Nearly 30 years before the Splash Brothers came along, three scoring sensations (Tim, Mitch and Chris) gave Golden State a revolutionary, wide-open offense with a catchy name
MITCH RICHMOND arrives first and settles into a blue lounge chair inside a hotel suite 11 floors above downtown San Francisco. He starts with a confession: Yes, he had donned workout gear that afternoon, gone to the gym, stretched, bent toward an exercise mat—and then decided against physical activity. He's 53 now. "My hip was killing me," he says.
His former Warriors teammate Tim Hardaway arrives next. The 51-year-old is wearing a pinstripe blue suit and walking with a slight limp, a reminder that he needs right-knee-replacement surgery. In that moment it's almost possible to forget what they were, or why they're in town, for Hardaway's induction into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, in part for his brilliance with Run TMC, the most electrifying, ahead-of-its time, hipster-celebrated trio in NBA history.
Run TMC reigned back when Dubs tickets were affordable—before Steph and KD, the dynasty and the plans for the $1 billion new arena. They're older now, a little rounder and wiser too. Allegedly. Word reaches the suite: The C in Run TMC is running late. Apparently he dropped his cellphone in a hot tub and was last seen at an Apple Store. "That's Mully," Richmond says of Chris Mullin, who is 54. Sore hips, bad knees and iTurnovers. Sounds like a Netflix comedy.
July 2, 2018
These were the Warriors before these Warriors, the creation of Don Nelson. The trio debuted in 1989--90, near the end of the Showtime Lakers, before Jordan came to rule. They had three offensive luminaries and a coach who preferred a frenetic pace, motion and 50-point quarters. (Sound familiar?) Nelson wanted to earn fans free pizza, which happened if his squad scored 120 points. "Nellie was ahead of his time," says Rod Higgins, a forward on those teams. "He saw where basketball was going."
"[Mike] D'Antoni gets the accolades for what we [were already doing] back in the day," Hardaway says of the Rockets' coach.
"No, that was us," Richmond says.
Lori Hoye, who started in the Warriors' statistics department in 1988--89, the year before Run TMC formed, is still with the team. She doesn't buy Dennis Rodman's assertion (to CBS Sports radio in April 2017) that those Warriors would beat, or even hang with, these Warriors. But sometimes, Hoye admits, "I tell Steph that Tim did all that stuff before he did."
Alas, Run TMC never realized the full extent of its potential greatness in those mildly successful yet wildly enthralling seasons. What they did do was carve out an odd, memorable and brief space in NBA history, a team celebrated for its style rather than its record—a rarity back then. Where is Run TMC now? Everywhere, in terms of influence.
THE WARRIORS selected Richmond, the 6' 5" scoring savant from Kansas State, with the fifth overall pick in the 1988 NBA draft. He went home and spread the news. Golden State had taken him. "Don't worry about it. One day you'll make it to the NBA," his mom's friend told him. "No, Golden State is in the NBA," he responded.
Richmond knew of Mullin. He'd watched him star in college, at St. John's, and later he played against him in an Olympic training exhibition. "I remember trying to guard him, and he takes one step around me, like he's in slow motion," Richmond says. "Then he scores. I'm like, Jesus, that was slow. But I couldn't stop him."
Few could. Mullin was a 6' 6" forward who threaded passes between defenders and scored from anywhere on the court. He had spent three seasons with Golden State at that point, emerging as a 20-point-per-game scorer. In 1988--89, with only M and C, the Warriors won 43 games and a first-round playoff series. Mullin made his first All-Star team, averaging 26.5 points, and Richmond nabbed Rookie of the Year honors.
Before the draft that summer, Nelson began telling teams that picked above the Warriors that Hardaway, a guard from UTEP, had bad knees. Nellie then nabbed him with the 14th pick.
After ignoring Nelson's pleas to change his knuckleball of a jump shot, Hardaway accepted, with some trepidation, his coach's challenge to "quarterback" an established playoff team. In that first season of Run TMC—though the name hadn't been coined yet—Golden State led the NBA in scoring, averaging 116.3 points per game. (Sound familiar?) Fans had a pretty good shot at pizza every night. "The Warriors now are like that," Richmond says. "Four guards, one big man, spread the floor and move. I'm like, that's us!" Except these Warriors, without fail, make the playoffs. Those Warriors, who gave up a whopping 119.4 points a night, did not.
RUN TMC knew right away that it could and would score at will. But it only looked effortless.
