Long before Stephen Curry, ex-49ers coach Jeff Mullins helped lead Warriors to Finals

Members of 1975 Golden State Warriors, who had a reunion in March, include (far left) former coach Al Attles, and (fourth from left) Jeff Mullins and Rick Barry (center).
Members of 1975 Golden State Warriors, who had a reunion in March, include (far left) former coach Al Attles, and (fourth from left) Jeff Mullins and Rick Barry (center). AP

It’s been 40 years since the last time the Golden State Warriors reached the NBA Finals.

This Warriors’ team has a great player with Charlotte ties in Stephen Curry. That 1975 Warriors team had a great player with Charlotte ties, too.

The difference is former Duke star and Charlotte 49ers coach Jeff Mullins has what Curry still craves – a championship ring.

“People ask if this team reminds of ours. I would say no, except we both could play 10 deep,” Mullins said in a telephone interview this week. “This team looked destined (to dominate) from Day 1. We were more that team that evolved month by month.

“Every team sets out to win the championship each season. The difference is (first-season coach) Steve Kerr got a winner right away.”

No one pegged the 1974-75 Warriors for NBA greatness. Or perhaps even goodness. They had just traded off center Nate Thurmond, who had been voted a seven-time All-Star. They were starting over with a young group, going to center Clifford Ray and rookie forward Jamaal Wilkes.

The only real veterans on that team were forward Rick Barry and guard Mullins. Mullins was a three-time All-Star (and a former ACC Player of the Year with the Blue Devils) and Barry ended up a Hall of Famer, but Mullins said the idea of winning a title seemed almost preposterous when that team assembled for training camp.

Asked how preposterous, Mullins mentioned that backup center George Johnson worked for the telephone company when he started working out with the Warriors that summer and ended up with a significant role. They won 48 regular-season games, as opposed to 60 for the current Warriors.

This upstart team was coached by N.C A&T graduate Al Attles, a former Warriors player whose only aspiration coming out of college was coaching at the middle-school level. Mullins said what set Attles apart was his kindness, balanced with authority. At a time when berating players was commonplace, Attles took a different road.

“He never raised his voice. I never heard him curse out a player,” Mullins said of Attles. “But he totally commanded respect. He had an uncommon willingness to listen. We had some really smart players and he would take input.”

Attles did not do media interviews this week.

Barry was this team’s dominant personality. An eight-time All-Star, Barry averaged a career 24.8 points and was one of the NBA’s top foul-shooters, making 88 percent with an unorthodox underhand delivery.

Mullins, now 73, went on to coach the Charlotte 49ers to 182 victories over 11 seasons and also served as the university’s athletic director. He now has homes in suburban Charlotte and Florida.

He believes Barry, the father of three future NBA players, never really got his due as an elite player. Mullins suspects part of that is the five seasons Barry spent in the American Basketball Association and partially how Barry’s personality grated on some people.

“He could be abrupt, but I loved playing with him,” said Mullins, who averaged 16.2 points in 12 NBA seasons. “He was demanding of teammates, but Michael Jordan was just like that, too. I don’t understand why the same trait was treated differently.”

The Warriors survived a tough seven-game series against the Chicago Bulls (then in the Western Conference) to set up an NBA Finals matchup with the Washington Bullets (now Wizards). This was a very different time as far as the sway NBA teams had over the arenas where they played.

The Oakland Coliseum was booked, and the Warriors were told they’d have to play Finals home games at the Cow Palace, a place with fewer than 13,000 seats that, Mullins said, smelled like a rodeo. The NBA even changed its format to accommodate open dates, playing a single game in Washington before flying cross-country for two games in San Francisco.

The younger Warriors groused about playing in this old barn until Barry and Mullins reminded them this small venue would create a potent home-court advantage. Plus, the Warriors had a psychological advantage: As Mullins recalled, the Bullets won all three regular-season meetings and entered the championship round clearly overconfident.

Mullins says the Finals defined a momentum play. The Warriors staggered the Bullets with a six-point victory in Washington and never looked back, assembling a four-game sweep.

Back then Brent Musburger was just entering the national sportscasting scene, doing pregame and postgame for CBS. Musburger approached Mullins during warmups for Game 1, pleading for career help.

“This is my big chance!” Musburger said. “At least make it a six-game series.”

Mullins got a chuckle before Game 3 when Musburger again tapped his shoulder.

“I didn’t mean a sweep. Help!” Musburger joked.

Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell

NBA Finals schedule (all times Eastern)

Game 1: Thursday, Cavs at Warriors, 9 p.m., ABC

Game 2:Sunday, Cavs and Warriors, 8 p.m., ABC

Game 3: Tuesday, Warriors at Cavs, 9 p.m., ABC

Game 4: June 11, Warriors at Cavs, 9 p.m., ABC

Game 5*: June 14, Cavs at Warriors, 8 p.m., ABC

Game 6*: June 16, Warriors at Cavs, 9 p.m., ABC

Game 7*, June 19, Cavs at Warriors, 9 p.m., ABC

* If necessary