collecting coach George Karl and players like Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond, and Chris Mullin – the Run TMC line – in the late 80’s and coach Don Nelson with players Latrell Sprewell and Chris Webber in the early 90’s allowed the Warriors to make a string of playoff appearances from 1987 to 1994; but during those years, they were only able to make the playoffs two years in a row one time. After that, the Warriors continued to find exciting players like John Starks, Mookie Blaylock, Baron Davis, and Gilbert Arenas, but they could never seem to find a rudder. It wasn’t until the 2007 season when the Warriors finally dug out of their hole for a brief time. In January of 2007, the Warriors made a big trade with the Indiana Pacers which allowed them to run and gun their way to the playoffs. At the end of the season, with their playoff lives on the line, they went 16-5 to close the regular season with a 42-40 record and grab the eighth playoff seed on a tiebreaker. That earned them a date with the Dallas Mavericks, the NBA’s best team that year. Although the Warriors were expected to get plowed, they rose up and beat the Mavericks in six games. Now, while most NBA onlookers write this down as an upset on par with Golden State’s 1975 title, it’s important to note that the Warriors had played the Mavs three times during the regular season and won all three matchups. Still though, it was the first time in league history that an eighth seed toppled a first seed in the playoffs. (It also turned me into a Warriors fan.) It was also Golden State’s first playoff victory in 16 years. After losing to the Utah Jazz in the next round, the Warriors were expected to vault into the league’s upper echelon the next year. They did win 48 games, but due to how stacked the Western Conference was that year, they also became the first 48-win team to ever miss the playoffs.
The next year, the Warriors fell back into their accustomed slot, inauspicious, forgotten, and near the bottom of the standings. 2007 felt like a distant memory. Until…
While the Miami Heat spent their years with LeBron James creating bandwagon fans and making everyone go ooh and ah, no one noticed the Warriors as they seriously got their act together. When the Warriors started the 2011-12 season by winning 20 of 30 games, even beating the Heat during that streak, no one noticed. When they started trading, drafting, and signing an outstanding core of players like Andrew Bogut, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, and Stephen Curry, everyone preferred to amuse themselves watching Kobe Bryant implode. When Curry started bombing every team in the NBA with threes, critics and pundits preferred to spend their time lecturing fans about why it was wrong to hate the San Antonio Spurs. When the Warriors starting showing incredible improvement and returning to the playoffs, everyone asked what was to become of Dwight Howard. Then, just before the 2014-15 season, the Warriors won the bidding contest for coach wannabe Steve Kerr, a former player who was just coming off a GM job with the Phoenix Suns, and the world was suddenly forced to acknowledge the existence of the Golden State Warriors. Kerr combined what he had learned as a player from two of the game’s greatest coaches ever – San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson of the Chicago Bulls – to pace the NBA with a 67-15 record. Although the Spurs were a potential threat to the Warriors in the playoffs, a masterstroke of fortune happened when the Spurs lost a series to the Los Angeles Clippers, and the path was suddenly clear: The Warriors were coming for what was rightfully theirs. With the Spurs out of the way, all that was left were remnants of token resistance from the Memphis Grizzlies, Houston Rockets, and – despite several performances for the ages from LeBron James – Cleveland Cavaliers. And the Warriors ran them all through, walking off the hardwood at the end of it all as Champions for the first time in 40 years.
Those Warriors were an all-time great team. They rank right up there with the Philadelphia 76ers of 1983, Boston Celtics of 1986, and Chicago Bulls of 1996. And the scary part is the Warriors of the current season are even better! They’re currently ahead of every team in the league with a whopping 58-6 record after 64 games, with only San Antonio posing anything resembling a threat. They’ve turned 2016 into one of the least in-doubt years ever in the NBA. There are only two teams which are really contending for the title this year… Well, okay, three if you’re going to delude yourself into thinking any team in the Eastern Conference has a shot. But the Warriors this year are notable for having a very real shot at passing the ’96 Bulls’ all-time record of 72-10. (Of course, this is causing quite a lot of whining coming out of Chicago. Now, I lived in Chicago, loved every minute of it, and have a loyalty to the Bulls remaining, but what sports fans there do best is whine and cling to outdated past achievements. Read a recent column from Trib writer Bernie Lincicome to see what I’m talking about, where Lincicome insists the three is a skill-less crutch for people who can’t play basketball. What it’s really doing is reflecting the sentiment which is no doubt prevailing there, which is that even if the Warriors break the Bulls’ record, it will never count because they didn’t do it DA CHICAGO WAY, DURRR!!!)