In practice Nelson played the Warriors out of position. He'd put Hardaway at the four and Richmond at the five, then quiz them the next day. He wanted them to be open to the unconventional, to understand the flow of the entire system rather than just their individual assignments. He told Hardaway to bring the ball up, let everyone else touch it and, if none of his teammates shot, then go to the basket and score. That was his "dance time." This wasn't James Harden dribbling to infinity. This was Hardaway, dribbling and dishing, dribbling and dishing, driving as a second or last resort.
The Warriors did have an extensive playbook. But for some games they ignored it altogether, using a simple motion offense, screening for jump shots, looking for backdoor cuts and open threes. (Sound familiar?) They took advantage of the illegal-defense rules in place back then by placing two shooters on one side of the floor and stacking Run TMC on the other, where their opponents could not legally play zone.
Because they played with panache, running and gunning and scoring as if controlled by video game joysticks, the locals couldn't turn away. In Run TMC fans saw unbridled joy, a stylistic juggernaut. They figured the wins and championships would follow and assumed the trio needed only one more element: time.
In the first game of the 1990--91 season, the Warriors scored 162 points, defeating the Nuggets by four in the highest-scoring regulation game in NBA history. Golden State sold out every home game that year. The rest of the NBA came to realize what Bay Area fans already knew—that three basketball addicts wanted to break the scoreboard. In the spring the local press decided that this trio, like every great threesome (Charlie's Angels, the Three Stooges), needed a nickname. Most suggestions were rejected (the Joint Chiefs of Stats; Blood Thirsty Gym Rats from Hell; Heat, Meat and Sweet). But one ... Run TMC. Oh, yeah. They all nodded in agreement.
Run TMC averaged 72.5 points a game that season, a mark surpassed by Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson each of the past two years. Hardaway, Richmond and Mullin all ranked in the top 11 in scoring. The Warriors won 44 games and took out the second-seeded Spurs in the first round of the playoffs, using that three-on-three system to isolate a young David Robinson on the opposite side of the floor. "That series," Hardaway says, "showed what was possible for us."
They met the Lakers in the next round. Run-DMC joined the Warriors on the team bus and introduced them before games. Hardaway thinks that was a mistake. He heard later that Magic Johnson gathered his team and told them that Run TMC "thinks this is a show," that "they're insulting us." Los Angeles won the series in five games, but as the 1991--92 campaign commenced, it seemed to the Warriors that their window was just opening.
Only Richmond wasn't sure. He knew that Nelson didn't appreciate the time Golden State played at Boston Garden and Nelson pointed out the number 19 hanging in the rafters. That was his number, he told Richmond. "You played, Coach?" Richmond asked. Another time the two fought over a benign defensive sequence. "If you think you know everything," Nelson told Richmond, "you f------ coach the team tomorrow." So Richmond did. He carried a cup of coffee onto the court and started to goofily run practice, pushing out his stomach and "acting like I was drunk." Then he looked up at the stands and there was Nelson, glowering at him.
Richmond felt underpaid. He wondered who Nelson thought the best player on the team was. "Chris Mullin," Nelson answered. "Fine," Richmond responded. "If he just signed for $3.3 million, I'll take three [million]."
Richmond flew with the team to Denver for the season opener on Nov. 1. He was getting dressed at the hotel, readying to head downstairs to catch the team bus to the arena, when Nelson summoned him to his room. Richmond had heard rumors that he was on the trade block, that Nelson felt Golden State wanted frontcourt help, that Sacramento was a possible destination.
The door to Nelson's room was open. Richmond stepped inside. He remembers Nelson was sitting on the air conditioner near the window. "Don't tell me you traded me to Sacramento," Richmond said.
"I traded you to Sacramento," Nelson responded. For forward Billy Owens. Richmond turned around and walked out.
Nelson announced the trade on the bus. "We were numb for a while," Hardaway says. "We didn't recover from that, to tell you the truth."
After beating the Nuggets, Golden State went home to play—of all teams—the Kings. Richmond walked into the wrong locker room on muscle memory and left, taking a long drive. "The [Kings] lost by 62 that night," he says. "I cried like a baby. Didn't get no sleep."
The trade changed everything, forcing hoops historians to choose whether to judge the threesome on its record together (81--83) or what might have been. It is too simple to dismiss the trio and too easy to romanticize it, and so Run TMC has settled into a weird historical space, closer to beloved than forgotten, but always with a disclaimer: the greatest NBA trio that only played together for two seasons.
Both Richmond and Hardaway say they longed for the Run TMC vibe the rest of their careers. Both agree they should have won at least one title, and Nelson's eventual admission that trading Richmond was a mistake only reinforced that belief. "People don't realize that it's much easier when you play with a group of guys who can play like that," Richmond says. "That's what Durant is going through now. It looks easier than it was in OKC. That's because it is."
