This is the third of a 3-part series on the 1975 Golden State Warriors.
Part One was an introduction to the improbable dozen men who came together to win an improbable championship.
Part Two is the story of the 1975 Western Conference Finals, when the Warriors beat the Chicago Bulls in seven games. They didn’t win four out of seven, they won FIVE… but more on that later.
This is the story of the biggest upset in the history of sports, the 4-0 sweep by the Golden State Warriors against the Washington Bullets in the 1975 NBA Finals.
Okay, I have zero research to back up that claim, but now that I have your attention, allow me to tell you why I think it deserves to be in the conversation.
A best-of-seven series is supposed to smooth out the rough edges of sports, the peaks and valleys that are part of what we love about the games. Those rough edges can, in the case of football (with a one-shot playoff game format), make it harder to know if the best team really won. Let’s therefore toss football out of the conversation because of the “one-off” effect.
Let’s also get rid of baseball, because that’s not the same 12 guys playing each other seven times, it’s a sport that has as a central figure a guy who will appear once, twice, or in the case of Madison Bumgarner last year for the San Francisco Giants, three times in a series. It’s not the same.
Hockey is weird. There are upsets all the time in hockey, so they cease to be as impressive or surprising. For some reason, home ice means less than a home court does, despite the fact that the measurements of rinks vary, and basketball courts don’t. We can’t count the USA beating the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics, because we’re back to that “one game” problem. Does anyone feel good about the American kids’ chances to beat the Russians four times, even in Lake Placid? I rest my case.
So we’re back to basketball.
There have been upsets in the Finals before, and plenty in the earlier rounds. Part of what makes upsets so rare in the Finals is that the path to get there is so grueling that generally you have two pretty good teams, hence no chance for a big upset.
InfoGraphic has this thumbnail sketch (if you have really long thumbnails) of what it considered the six biggest upsets in NBA History. It seems to list the Warriors sixth, although the folks at InfoGraphic don’t really rank them, and it’s possible they were doing it Letterman “Top Ten” style. Either way, they’ve helped us out by getting us down to six. I’ll list the other five here, along with a short explanation of why the Warriors’ feat was more impressive:
- 1995 — Houston over Orlando, 4-0: This was an impressive upset, as the Rockets were sixth seeds in the West and are still the lowest-seeded team ever to win an NBA title. The problem with this one, however, is that the Rockets were also defending champs, which trumps all kinds of things, and the Magic were not exactly the Bill Russell-led Celtics. I covered the Phoenix Suns, who were eliminated by the Rockets in both 1994 and 1995, and those guys were really good regardless of what their regular-season record said. Sorry.
- 1977 — Portland over Philadelphia 4-2: This was close. A lot of the same factors were in play. The Blazers had one great player, Bill Walton, and a lot of good ones. They had a brilliant coach, Jack Ramsay, and they played a great brand of team basketball. Like the ’75 Bullets, the 76ers were loaded with All-Stars. The only problem here is the “2” that comes after the dash, that comes after the “4.” It’s hard to view this is a tectonic event when the series went six games.
- 1969 — Boston over Los Angeles 4-3: This is one that looks okay on paper. Boston was aging, and won just 48 games during the regular season. It was Bill Russell’s last year, but the guy played himself 42 minutes per game (he was also the coach) and averaged 10 points and 20 rebounds per game, just like the rest of his career. The Celtics knocked off Philadelphia (55 wins) and New York (54 wins) to get to the Finals, so they weren’t intimidated by the Lakers’ 55-27 record. Here’s the most important thing, and why you need to know something about the history of the game, not just stats. Bill Russell owned Wilt Chamberlain in the playoffs their whole careers. He didn’t win every time, but he lived in Wilt’s brain, and he won a lot more than he should have. In that way, this series was only an upset that it was as close as it was, which was because Jerry West averaged 38 points per game and won the MVP award, the only time the award has gone to a player on the losing team. Next.
- 2004 — Detroit over Los Angeles Lakers 4-1: This might be No. 2 on my list. This series has some similarity to the 1969 Finals we just talked about in this way: Karl Malone and Gary Payton signed with the Lakers that season to try to win the championship that had eluded them during their long, productive careers. On paper, that helps L.A. look like favorites, but in real life basketball, adding pieces (especially aging pieces) is dicey. The Lakers got decent production out of Malone and Payton during the season, but they averaged a TOTAL of only ten points per game against Detroit. The Lakers were Shaq and Kobe scoring 20 each and nobody else in double figures. Still, the Pistons weren’t given much of a chance, so it’s an upset, but not as big as the Warriors’ one.
