Tag: Bob Pettit

NBA History: The Atlanta Hawks (Part 3)

Read what led the Hawks to this point by clicking on the link to Parts One & Two below.

Part: 1 | | 3 | 4

The next season the team struggled from the get-go. The defense was one of the worst in the league and they had lots of issues with injuries.

Clyde Lovellette missed over half the season with injuries, and his backup Larry Foust missed 23. Between their two point guards that had been sharing playmaking duties, Johnny McCarthy broke his leg and missed almost the whole season and Lenny Wilkens had a military commitment that made him miss all but 20 games.

Paul Seymour was sacked after a 5-9 start to the year and replaced by Andrew Levane, who had almost ruined the team as coach back in Milwaukee, and he hadn’t improved since then.

The whole season for the Hawks became Pettit trying to carry the whole team, with Hagan, now on the wrong side of thirty, starting to decline, and no other help at all during the 60 games Lenny Wilkens was gone. When he was there though, Wilkens was starting to look like he could be a star, as he averaged 18, 7, and 6.

Long story short, Levane didn’t even last the whole year and the Hawks missed the playoffs for the first time since Bob Pettit’s rookie year.

After the year, Lovellette was gone, sold to the Celtics, and in as his replacement at center was someone Marty Blake was obsessed with, but who was considered by most a massive reach for the third pick, in Prairie View A&M star Zelmo Beaty.

The team tried out Pettit as player/coach but he just wanted to play so they gave the coaching job to former Knicks star Harry Gallatin. Noticing that a now-30 year old Pettit was still by far the best player on the team but was beginning to lose some athleticism, Gallatin slowed down the pace to be easily the slowest in the league.

Cliff Hagan was now nowhere near the same player he had been a couple years prior, now only averaging 15 point a game, but Beaty filled the role he was needed in as a strong back-to-the-basket complement to Pettit. Wilkens was back full time but took a step backwards, returning to stats closer to that of his rookie year.

Somehow things fell together though and they shot back up to the second seed in the west. Gallatin won Coach of the Year, Beaty made All-Rookie First Team averaging 10 and 8, and Pettit returned to fourth in the MVP voting after finishing outside the top five for the first time in his career the year before.

They headed into the playoffs as contenders again, but had to play in the first round against the Pistons instead of getting a bye through the round. The Pistons didn’t pose a real threat, and Pettit played some of the best basketball of his career, averaging 36 and 17 in the series to help dispose of Detroit in 4.

They then played the Lakers to battle for a spot in the finals again, and kept the series close throughout. There was a difference between this matchup and the previous ones though. Now it wasn’t just Pettit vs Elgin Baylor. Now Baylor had help. Jerry West’s star had begun to shine this season, and though Baylor was still definitively the star of the series, West helped push the Lakers over the top as they held off the revived Hawks in Game 7.

Encouraged by their rejuvenated performance that year and knowing that Pettit was nearing the end of his prime, Gallatin kept the core of the team together but knew he also needed to add a two-guard that could counter Jerry West.

He shipped out a second round pick and some cash to New York for the Knicks’ star Richie Guerin. Guerin was past his prime at this point but still easily an above-average SG.

The team thrived with the addition of Guerin, and Pettit, Hagan, Beaty, and Wilkens all had more efficient seasons than they’d ever had before. Pettit was in the top five in both points and rebounds for the tenth year straight, Hagan bounced back a bit from his previous year, and Beaty developed further quite nicely too.

They finally overtook the Lakers’ record, but the Warriors had relocated to San Francisco the year before and beat the Hawks’ record by two games.

This meant the Hawks had a matchup with L.A. in the first round. Both Pettit and Baylor failed to dominate the series as much as they had in previous matchups, and West was the real star of the series, but it didn’t matter. After both teams swept their home games, Wilkens and Hagan went off for 30 and 29 points respectively and won St. Louis the series, meaning they were set for a matchup against Wilt Chamberlain’s Warriors, coached by Alex Hannum, the guy who’d led the Hawks to their title in ‘58.

Things were looking up when Guerin scored 32 in the first game en route to a close win, but Wilt never let the Hawks get too far ahead, and he finished them off in Game 7, dominating Pettit for a 39-30-6 night and getting to his first finals matchup with Bill Russell.