MULLIN RETIRED from the NBA in 2001, after a one-year reunion with the Warriors and a three-season interlude in Indiana. Richmond left the NBA after the next season, when he played sparingly for the Lakers but dribbled out the final seconds of their championship season. He is the only Run TMC member to win a title. Hardaway departed the year after that, known best for his 5½ seasons in Miami, where he left as the franchise's all-time leader in assists.
In 2004, many of the principals ended up back together in the place where it all began. The Warriors handed Mullin control of their basketball operations, and he hired Higgins as his general manager and Richmond as his special assistant. Former shooting guard Mario Elie became an assistant coach. It loosely resembled the way they played together: Mullin in charge, Richmond the trusted confidant and Higgins and Elie sliding into pivotal roles alongside them.
After two 34-win seasons under Mike Montgomery, Mullin decided to make a change. He hired a familiar face: Nelson. Behind the scenes Nellie had a surprising advocate in Richmond, despite the fact that the two hadn't spoken. "I wasn't truly over it," he says. "But when we put the team together, we had trouble figuring out what was missing. Nellie was the only one to run that team, because it was pretty much made up of how we were."
That first Golden State roster under the Mullin-Nelson stewardship featured scorers such as Baron Davis, Monta Ellis and Jason Richardson; long, versatile forwards such as Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington; and a point-forward in Mike Dunleavy Jr. (Sound familiar?)
That team, nicknamed the We Believe squad, sneaked into the playoffs with 42 wins, ending a 12-year postseason drought, and then knocked off the top-seeded Mavericks. Two years later the Dubs were a 29-win team and Mullin was out, followed a year later by Nelson. Golden State didn't make the playoffs again until 2013, when boosted by another trio: Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green.
Mullin went into the basketball Hall of Fame in 2011, and he suggested then that Golden State should raise the three Run TMC jerseys to the rafters all at once. Richmond joined him in Springfield in 2014; he was inducted as a King rather than a Warrior, against his wishes. Both have advocated for the induction of Hardaway.
Like his former teammates, Hardaway eventually got into coaching, becoming a Detroit Pistons assistant in 2014. He drilled into his charges the importance of developing a complete skill set. He wanted his forwards to master dribbling, deliver crisp passes and shoot accurately from outside. That's what basketball was becoming, a game predicated on motion and pace and versatility, with traditional bigs becoming less and less important. (Sound familiar?) Look hard enough, Richmond says, and you'll see the evolution of the game running from Run TMC to We Believe to the current Warriors juggernaut.
HARDAWAY STANDS inside a ballroom at the hotel, next to his Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame bust. He's joined by his wife, two daughters and son, Tim Jr., a 26-year-old Knicks guard. Eventually he walks to the stage, where he's seated next to two old friends. They're here to introduce him.
Richmond calls Hardaway one of the best point guards in NBA history. He mimics the high pitch in Hardaway's voice, the way he'd yell "Owwww!" in attempts to draw foul calls. Mullin says Hardaway was Curry before Curry, Harden before Harden. He saw Hardaway finish at the rim against Hakeem Olajuwon—back, he says, when real centers played. The crowd oohs. "We had a few get-togethers where we're like, We could take Steph, Klay and Draymond," Mullin says. "But not with Durant. Now it's over. Now we got no chance."
The crowd cheers, then stands and roars, louder, more proof that Run TMC still resonates beyond YouTube highlight montages, throwback jerseys and vintage posters of the three of them posing in front of a wall splattered with graffiti, with them wearing gym shorts and leather jackets. If not exactly fashion forward, they made basketball cooler, stamped their imprint on the NBA and helped launch the small-ball revolution.
Hardaway still gets approached in airports. If the person mentions TMC, he knows they're at least 38 or 39, old enough to appreciate the influential trio's place in NBA history. It's predicated on what the threesome could have been rather than what it was. A weird legacy. But it's theirs. "I hear from people all the time, man," Hardaway says. " 'Run TMC! Y'all were some bad mother-------. Y'all gave me joy.'"
"I remember trying to guard him, and he takes one step around me, LIKE HE'S IN SLOW MOTION," Richmond says of Mullin. "Then he scores. I'm like, Jesus, that was slow. But I couldn't stop him."
"We had a few get-togethers where we're like, WE COULD TAKE STEPH, KLAY AND DRAYMOND," says Mullin of Run TMC's chances against today's Dubs. "But not with Durant. Now it's over. Now we got no chance."