In recent years, the Golden State Warriors have wowed fans from all across America with their scoring pyrotechnics, joyful personalities and championship pedigree. Fans from the Bay Area can be forgiven if they take for granted a trip to the NBA Finals. After all, the Warriors have appeared in six out of the past eight NBA Finals, winning three titles (and counting) along the way. It wasn't always this easy. Their first trip to the Finals in 1964 has largely been forgotten in a haze of forgettable years of futility. However, much can be said about their first trip. In an era where two behemoths dominated the NBA, the Warriors and the Celtics forged a fierce rivalry which would remain dormant until the 2022 NBA Finals where they would meet in the postseason for the first time since the Warriors' first trip to the NBA Finals as residents of the San Francisco Bay Area. This is their story.
The Philadelphia Warriors were founded in 1946, the first year of what would eventually become the NBA, and quickly won the new league's first championship. They won another title just nine years later and it seemed very likely that they were on the precipice of a dynasty when Wilt Chamberlain joined the team in 1959. As expected, Chamberlain delivered truckloads of greatness night after night, even averaging 50 points per game in the 1961-1962 campaign.
However, the Warriors could never get past the rival Boston Celtics and their litany of Hall of Famers led by Chamberlain's eternal tormentor and close friend, Bill Russell. In that brief era between Chamberlain joining Philadelphia and the Warrior's ultimate move to the Bay Area, the Celtics beat the Warriors twice in the Eastern Division Finals with many judging that the Celtics had the better overall team.
After the 1961-1962 season, team founder Eddie Gottlieb was seduced by money and sold the team to a group of Bay Area-based investors led by Franklin Mieuli. By the following Fall, the team relocated to San Francisco.
Moving is hardly ever easy. When the newly christened San Francisco Warriors moved to California in 1962, they along with the Lakers were the only two NBA teams on the West Coast. All at once, they had to deal with a media and public who hadn't even learned their names. Feeling like outcasts in a foreign land, they struggled that first year, finishing 31-49 and out of the playoffs.
The following year felt different. Now more accustomed to their surroundings and led by Wilt Chamberlain's 36.9 points and 22.3 rebounds per game, the team won 48 games and finished first in the Western Division.
The Warriors faced a tough task in the Saint Louis Hawks in the Western Division Finals. Led by Hall of Famers Bob Pettit and Lenny Wilkens, the Hawks had briefly been the NBA's darling before the Celtics began their record streak of eight consecutive championships. The Hawks and the Warriors had split their season series and expectations were high for both teams.
The Division Finals began with the Hawks handing the Warriors a 116-111 home defeat. The Warriors came back the next game to beat the Hawks 120-85. After the Warriors narrowly lost Game 3, they won the next two games with Wilt Chamberlain scoring 36 and 50 points respectively. Saint Louis came back to defeat the Warriors by 30 blistering points in Game 6, setting up one of Chamberlain's great performances. Riding the coattails of their hero in Daly City's Cow Palace, the Warriors beat the Hawks 105-95 in Game 7 while Wilt Chamberlain scored 39 points and collected an incomprehensible 30 rebounds. With that win, the Warriors were Western Division champions for the first time since moving to California and were headed to the NBA Finals where an old nemesis awaited: the Boston Celtics.
By the time the San Francisco Warriors reached the 1964 NBA Finals, the Boston Celtics had won six of the past seven championships, including the last five in a row. It was another clash of the league's behemoths and much was expected of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain.
The Celtics won the opening game 108-96 with Russell leading both teams with 25 rebounds. Despite Chamberlain's 32 points and 25 rebounds in Game 2, the Warriors still lost 124-101. Facing a two game deficit, the Warriors knew that they had to take advantage of their new home at the Cow Palace. Game 3 was a magnificent game with both Chamberlain and Russell playing spectacularly. While Wilt Chamberlain scored 35 points, Bill Russell scarfed up 32 rebounds while the Warriors successfully defended their homecourt 115-95. In the face of Chamberlain's otherworldly 38 rebounds, the Celtics bounced back in Game 4, edging the Warriors 98-95.
With a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals, the Warriors had their backs against the wall. Wilt Chamberlain put the team on his back, scoring 30 points and gathering 27 rebounds. Despite this heroic effort, the Warriors still fell to the Celtics in the storied Boston Garden 105-99, giving the Celtics their sixth straight championship.
Following their victory over the Warriors, the Bill Russel-led Celtics would go on to win five more NBA championships, becoming even more the NBA's most dominant team of that era. Following their loss to the Celtics, the Wilt Chamberlain-led Warriors would never win an NBA championship. Ironically, the Warriors would lose to Wilt Chamberlain and his new team, the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1967 NBA Finals and wouldn't win a championship until 1975.