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Forty Years Ago, NBA Finals Featured A Surprise: The Warriors

ARUN RATH, HOST:

The NBA finals are underway between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers. It's no surprise to see the Warriors here. They've dominated the league all season. But last time they made it to the finals - 40 years ago - it took everyone by surprise.

SAM WHITING: Oh, I don't think there were any expectations.

RATH: Sam Whiting is a lifelong Warriors fan who writes for the San Francisco Chronicle. Back in 1975, he was a high school senior, and he says confidence in the Bay Area was low. But somehow they found themselves in the playoffs, toughing out a series against Seattle, then going a full seven games against the Chicago Bulls.

WHITING: They barely, miraculously eked it out on the road against Chicago. And at that point, anybody paying attention thought, well, it's a miracle they got this far.

RATH: In the finals, they faced the dominant Washington Bullets. Everyone expected the Warriors to lose.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME)

BRENT MUSBURGER: The Golden State Warriors have not won a game on Washington's home court since 1970.

RATH: But the Warriors won the game one thriller in D.C. and headed back to California for game two. Their home court was the Oakland Coliseum Arena - new, clean, bright and modern. But thanks to the power of an eight-foot talking bird, which I'll explain in a second, the Warriors were downgraded to an arena called the Cow Palace.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME)

MUSBURGER: You can listen to this crowd in the Cow Palace. They are beginning to go wild as the Golden State Warriors are about to be introduced.

RATH: The Cow Palace was essentially a rodeo arena. It was actually the property of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

WHITING: You never had the impression at any point that it was built for basketball.

RATH: On TV, it looks uncomfortably hot and hazy.

WHITING: These flags draped from the ceiling, trapping the cigarette smoke that wafted up from the seats.

RATH: Commentator Brent Musburger had to explain why a championship game was being played in a place better suited to rodeo clowns.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME)

MUSBURGER: And perhaps you are wondering, why are we playing in San Francisco and not Oakland? Well, because no one believed in that team right there.

RATH: But they did believe in Big Bird. The Oakland Arena had been booked for the Ice Follies, featuring professional skaters dressed up as Sesame Street characters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: See the new million dollar ice spectacle - beautiful girls, hilarious comedy and our own Janet Lynn (ph) and her professional...

RATH: Maybe it was embarrassing to get bumped out of their own arena by Muppets on skates, but the Warriors ended up sweeping the Bullets to become the 1975 NBA champions. Forty years later, the Warriors are finally back in the finals, but no Cow Palace this time. On Thursday, they played their first-ever championship game in Oakland.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR: And Steph Curry will dribble it out. Game one goes to the Warriors.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.