NBA History: The Atlanta Hawks (Part 2)

Read what led the Hawks to this point by clicking on the link to Part One below.

Part: 1 | 2

With all this losing, at this point the team had no fans, and with an actual future ahead for once, Kerner didn’t want to run into more financial problems and have to sell Pettit and Selvy for table scraps.

So he decided to move the team yet again, and he thought there would be a good market for a team in the (somewhat) south.

Against the advice of absolutely everybody he consulted with, he moved the team to St. Louis, a city that lost their previous basketball team, their baseball team, and their hockey team in the few years before.

Somehow though, the Hawks caught on really well in the city, as Pettit became a full-fledged superstar and quickly became the best player in the league.

His partner in crime Selvy, though, had injury problems at the start of the year before deciding to enlist in the army mid-season and, like Jack Nichols before him, he left the team.

This time though, role players stepped up and Pettit found a post partner he worked well with in Chuck Share. Share was named team captain and quickly became a fan favorite for his hustle and passionate play.

The team was very streaky throughout the season, and at one point managed to go on a five game losing streak, followed directly by a nine game winning streak, and then a six game losing streak.

But Pettit would be absolutely dominant throughout the season, and that would stop their drought. He led the league in both scoring and rebounding, putting up numbers of 26 and 16. This season was the first year the NBA gave out an MVP award, and Pettit won it, becoming the first ever NBA MVP.

The team still didn’t do that great though, and they finished with the second worst record in the league – but they still made the playoffs, since there were only eight teams left in the league.

They went up against the Minneapolis Lakers in the first round, which a couple years earlier would’ve been a death sentence, but with Mikan easily past his prime by now, playing his last season, the Lakers were now very much mortal.

In the first game the Hawks scraped by with a one point win, but they were destroyed in a hilariously awful showing in Game 2, 133-75, in the first ever 50+ point loss in NBA history. They somehow managed to turn it around though and won the next game by a point again, advancing past the round despite scoring 56 less points than the Lakers did.

They then went into the next round against the Pistons and shocked the world to win the first two games, but collapsed and lost the next three games to get eliminated.

And remember, despite almost making the championship, they were still terrible in the regular season and still had the second pick in the draft as well. They got lucky when the Royals, with the number one pick, drafted for need instead of talent, selecting Si Green and letting Bill Russell fall to the Hawks.

However, Red Auerbach was really high on Russell, and offered the Hawks a trade package they couldn’t turn down, bringing home perennial all-star and hometown favorite Ed Macauley as well as the rights to Cliff Hagan who had just returned from military service.

The Hawks had kept good relations with Auerbach since he’d left the team and agreed to the trade, believing it to be an improvement to both teams.

Despite the additions made in the trade, the team didn’t make as much of a step forward as they were hoping. Macauley and Pettit got in each other’s way a bit at the start of the season, as they were both ball-dominant face-up bigs, and Hagan struggled to earn playing time.

The team’s biggest struggles though were defensively, as they didn’t have an above-average defender at any position, so the decision was made to trade second round pick Willie Naulls, who looked like a steal but wasn’t really needed with Pettit and Macauley on the team, to New York for Slater Martin, the defensive-minded point guard that had helped lead the Mikan-era Lakers to four titles.

Martin shored up the defense to an extent but what he really helped with was establishing the role of Pettit as the team’s star and Macauley as more of a veteran presence second option. Their record started to improve, but after back-to-back losses a few games later, Holzman was fired as coach.

Alex Hannum, a rookie coach who’d played on the team the previous couple years, was given the reigns of the team as Holzman’s replacement.

He wasn’t expected to bring any immediate fireworks, and realistically he didn’t but what he did do was complete the culture change that the Martin trade had started, handing over the control of the team to Pettit and emphasizing more defense than Holzman had.

The team ended the year with a losing record of 34-38, but since this season was one of the most confusing years in NBA history, that losing record was actually somehow good enough to top the west!

Since they won the conference, they earned a bye through the first round, before easily disposing of the Lakers in a sweep, to face up against the Celtics in the Finals.

This seemed a fitting matchup, since Auerbach used to coach them (as the Blackhawks), Cousy and Russell had been drafted by the Hawks, and Hagan, Macauley, and Charlie Share had all been former Celtics.