After this loss, Gallatin realized this was really the last chance for the team to contend, as Pettit wasn’t outperforming the league’s best players like Wilt and Russell anymore. He tried to bring someone new in, but it was to no avail; Marty Blake’s contacts couldn’t find anybody that they thought would fit with the team.

Going into the season Gallatin made the decision to relegate Hagan to be used as firepower off the bench, starting young Chico Vaughn in his place to infuse some youth into their lineup.

Vaughn didn’t provide too much more of a spark to the team, but Wilkens and Beaty were both now entering their prime and when Pettit started having recurring knee problems through the season they were there to pick up the slack.

By New Years Day, Gallatin was gone, and Richie Guerin was made player-coach for the rest of the year. Despite an average start, Guerin led the team to a 28-19 record the rest of the year.

In the playoffs they were set to face off against a Baltimore team that wasn’t expected to give them much of a threat. It ended up being the other way though.

Pettit’s body wasn’t holding up from the knee injuries, and his production was literally halved for the playoff series. Despite Beaty’s best efforts putting up 19 and 14, Wilkens had shooting problems as well, without a fit Pettit in the post to distract from him, and the Bullets won three games to one.

After that loss, what happened was exactly what Hawks fans had feared for the second half of the season. Bob Pettit decided his body couldn’t handle the wear and tear anymore and retired.

Bill Bridges, who’d stepped up in Pettit’s absence with injury the year before, was made his replacement at the four and would go on to put up a very respectable 13 and 12.

At that same time as all this, Ben Kerner had been noticing that the Kiel Auditorium had become even more worn down and was trying to find a new arena. Over the offseason he began negotiations with the city to get a new stadium funded for the team.

The season surprisingly started off okay. The team was clearly Beaty and Wilkens’ team now, and those two kept them hovering around .500.

After a December losing streak though, Hagan told Guerin he’d be hanging it up after the season. Guerin quickly acted to bring in a replacement so he wouldn’t have to on short notice in the offseason, and brought in Joe Caldwell from a frankly bad Pistons team.

Beaty’s All-Star-worthy 21 and 14 per game led the team to scrape into the playoffs by one game, and earn a revenge series against the Bullets.

And this time they were ready to be without Pettit. What they weren’t ready for? Bill Bridges coming out of nowhere to do his best Pettit impression and average 24 and 19 as they swept the Bullets.

This set up another series against the Lakers, and though they quickly fell behind 3-1, they came back to force a game 7, as Guerin turned back the clock to average 20 points and 8 assists in the series. Heroics from him and the Big Z were still just not quite enough though, as West and Baylor ran wild in Game 7 and managed to win the Lakers the game and the series.

Over the summer Hagan retired as promised, and Guerin found himself lucky enough to have Lou Hudson, a small forward like Hagan who was thought to be the draft’s top prospect until a senior year injury, fell to them at number 4.

Having Hudson on the team turned out to be really important, as Beaty missed almost half the year with a knee injury and they would’ve surely missed the playoffs without Hudson.

Off the court, Kerner was told by the city that they wouldn’t fund a new stadium, as the local hockey team, the Blues, had renovated their St. Louis Arena, but Kerner wasn’t interested in sharing an arena, so he started looking for someone to sell the team to. In January of 1967 he held talks with a consortium led by talk show host Morton Downey Jr. with the intent of moving the team to New Orleans, but the deal fell apart.

Bill Bridges, coming off an insane run in the playoffs, earned himself a spot in the All-Star Game with averages of 17 and 15, but Hudson and the injured Beaty slightly outscored him.

With strong postseason performances from Wilkens and Hudson they swept the expansion Bulls in the first round but Rick Barry’s offense proved to be too much for them in the second round.

As the offseason began, there was a bit of an odd problem. There were two new expansion teams in the league and one of them, the Seattle Supersonics, selected Richie Guerin in the expansion draft. Which meant one team held his playing rights while another had him under contract as a coach.

Guerin decided since he was coming toward the end of his playing career soon anyways that he would retire as a player, and subsequently try to, over the course of the year, come to an agreement with the Sonics on a way to get his full rights back to St. Louis.

On top of that, Hudson was called into reserve duty for the military as the situation in Vietnam was escalating. Unlike players before him, Hudson was allowed to commute to the team to play for almost half their games, but since he couldn’t practice, he struggled and fell down to an average of 12 points.