So there you have it, somebody else’s list of the biggest upsets in NBA history. Let me tell you what the 1975 Warriors pulled off, and see if you agree with me that they deserve the top spot on that list.
When last we saw our heroes they had just vanquished the Chicago Bulls 4-3 and had boarded an airplane for Baltimore-Washington International Airport. That’s where the series would start, which made total sense, because the Bullets had won 60 games, while the Warriors had won only 48. What was a little strange, however, was that Game 2 was going to be back in the Bay Area. Remember in the Chicago series, when the Oakland Coliseum arena was booked for Game 2, so they had to play it in Chicago? Well, the arena was in high demand that spring, and nobody had any idea that the Warriors would even make the playoffs, much less still be playing in the third week of May (that’s when the Finals were held back in olden times).
So the Warriors were going to have to play their games at the Cow Palace (which you will read in many places is in San Francisco, but it’s actually in a suburb called Daly City. It’s one of those deals where you go through an intersection and you’ve changed addresses. I had to look it up myself just now, and my high school graduation was held there). because the Ice Follies were booked in the Coliseum in Oakland. Not a big deal — the Warriors had played there in the 1960s when they first moved west from Philadelphia.
Oh, wait, we had another problem. The Cow Palace was booked for the date of Game 4, which was over Memorial Day weekend.The Bullets were therefore presented two options:
1) Open the series at home, and then play Games 2 and 3 on the road, Games 4 and 5 at home, Game 6 in Oakland, and Game 7 at home
2) Open the series on the road and have games 2, 3 and 4 at home, with 5 and 6 being played at Oakland, and Game 7 at home.
They chose to have the first game at home, where they were 37-4 during the regular season and 6-1 during the first two rounds of the playoffs. They must have been so certain they would win that first game that they were willing to give up having three straight home games. That did not work out.
Before we get into the game recaps, let’s talk about the Bullets.
They had as good a starting lineup as you could find in the NBA. Forward Elvin Hayes was in his seventh year in the league, and had been to the All-Star Game every year. He averaged over 21 points per game for his career, despite the fact that he played 81 games in his final season and only averaged 5 points per game. Center Wes Unseld was in his sixth year and played in his fifth All-Star Game that year. He wasn’t a great scorer, but is always mentioned in the conversation about great rebounding and defensive big men, especially because he was undersized at 6-7. The shooting guard was ultra-smooth Phil Chenier, who had grown up in the East Bay and played with Warriors guard Charles Johnson at Cal. Chenier played in his second All-Star Game in 1975, and averaged 21 points per game for the season. The point guard was third-year man Kevin Porter, who led the league in assists that season and three other times in his career. I could write a whole blog post on Porter, who is to this day the only player to have 25 points and 25 assists in the same game, but this guy beat me to it.
Rounding out the Bullets’ starting lineup was small forward (that’s what we used to call the “3,” kids) Mike Riordan. He had been a backup on the New York Knicks’ championship team in 1970, and was traded to the Bullets in the deal that sent Earl Monroe to New York. Riordan became a starter for the Bullets, and in 1975 was their third-leading scorer at 15 points a game. Considered a good defensive player, his assignment was going to be guarding Rick Barry for four games. Since you already know that Barry won the MVP award averaging 29.5 points per game, you know how that worked out for Riordan. He didn’t take it all that well, which we’ll tell you about a little later.
This is where I would regale you with tales about the Bullets’ reserves, except that there’s not much to say. Head coach K.C. Jones, a San Francisco native who played with Bill Russell at the University of San Francisco (on national championship teams, remember…) and on the Celtics, had a pretty tight rotation. Only three reserves played more than 10 minutes per game: point guard Jimmy Jones, small forward Nick Witherspoon (whom you’ll notice wore “Spoon” on the back of his uniform), and rookie power forward Leonard “Truck” Robinson were the men Jones used the most. That would prove to be an issue for the Bullets, as it had for the Bulls in the Western Conference finals.
The bottom line on personnel was this: Outside of small forward (Barry-Riordan), the Bullets had not only an edge, but a significant edge at every other position. That’s why nobody gave the Warriors a chance. Nobody took the benches into account.