Currently, the rebirth of the Golden State Warriors seems to be complete. They still have a couple of tests left this season against the Spurs, but if those games go anything like their first game against the Spurs, there doesn’t look to be a strong candidate to stop the Warriors. But the big question here is about how the Warriors ever fell into NBA irrelevance to begin with. Two titles in the first ten years of the NBA, including the first title in its recorded history; a third in 1975; a game where one of their players scored 100 points; the biggest upset in NBA Finals history; and the best season by an individual player ever. That was in their first 30 years! And even after that, they also had a couple of Rookies of the Year and that playoff upset over the Mavericks. Their title last year is only their fourth ever, but that gives them the distinction of having more titles than every team except four: The San Antonio Spurs (who have five), Chicago Bulls (six), Los Angeles Lakers (16), and Boston Celtics (17). It’s pretty weird how their history is almost evenly split down the middle.
Even the great players and their accomplishments are pretty front-loaded. Wilt Chamberlain was a league MVP, and in case you don’t realize it, the NBA MVP isn’t given out to schmoes. A lot of teams are lucky to have one league MVP throughout their histories. Golden State has two, but the second one just sort of exemplifies what I’m saying; it was Stephen Curry in 2015. They gave the league a total of 12 league scoring champions split between five different players, but the last one was Rick Barry in 1967. There are 23 years of All-NBA First Team selections split between nine players, but only three of those happened after Barry’s selection in 1976: Chris Mullin in 1992, Latrell Sprewell in 1994, and yes, Stephen Curry in 2015. All-Star selections are more common and include some noteworthy choices like Tim Hardaway, Bernard King, Sleepy Floyd, and even Joe Barry Carroll in 1987. The Warriors did retire six numbers: Those of Tom Meschery, Al Attles, Chris Mullin, Rick Barry, Nate Thurmond, and, of course, Wilt Chamberlain. Mullin is the only one who played after 1974, but if Stephen Curry sticks with the team awhile longer, he’ll almost certainly have his banner up in the rafters too.
In most sports, the best player ever can be whittled down to a select handful before being up for grabs, and that’s the case with Wilt Chamberlain. The Big Dipper is the team’s all-time scoring leader and he still holds a number of league records which, for now, seem insurmountable: He put 4029 points on the board during a single season, which makes him the only player to score over 4000 during one season and one of only two to score 3000 during a single season. (The other is Michael Jordan.) His 100-point game is still the league record, and that’s probably never going to happen again. There have been a handful of full-out assaults on it, most notably Kobe Bryant’s 81-point storm against the Toronto Raptors in 2006. But to get an idea of how difficult Chamberlain’s feat is, understand that there have only been 64 games in league history in which one player put over 60 points on the board, and those players include legends like David Robinson, Michael Jordan, Pete Maravich, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Karl Malone, and Larry Bird. Also understand that 31 of those performances were Chamberlain’s, and that’s not counting the 100-pointer. Hell, Chamberlain put 70 or over up in five other games during his career.
These days, the Warriors are easily spotted by their explosive, perimeter assault style of basketball, their recent Championship, Stephen Curry, and all the games they play on national TV. But according to more knowledgeable NBA pundits, they always had a core base of one of the noisiest and most intimate home crowds in the NBA. Although it was ought to ind a Warriors fan outside the San Francisco Bay Area, the people who live there were always crazy about the team, even during the bad decades. The team’s few national fans popped their heads out during the 2007 playoffs, and that incredible run created a few more national fans – myself included – but they were forgotten about a year later, even though the Warriors won more games. Now that the Warriors are everywhere, everyone is ditching the Los Angeles Lakers and jumping on the bandwagon.
What’s to say? When I first started doing this on Lunch.com, no one knew about the Warriors. Now, they’re the NBA’s new gold standard. Hopefully, they can keep up their new winning ways awhile longer.
One of the most important teams in early NBA history; they were the team the originally signed Wilt Chamberlain; current style of play is one of the most exciting in the league; knowledgeable, ghost-riding fan base; only four teams have won more than their four titles.
They’re the team legendary asshole Latrell Sprewell was playing for when he choked his coach; Rick Barry is also kind of a dick; they’re damn near invisible when they’re not doing well; they’re a west coast team, so their home games start very late in the east.
Should you be a fan?
If you want to be, get on board NOW, because the bandwagon stigma is growing faster than the Warriors’ offense.