Which meant other players really needed to step up. And they did! Beaty recovered from his injury nicely, and him and Wilkens both played all 82 games in what was the first ever 82 game season.

They easily took charge of the team and really made it theirs. Beaty returned to some of his best form like from a couple years before, and Lenny Wilkens for the first time became a 20 point per game player, as well as 5 rebounds and 8 assists which put him third in the league at the time.

Bridges and Paul Silas, who stepped in for Hudson when he wasn’t there, both easily averaged double-doubles at the forward positions, and Joe Caldwell, that guy Guerin brought in a year and a half earlier to replace Hagan, who’d really just been a role player so far, stepped up and added 16 points a game of his own right.

They got off to an unexpected quick start of 16-1, and with three all-stars in Beaty, Wilkens, and Bridges, plus Guerin earning Coach of the Year, they ended the year on top of the west, and for the first time since 1950 they had a better record than their rival Celtics too.

Which meant they came into the playoffs expected to go far, and maybe get into the championship. But they had another thing coming to them. Despite a 46 and 22 explosion from Beaty in Game 2, they couldn’t figure out how to defend Jeff Mullins all series and quickly fell behind 3-1 after he hit a clutch shot in Game 4. They gave themselves a chance after winning by 26 at home but they couldn’t quite put it off and went home disappointed against San Francisco.

Or well, rather, they went to a new home disappointed. In April, Kerner found a new buyer and the new owners immediately moved the team to Atlanta, where they’d become the only NBA team in the Deep South.

Good news would come as Hudson was allowed to come back to the team full-time, and the team looked like they’d stay near the top of the league with his return.

Three days before the start of the year, Wilkens was traded, in an attempt to reinvent the team for its new fan base. He went to Seattle in exchange for Walt Hazzard (or Mahdi Abdul-Rahman as he went by at the time), who had broken out as an all-star in the Sonics first year in the league the year before, and the rights for Guerin to be able to play again.

It quickly became apparent that that trade was a bad idea, as Hazzard’s stats in Seattle had been grossly inflated by the team being so poor, and Guerin didn’t really play much of a role on the court for the team anymore, while Wilkens put up his best numbers yet in Seattle.

Beaty put up his ever-reliable 22 and 11, and Caldwell kept up his production from last year, but also while shooting over 50% from the field, crazy for a shooting guard at the time.

But this was the year that Sweet Lou Hudson made it known that from now on this is going to be his team. Back and able to practice again he made a giant leap forward, going from 13 points and 4 rebounds to 22 points and 7 rebounds, and making the all-star game for the first of six straight years.

Without Wilkens they made an expected fall from first to second in the West during the season, although they did have a nice 12 game winning streak in December that helped their case as fringe contenders.

They got a relatively easy matchup against the Rockets in the first round, and the two teams matched up well.. Neither team won a game by more than eleven points, and if Rockets center John Block hadn’t missed the decisive game 6 that Atlanta won by two, it surely would’ve been a 7 game series.

Up next would come another conference finals against the Lakers.

West, Baylor, and Wilt were all over thirty so it was in their best interest to keep the pace slow, and they did. The league average that year was 112 points per game, and neither team ever scored more than 104.

Beaty and Hudson individually had a good series, especially considering they were matched up against Wilt and Baylor respectively, but they had no help. Nobody else scored over 12 points a game that series.

The Hawks went home after five short games, knowing they needed to rebuild before they could truly contend again.


Part: 1 | | 3 | 4


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 | 3 | 4

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.


Part: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

NBA History: The Atlanta Hawks (Part 1)

In 1946, Leo Ferris, a New York realtor who would later be known primarily as the man who invented the shot clock, and a business partner named Ben Kerner who worked in sports advertising, were given the rights to an expansion team in the National Basketball League, which they based in the city they both worked in at the time, Buffalo, New York.

They named the new franchise the Bisons, because the city of Buffalo was named after the animal, and also because they were terrible at coming up with names and decided to just copy the local baseball, football, and hockey teams, all also named the Bison. Maybe they thought adding the ‘S’ would make us think it was different. It wasn’t.

In the preseason of 1946-47 Ferris set up preseason games to be played in his hometown of Elmira in hopes of encouraging an affiliate team to be set up there, a very similar idea to the G-League that’s being used as a farm club league for NBA teams right now.