Because the Western Conference finals had gone so long, there was, prior to this series, a very short break. The Warriors beat Chicago in Game 7 on a Thursday night, flew to Washington overnight, and had two days to prepare for a Sunday 1 p.m. Eastern time tip. The Bullets, though, by virtue of beating the Celtics in six games and not having to travel, had a full week off to rest.
The first quarter of Game 1 reflected that reality.
The Bullets shot out to a 27-17 lead, and pushed the lead to 14 at the half. When Clifford Ray was called for goaltending on the first shot of the second half, the Warriors were 16 down, which had become “right where we want them” territory. Golden State outscored Washington 31-16 over the remaining 11 minutes of the third quarter, thanks in large part to Phil Smith, who came in when Butch Beard ran into foul trouble guarding Porter. The Warriors soon discovered that Porter was going to have a hard time guarding Smith, who scored 8 of his 20 points from the line. Two other catalysts were Charles Dudley (7 pts) and Derrick Dickey, who scored nine and played pretty good defense on Hayes. The Warriors won the “bench battle” 44-15, en route to a stunning 101-98 victory, and headed “home” for Games 2 and 3.
Two postgame comments caught my eye. Wes Unseld acknowledged that the Bullets might have been over-confident, especially when things went so well in the first half. “When we were up 14 points it was their bad play, it wasn’t our good play.” Clifford Ray, on the other hand, admitted to a case of nerves. “It was the first Final for most of us, and we were tight. It was like we were playing outside on a cold day, no touch.”
In Game 2, it was the Warriors who almost got too comfortable, and the Bullets who made a valiant comeback. The Bullets led 13-4 early, and won the first quarter, 28-19. Attles again mixed and matched his personnel, using the bench he trusted so much. The Warriors reeled the Bullets in slowly, finally taking their first lead, 69-68, on a Charles Johnson jumper with less than two minutes remaining in the third. That was part of a 15-2 run that put them up 88-80 with 7:36 remaining, but they started to work the clock too early and their offense collapsed. They scored only one field goal in the next seven minutes, and when Riordan hit a driving layup and a free throw, Washington had a 91-90 lead in the final minute.
Just like in Game 1, fatigue reared its ugly head for the Bullets at the worst time. Elvin Hayes, who had played all 48 minutes of Game 1 and was having a rough go of it against Keith Wilkes and Derrick Dickey in Game 2, was on the bench for the Bullets. Rookie Truck Robinson took a shot and missed it. George Johnson grabbed the rebound and fired it out to a streaking Barry, who was mauled by Riordan before he could make the layup (remember that one, folks). Barry did this (photo not from this game, but you get the idea):
The two free throws were, of course, good, and when an exhausted Hayes left a turnaround jumper short (again), Golden State had a 92-91 win and a 2-0 series lead.
Phil Smith again played big minutes in relief of Butch Beard, whose foul trouble limited him to 7 minutes. Derrick Dickey and Keith Wilkes combined to hold Hayes in check, and Dickey added nine rebounds . Barry had his best game since Game 5 of the Bulls series, scoring 23 in the first half and 36 for the game. “I ran out of gas in the second half, though,” he said after the game. “My schedule was all screwed up, I ate too early. It’s a good thing we didn’t go into overtime.
Phil Chenier had a big game, scoring 30 points in his return to his native East Bay, but the bench scoring was again very lopsided: 29-9. In fact, the Bullets’ bench had played only 78 of 480 total minutes in the first two games (broken into single games, 39 of 240 total minutes), meaning the starters were averaging 40.2 minutes per game. The Warriors’ bench, on the other hand, played 102 minutes in Game 1 and 103 in Game 2, so the starters were averaging only 27.5 minutes per game. The fact that Butch Beard played only 22 minutes in the two games combined played a role in that stat, but it shows the difference in philosophy between the Warriors and, well, just about everybody else.
Game 3 started a little differently for the Warriors. Rick Barry scored 19 points in the first quarter to stake the Warriors to a 26-21 lead. Again, playing from ahead was difficult for Golden State, and the Bullets closed the gap to two at the half. The game was briefly tied, but the Warriors held the Bullets at bay and won 109-101, the largest margin of victory in the series.
