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The Golden State Warriors are currently one of the best teams in the NBA, and are the pride of the otherwise dreary San Francisco Bay Area sports scene. That’s just fantastic for the denizens of the nine counties by ‘the Bay’, and I applaud them on their success. It should be noted however, that the Warriors franchise was STOLEN from Philadelphia in 1962. When people talk about the ‘theft’ of professional sport teams, people regurgitate the same tired examples; the Baltimore Colts, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and if you’re British, Wimbledon F.C, but never the Philadelphia Warriors. Let’s change that.
The Philadelphia Warriors were founded in 1946 as a franchise in the upstart Basketball Association of America (BAA). They played their games at the Philadelphia Arena (1946-1952) and at the Philadelphia Civic Center (1952-1962), with the occasional game at Hershey Arena. In the beginning, the Warriors were owned, operated, and coached by the legendary basketball promoter and future NBA commissioner/scheduling king, Eddie Gottlieb. Prior to owning the Warriors, Gottlieb was owner/player/coach of the barnstorming SPHAs basketball team, widely considered one of the best teams of their era. In the Warriors (and the league’s) inaugural season, the team would would post a 35-25 record (field goal percentages are particularly cringe-inducing from this era). Led by the league’s premier scorer, Hall of Famer “Jumpin” Joe Fulks, the Warriors would defeat the Chicago Stags four games to one to win the first BBA championship (the BAA eventually became the NBA in 1949, and this is often considered the first NBA championship). The following season, the Warriors would lose in the BAA finals to the Baltimore Bullets, four games to two.
The Warriors snuck into the playoffs the next few years, but eventually missed the playoffs in three consecutive seasons. In 1955, an outraged Gottlieb had seen enough, and fired himself. He turned the Warriors over to former team point guard, George Senesky. In Senesky’s first season, the Warriors vastly improved. Led by a trio of Hall of Famers ”Pitchin’” Paul Arizin, Tom “Mr. All-Around” Gola, and Neil “Gabby” Johnston, the Warriors posted the best record in the NBA, and earned a trip to the 1956 NBA playoffs. Their first test was a semi-finals matchup against the reigning NBA champs, the Syracuse Nationals (the future 76ers), led by Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes. The Warriors won the hard-fought series three game to two, and advanced to the finals. In the finals, the Warriors took on a Fort Wayne (Now Detroit) Pistons team that had their own Hall of Fame trio (George “Bird” Yardley, Bobby Houbregs, and Andy Phillip). The Warriors won the best-of-seven series in five games (4-1), led by the transcendent scoring abilities of Paul Arizin. It was an extremely close fought series, with the average margin of victory of just four points (inflated by Warriors 11-point game five victory). This was to be the last triumph tasted by the Warriors in Philadelphia.
The offseason following the Warriors championship run would change the course of the NBA forever. In 1956, a certain vile team that wears green (The Boston Celtics), led by a certain cigar chomping coach/general manager (Arnold “Red” Auerbach), acquired a certain talented center through suspicious methods (Bill Russell), sparking a dynasty that won 11 of the next 13 NBA championships. The Warriors were stuck behind that dominant Boston squad with little hope of passing them. After three long seasons trapped in the looming shadow of the Celtics, a huge ray of sunlight peeked through the darkness in 1959.
That light was Wilton Norman “Wilt” Chamberlain, the 7-foot 1-inch behemoth from Overbrook High School, by way of the University of Kansas. In the early days of the NBA, there was an interesting mechanism used to engage local fans. Teams were allowed to stake a Territorial Pick claim to a player from a 50-mile radius of their home arena in exchange for the team’s first round pick. The thought process behind this was that fans would be more likely to foster a connection with one of their own than they would with some out-of-towner. With Chamberlain being far-and-away the best player in the draft, it was a no-brainer for the Warriors to stake a territorial claim. Chamberlain quickly became the best player in the NBA. Through his first three seasons, Chamberlain dominated the league, but his extremely talented supporting cast could not come close to the talent amassed by the Celtics (8 Hall–of–Famers on roster in 1960-61). Unfortunately for Philadelphians, there was an even bigger shadow than the Celtics looming over their team’s fortunes, Eddie Gottlieb’s ambitions.
In 1962, Eddie Gottlieb sold the Warriors to a group of California based investors led by Franklin Mieuli, who promptly moved them across the country to San Francisco’s Cow Palace. The motive for the sale (other than money) is not entirely clear. There is the notion that Gottlieb, as NBA commissioner, wanted to expand the league westward, but this is unproven. The move upset several players, most notably Paul Arizin, who quit the team to play for the semi-professional Camden Bullets of the Eastern Professional Basketball League. (They won the Championship in Arizin’s only season.) Fortunately for fans of pro basketball in Philadelphia, the city was without a team for just one season. In 1963, the Syracuse Nationals moved to Philadelphia and became the Philadelphia 76ers.
Both the Warriors and the Sixers have won two NBA titles since their respective moves. However, when you juxtapose the Warriors’ recent success with the woes of the ‘process’ era Sixers, it is inevitable that some fans will yearn for the Warriors to return to their roots.