By Game 1, it was already obvious that this would be a historic finals and the start of a rivalry, as Pettit’s 37 and 14 performance that night kept the Hawks in the game for what turned out to be a double overtime win for St. Louis, when role player Jack Coleman hit a shot from what would now be three point range with just seconds left in the second overtime to give the Hawks a 125-123 win.

Boston responded with a 20 point win in Game 2, but returning to St. Louis, the Hawks eked out another win before dropping two in a row to Boston.

In Game 6, with a chance for the Celtics to put them away, Hannum told them to tighten up the defense and take control of the pace of the game. This game led to some crazy stat lines, as Pettit ended the night with 32 points and 23 rebounds, and Hagan, in a rare start, put up 16 and 20. Still, the play of the Celtics’ star rookies, Russell and Tom Heinsohn had kept them in the game, and Cousy had a chance to win the series with 12 seconds left, but he missed a free throw line jumper. The Hawks gave Pettit the ball to take the winning shot.

Which he missed, but Hagan was down by the hoop for the buzzer-beating tap-in.

Which meant we were headed for a Game 7 at the Boston Garden, a game that was a perfect ending to the series. Despite struggles from Cousy and Bill Sharman on Boston’s end of things, a Tom Heinsohn explosion for 37 and 23 as well as an otherworldly 32 rebounds in a game for Bill Russell meant that wasn’t going to be easy for St. Louis even with Pettit and Hagan combining for 63 points and 35 rebounds. The Hawks would have a slight lead and the ball with less than a minute left, and Jack Coleman put up a shot that would have finished the Celtics off, but Russell blocked the shot, chased down the ball, and drove all the way down the court to score. The Hawks turned it over but then fouled Cousy, who choked and missed one of the free throws. Pettit then managed to draw a foul and sank both to send the game into overtime.

In overtime, the Hawks got into major foul trouble, and Hagan fouled out. Despite being without one of their playoff heroes the Hawks kept themselves in the game, and Coleman, who’d won Game 1 for them, forced another overtime with another clutch jumper. In the second overtime yet again it remained a super close game, until with seconds left, Macauley fouled Jim Loscutoff and had to leave the game. “Loscy” hit both free throws to put Boston up 125-123, and Hannum called a Hawks timeout.

With Macauley fouled out now, there were no active players on the bench to put in the game, so Hannum subbed himself in. The plan was he was going to inbound the ball to Pettit who would take yet another game-tying shot.

But Pettit couldn’t get open.

Hannum tried something very unorthodox, and chucked the ball off the front of the backboard toward Pettit, and somehow it made its way to the star man. He put up the off-balance shot for a third overtime, and… it rimmed out.

The Celtics were champions. The Hawks had been that close.

In the offseason Hannum wasn’t going to do anything drastic and kept the team together, knowing they would contend for a title again.

Frank Selvy would come back from the army over the offseason and return to the team, and he was going to be enough of a boost that they didn’t find it necessary to add anyone else.

Hannum had also grown confident in Hagan after last year’s postseason breakout, and moved him into the starting five, relegating Macauley to more of a sixth man role.

Well, while Selvy couldn’t find a role in the contending team and left midseason for Minneapolis, Hagan’s postseason breakout proved to not be a fluke, and he averaged 20 and 10 throughout the year.

The team hosted the All-Star Game in St. Louis this year, and they would have three men on the Western All-Stars, in Pettit, who went on to win All Star Game MVP on his homecourt, Martin, and now also Hagan.

The team posted such a regular season improvement actually that they had their first ever winning record, of 41-31, topping the west by the same eight game margin that their eastern rivals the Celtics won the east by.

Come playoff time, they were given no problems by the Pistons, as Pettit actually was able to take a backseat to Cliff Hagan who was on fire, averaging 31 points per game and leading the team in scoring in every game.

This set up another finals appearance against the Celtics, and they wanted revenge. They started off the series with a two point win just like the year before but Boston tied up the series in game two. Hagan continued his dominance and Boston didn’t have the wing defenders necessary to stop him.

To make matters even worse for Boston, in the fourth quarter of Game 3, Bill Russell badly sprained his ankle and missed the next three games. The backup center was a 33 year old Arnie Risen, who could not even come close to figuring out how to defend Pettit, and by the time Russell came back, the Hawks had a 3-2 lead in the series.