Derrick Dickey deserves some mention here. Before these finals, Dickey was better known for the fact that he owned a 7-foot python named “Bacchus” than for what he did on the court. He was a second-round pick out of Cincinnati the year before, and was a decent bench player with pretty good hands. In the Finals, he played out of his mind. He saved Game 2 by stealing the ball from Hayes on the Bullets’ last possession. He was 4-for-4 from the field in that game, 2-for-3 in Game 2, and 7-for-9 in Game 3! In addition, his defense, along with that of Keith Wilkes, held Elvin Hayes to 41-percent shooting in the series, neutralizing what was considered to be Washington’s biggest advantage going into the Finals.
The Bullets were despondent.
While much has changed about sports media in 40 years, one constant is the “Do you still think you can win the series?” question. After Game 2, the Bullets were confident, almost arrogant, in their insistence that they would win Game 3 and get back on track. After Game 3, they were shaken, quiet, and while not ultimately defeated — they would compete hard in Game 4 — they knew the series was for all intents and purposes over.
Game 4 looked a lot like the rest of the series, with the exception of the brawl three minutes into the game. Mike Riordan had apparently decided that his best chance against Rick Barry was to goad him into getting thrown out of the game. He put a headlock on Barry when the Warrior forward was cutting through the lane. Al Attles (remember, his nickname as a player was “The Destroyer”) shot off the bench to keep Riordan away from Barry so his star would not get ejected. Official Richie Powers, in one of the most bizarre decisions of a great career, ejected Attles, not Riordan. Assistant coach Joe Roberts took over, but the Bullets were cruising, and found themselves up 14 in the second quarter.
This would mark the third time in four games that the Warriors would come back from a double-digit deficit to win a game. It wasn’t even surprising anymore. This time, however, the Bullets rallied, and led 92-84 with 4:43 to play. However, that’s when they started to disintegrate. Porter missed two free throws. Warrior guard Butch Beard was allowed to rebound and put back his own miss. Hayes and Unseld lost possession of a rebound to skinny Keith Wilkes, leading to another basket, and the game was tied. After Hayes hit one of two foul shots, Beard scored again to give the Warriors the lead, 94-93.
After the teams traded empty possessions, Hayes rebounded a Barry miss and hurled it practically the length of the court to a streaking Dick Gibbs (yeah, I had to look him up, too; K.C. Jones had given up on Mike Riordan at that point). Gibbs pump-faked Barry into the basket standard… and missed the open layup! The Bullets had an inbound play at side center court, and Chenier tossed the ball to Unseld, who dropped it, and it fell into the backcourt. Warrior ball. Beard hit one of two free throws with 19 seconds to play, then had a “3-to-make-2” with just a few seconds left, on which he made only the third, and the Warriors had a 3-point lead, insurmountable in those days. Washington got a meaningless bucket, but the Warriors were 96-95 winners, NBA champions for the first (and to this day, only) time in their Bay Area home.
The team that was picked to finish in the bottom of its own division, let alone conference, had swept to a 4-0 NBA Finals against a team full of All-Stars.
A few housekeeping items, then we’ll wrap this up.
Barry was the Finals MVP. He didn’t win the regular season award — that went to Bob McAdoo. It was voted on by the players back then, and that couldn’t have helped Barry’s cause very much. It also was tallied with a few games to go in the regular season.
On the day between Games 2 and 3, the Phoenix Suns traded Charlie Scott to Boston for Paul Westphal, which would have a great impact on the Warriors’ attempt to repeat in 1976. (The Suns defeated the Warriors in seven games.)
This is written on the day that the 2015 Finals are to start, so let me leave you with this:
The thing that is a little eerie for Warrior fans who remember this series is that the 2015 Finals have a similar narrative, except that the Warriors are the team that “can’t lose.” What’s disconcerting to Warrior fans with a sense of history is that while the 1975 W’s had one great player, just as the Cavs do today, there was nobody else on the team who had been to an NBA Final. Cleveland has several. Meanwhile, they were playing against a team in the Bullets which, while owning a gaudy regular season record, possessed only one player, Unseld, who had seen action in an NBA Finals series (1971 versus Kareem, Oscar, and the Milwaukee Bucks). The 2015 Warriors do resemble their 1975 ancestors in many ways, but in terms of where and who they are coming into the Finals, they more resemble the Bullets.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this as much as I’ve enjoyed researching and writing it. It was a great time in my life. It was also the greatest time in Golden State Warrior history.
We’ll see if, 40 years later, this franchise can produce a comparable moment.