May 25, 1975, was one of the best days of my life. I remember it like it was yesterday.
I loved playing professional basketball, and from the time I joined the NBA in 1965, my penultimate goal was to win a championship. Forty years ago today was the day that dream became a reality. The Golden State Warriors won their first and so far only league championship.
Our team had already surprised the sporting world by winning the first three games of the series against a more highly touted Washington Bullets team featuring All-Stars Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes and Phil Chenier. Many media had predicted a Bullets sweep in this series. So confident were the Bullets that they would win, they agreed to play the first game at home and the next two at the Cow Palace due to our arena conflict in Oakland. Game 4 had us traveling back to the East coast.
We started the day with one of my least favorite rituals, the morning shootaround. I never did enjoy getting up early or expending more energy than necessary on the morning of a game, let alone the biggest game of my life. After the shootaround and a light lunch with some of my teammates, I took a nap. Through my previous playoff experiences, I had learned not to spend too much time thinking about the game.
After my nap, I had a pregame meal, which amuses me now because of the types of food we ate prior to competition. I dined on a thick, juicy steak, which we now know is not the ideal food to fuel a body. After eating, I went back to the hotel room and packed my gear for the game. When we were on the road back then, we were responsible for taking care of our own uniforms, shoes and other equipment needs. We actually had to wash our own uniforms after each road game. Then we boarded the team bus for the ride to the Capital Centre in Landover, Md.
There I just relaxed and eventually went through my normal ritual of getting dressed the exact same way I always did prior to the game. I would put on my athletic supporter — does anybody wear those any more? — my jersey and then my shorts, in that order, before heading to the training room to get my ankles taped. Then it was back to my locker to put on my socks and finally my wrist bands, left first and then the right.
Prior to the game, many players go out to the court to shoot before the team warm-up. I rarely did that, again, because I did not want to expend unnecessary energy prior to the game knowing I was most likely going to play in excess of 40 minutes.
I remember Al Attles, our coach, being very calm and matter-of-fact in the pregame talk. We knew what we had to do to be successful, because we had done it so many times before. With the butterflies churning in my stomach, I made my way to the court and went through my warm-up, making sure to get in my underhanded free throw practice.
When the ball was thrown into the air for the opening tip, Mike Riordan, the player guarding me, hit me hard with an elbow to the body. I knew immediately what the Bullets strategy entailed. Riordan planned to pick a fight with me and possibly get me thrown out of the game. I wasn't about to fall into that trap.
Despite Riordan's repeated attempts to lure me into a confrontation, I refused to retaliate. Finally, late in the first quarter, Riordan attacked me again, going over my back and swinging his left arm at me. Coach Attles came off the bench to confront Riordan and got into a shoving match with Unseld, the burly Bullet. I stayed out of the melee and remember trying to keep Al away from Richie Powers, the lead official, who eventually tossed him out of the game.
What sticks in my mind is how well Joe Roberts, our assistant coach, handled the job of coaching the team after Al's ejection. I specifically recall a timeout where the players who had just come off the court were talking all at once. Joe took charge by telling all of us to shut up and then proceeded to instruct us on how to effectively handle our opponents.
As was the case in two other games in the series, we overcame a double-digit deficit to win the championship by a 96-95 score. I vividly remember throwing the ball high into the air as the final horn sounded before running off the court, the crowd watching in stunned silence. In the rather cramped locker room, we embraced Coach Attles and jumped up and down and poured Champagne over each other's heads. What a feeling it was —relief, exhaustion and absolute joy rolled into one!
The best part of winning the title on the road was that we had the opportunity to share the experience as a team, both right after the game and on the flight home. None of our families had made the trip because that wasn't allowed in those days. I bought some nice German Mosel wine for the trip home. During the plane ride, I wrote a poem entitled “The Cardiac Kids.” Later, Murray Olderman, a writer and caricaturist, added some drawings. The team printed the poem with the drawings and gave them to fans at the first home game of the following season.
My only disappointment was that our team was never given the proper recognition for pulling off what I believe to be the biggest upset in NBA Finals history. There was no trip to the White House. We weren't even featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. I never thought that my teammates received the credit they deserved. Our championship was truly a team effort and a shining example of how the game was meant to be played — with a commitment to team defense, unselfishness on the offensive end and a never-say-die attitude.
That 1974-75 season remains the most meaningful and memorable experience of my basketball career. Being part of a team championship is so much more gratifying than winning any individual award or title. I will forever be grateful to my teammates and coaches for helping me become an champion. My greatest hope is that the current Warriors team has a similar experience shortly, because 40 years is too long to wait for a moment that special.
Rick Barry played eight seasons for the Warriors and was the captain of their only Bay Area NBA championship team. In 1987, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. His commentary will appear exclusively in The San Francisco Examiner throughout the playoffs.