In Game 6 Russell came back but still looked badly injured and struggled on both sides of the ball. He only had 8 and 8, but much worse, he allowed Pettit to drop 50 and grab 19 boards over him. Though the Cousy and Sharman backcourt (and bad performances for the Hawks by Macauley and Martin) made it so the Celtics stayed in the game, Pettit was too much to handle, scoring 19 of the Hawks’ last 21 points and getting a title-winning tip-in with fifteen seconds left. For the first, and so far the only time, the St. Louis Hawks were the world champions of basketball.

The celebration didn’t last long though. A contract dispute between Ben Kerner and Alex Hannum led to Hannum leaving the team in May, just a month and a half after winning the championship.

His replacement, Andy Phillip, lasted just ten games, before Macauley quit playing to take the job. Macauley’s first move was to find a replacement for himself, and he consulted GM Marty Blake who made calls around the league and found that Clyde Lovellette was unhappy in Cincinnati, so Macauley quickly traded for him.

Lovellette happily took a backseat to Pettit and Hagan to help the team win, as he hadn’t won a title since his rookie year five years earlier.

It seemed to work, as Pettit had his best season yet and averaged 29 and 16 en route to his second MVP, Hagan’s stats went up as well, and the team’s record improved by eight games.

It looked like another easy road to the finals,with Hagan again catching fire in the playoffs, scoring forty in game 1, but what they didn’t count on was an injury to Slater Martin in the second quarter of that same game. Without Martin, the Lakers’ passing lanes were open and rookie Elgin Baylor actually outperformed Pettit as the Hawks slowly collapsed.

Over the offseason there weren’t many changes. The Kiel Auditorium was starting to be obviously outdated by now and Kerner spent a lot of money on reflooring the arena, so they didn’t have the money to spend to bring in a fourth star, which meant the team took a bit of a step backwards.

Martin was 34 now and no longer good enough to start for a contending team, but he had to anyways. Lovellette took more of a part in the action after last year’s disappointment, and Hagan had his best season ever.

The team took a small step backwards but still won the sorry Western Conference by sixteen games.

Emerging rivals Minneapolis struggled to a 25-50 record in the season, but still made it through the first round to face the Hawks for the conference title. Baylor proved once again that he was the one power forward in the league that could outplay Pettit, and Martin, just like the year before, got injured early on in the series (although it’s not like his 8% shooting percentage through the first three games would’ve helped them for the rest of the series).

The Lakers got out to a 3-2 lead, but the Hawks came back and won the last two games, partially thanks to a near-triple double in game seven by Si Green, the backup PG that took Martin’s place in the lineup.

In the finals they again meet up with the Celtics, and despite Hagan and Pettit’s best efforts, they can’t ever get control of the series because without Slater Martin they don’t have a point guard that can control the tempo. They lasted seven games but were easily disposed with in a 19-point loss in Game 7, where Russell had 22 points and 35 rebounds.

Disappointed by the team’s failure to win a second title under Macauley, Kerner moved Macauley to the front office so he could bring in a veteran coach in Paul Seymour from the Nats.

Slater Martin retired after the finals loss, meaning the team would need a new point guard, and Marty Blake selected for the team Lenny Wilkens from Providence College.

Si Green moved back to his natural SG position and became a consistent starter for the team, and Wilkens shared playmaking duties with Johnny McCarthy. Hagan’s role in the team declined a bit as him and Lovellette had very similar stats this year. Pettit was relied on more than ever this year, and he became the first player not named Russell or Chamberlain to average over 20 rebounds for a whole year.

The team had their first 50+ win season, going 51-28, while, for the fifth year in a row, no other Western Conference team finished with a winning record.

In the playoffs they faced the usual suspects. As always they went down 3-2 to the now-Los Angeles-based Lakers to start the series, and they needed an inexplicable 26 and 10 outburst from Woody Saulsberry, one of the most inefficient players in the league that season, to squeeze past L.A. by a point in overtime in game six, before winning game seven by just two.

They again faced the Celtics in the Finals but this year they couldn’t compete. Although Pettit and Hagan both averaged almost 30 points per game, Lovellette played through injuries all series and wasn’t his normal self, and the team in general struggled defensively and just couldn’t handle the Celtics, being dispatched in five.

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