💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.
To most of the world, the NBA Finals contest between the Golden State Warriors and the Boston Celtics is a great showcase of two of the league’s best teams.
For a certain generation in the Delaware Valley, it’s a reminder of the bygone era when the Warriors called Philadelphia home.
“The Boston Celtics were hated back then,” Herb Magee, Jefferson University’s recently retired Hall of Fame basketball coach — who, as it happens, was drafted by the Celtics in 1963 — recalled earlier this week. “[Coach] Red Auerbach smoking a cigar if his team won, the fans didn’t want to see that.”
Sixty years ago, the two teams came face to face in the Eastern Division Finals. Boston won in seven, playing out the all-too-familiar storyline of a Philly team led by a game-changing center that couldn’t get past the second round.
That season’s disappointment was nothing like the heartbreak to come, when Philadelphia basketball fans were suddenly left without a franchise to root for at all.
In 1962, news broke that the team with legends like Wilt Chamberlain, Paul Arizin, Tom Gola, and Guy Rodgers was to be sold and moved to San Francisco.
“Nothing will top the Warriors in West Philly, back in the day,” Magee told Billy Penn. “I loved it. I loved every minute of it.”
A team of locally grown stars
Founded in 1946 as an original member of the NBA-precursor Basketball Association of America, the Warriors benefited from a shrewd rule: the territorial draft. If a player went to college in your area, you had the first right to draft them.
The Warriors also benefited from one notable exception to that rule. When Chamberlain was a rising star at the University of Kansas in 1959, the school was outside of any NBA team’s range. So the legendary center was awarded to the team in his native city, Philadelphia.
Warriors games were played at Convention Hall, the Art Deco arena that stood just south of Penn’s Franklin Field.
As Coach Magee remembers it, tickets were $5. If you had a spare dollar after that, a hot dog and orange soda could be yours.
Those extra dollars were easier to come by once Magee and his friends learned how to sneak into the arena. One person would slip into the back of the building, climb a wall and then go to a side door to let the rest of the group into the arena, where they then walked over and took seats in general admission. Thanks to this system, Magee estimated he attended at least half of Warriors’ home games.
The draft rule gave the Warriors a distinctly local feeling, Magee said. “We would all go play pickup games with Paul Arizin. He was a killer. If a game got close, he just took it over.”
Arizin might never have entered professional basketball if not for that drive to succeed.
“My father was not one of the ‘basketball or nothing’ career guys,” his son Michael told Billy Penn. “He loved basketball. He loved competing.”
Cut from the La Salle High School team his senior year, Arizin resorted to playing in night leagues with men several years older than him. According to Michael, that toughened him up and forced him to perfect his jumper. He was a walk-on at Villanova, then became the first Wildcat to ever have his number retired.
Michael remembers spending a lot of time at Warriors games as a kid.
“When they played at home, my dad would take me down to the games with him and my mom would stay home with my siblings,” Michael explained. “I was a typical 7- or 8-year-old who couldn’t care less, unless I found some money under the bleachers.”
The first 76ers title (aka Chamberlain’s revenge)
With stars like Arizin, Gola, Rodgers, and eventually Chamberlain, the Warriors shined. Over their 16 years in Philadelphia, the team went to the postseason a dozen times and won a pair of titles.
Yet crowds were just average.
An idea loomed: The Lakers, fresh off their move to California from Minneapolis, needed companions out west. Eddie Gottlieb, the original Warriors coach who later became owner, was approached by Frank Mieuli and a cohort of influential investors from the Bay Area.
Gottlieb was reportedly offered $850,000 for the team, a far cry from the $25,000 he spent to acquire it a decade earlier.
“When they moved, it was devastating for the fans in Philadelphia,” Magee said. “Not that there were a ton going to the games every night, but the loyal fans in Philly, me being one of them, we were crushed.”
Arizan didn’t make the trip. He was already planning to retire, according to his son. About a year prior, Maureen Arizin decided she was sick of her husband always traveling.
“She called Eddie Gottlieb and she told him ‘Eddie, Paul’s done. I’m tired of this crap,’” Michael recounted. Gotlieb said something like “No, no, Maureen. That’s crazy. We’re going to make it to the finals next year.’”
Maureen didn’t budge and Gottlieb asked what it was going to take to keep Paul on the team. She asked for a $10,000 check, money she used to buy a shore home in Avalon, one Michael said remained in the family for quite some time.
“I think they threw some money at him to go to San Francisco,” Michael said of his father. “He said to them ‘I’m a Philadelphia guy, I played at Villanova, I played for the Warriors. I’m done.’”
As for the other Philly stars, none lasted on the West Coast very long. Midway through the Warriors’ first year in the Bay Area, Gola was shipped to the New York Knicks. It was the final trade that Gottlieb, who had stayed on as an executive in the team’s first year, made before leaving the organization.
The first year in San Francisco ended with a fourth place Western Division finish, and the Warriors missed the playoffs. In the second season, Chamberlain led the team to an NBA Finals berth, only to be bested by the Celtics.
Meanwhile, league musical chairs had awarded Philly the Syracuse Nationals, who were renamed the Philadelphia 76ers.
As they started to gain traction, their predecessors were struggling. Midway through a disappointing third season in San Francisco, Chamberlain was traded back home.
In the season after his departure, the new wave Warriors conquered the Western Division and were met by Chamberlain’s 76ers in the finals. The hometown kid got revenge on the club that forced him out west and gave the Sixers their first title.
What if they’d never left? There’s no way to guarantee Steph Curry would be in Philly instead, ready to lead a parade down Broad Street. But wouldn’t that have been something?