For the regular season they rented out the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium owned by the… Buffalo Bison. The hockey team. Their first game had over 4,000 fans show up in a 50-39 win over the Syracuse Nationals but that excitement quickly died down and on average they only filled a quarter of the stadium. In fact, they were losing money so rapidly they were on track to go bankrupt by the end of the season.

So only 13 games into the season with a 5-8 record and an average attendance barely scraping 1,000, Ferris and Kerner packed up the team and moved them west to Moline, IL, where the team was rebranded the Tri-Cities Blackhawks.

They had a tough road schedule as they were still in the Eastern Conference despite now being one of the more westernmost teams, and because of that their play on the court never improved throughout the season and they missed the playoffs. They were far from anything special, not posting a winning record at a single point throughout the season and without any players averaging over 12 points per game.

But that season they did have a social breakthrough in signing William Gates, the first ever black player to start for a team in a professional league.

Unfortunately he predictably dealt with a lot of racism throughout the season from fans and opposing players, and late in the season he snapped at one opposing player’s taunting and started a brawl, which got him banned from the league for a year.

With Gates gone the next year, they brought in Whitey Von Nieda as his replacement.

No that’s not a joke, they literally replaced their only black guy with someone named Whitey. Von Nieda was a highly coveted rookie who’d averaged 24 points per game in the military league while fighting in WWII.

Despite his addition to the team though they started the season off slowly and after 20 games their first ever head coach, Nat Hickey, was fired and replaced by Bobby McDermott, who was known as the first great long range shooter in basketball.

McDermott played for the team as well as coaching, and his shooting allowed for spacing that was rarely seen in basketball at that time and kickstarted a turnaround in the team under his reign. He was named to the All-NBL Second Team and Whitey was named to the All-Rookie team, as they battled their way to a .500 record and the Western Conference Finals before being swept by George Mikan’s Lakers, who would easily go on to win the title.

Toward the end of the 1947-48 season the NBL and BAA began negotiations on the merger that would form the NBA, and, as the season ended, six teams, including both teams that had played in that season’s NBL Finals, left the league.

One of those teams that had left for the BAA was the Fort Wayne Pistons. In the fifth round of the BAA draft they drafted a Consensus All-American named Murray Wier, but he signed with the Blackhawks instead. The BAA threatened to sue for his rights, but the Hawks countered that the departure of six teams meant the leagues were no longer equal competitors working together to make professional basketball the best that it could be, and that the NBL deserved reparations or else there would be a player war between the two leagues.

This was such a big deal it almost stopped the merger of the leagues, but they did eventually strike a deal that punished the team but did allow for Wier to play for the Blackhawks instead of the Pistons. He wasn’t any good though and averaged only 4 points per game through the year.

That didn’t matter though, because they kept the same core they had the previous year, and despite McDermott having a bit less of a role as a player the team’s offense improved again.

Center Don Otten came out of nowhere to win League MVP without a dominant force like Mikan to scoop it up automatically, and the team finished 2nd in the West. They missed out on the finals again though as they couldn’t overcome the Oshkosh All-Stars, who were easily the best defense in the league.

Against Oshkosh they may not have won the battle, but they most certainly won the war. On August 3, 1949, the NBL and BAA merged, and six of the NBL teams met the qualifications to play in the new NBA.

Oshkosh did not meet those qualifications.

Tri-Cities did.

Being in the NBA did have a drawback for the team though. McDermott was against the merger and decided to leave the team and play for the Wilkes-Barre Barons of the ABL rather than keep playing for Tri-Cities in the NBA. So the team had to find a new coach with days until the start of their first season in the league and they also had to replace him as a player.

And of course, at that same time, Leo Ferris left the team and sold his shares to Kerner when he was offered the GM job for the Syracuse Nats.

Although they won the first ever NBA game, played against the Denver Nuggets, the team lost the next six to begin the season 1-6 under an interim coach before they finally found the man for the job.

Red Auerbach. The Red Auerbach.

Auerbach changed things early on as he quickly grew to dislike Von Nieda and benched him after just a couple games before eventually selling him on for nothing; literally just cap space.

He also quickly found a third focal point to replace McDermott in picking up power forward Mike Todorovich for peanuts from the soon-to-be-bankrupt St Louis Bombers, meaning that they now had a formidable frontcourt trio of Otten,Todorovich, and breakout rookie Dike Eddleman.

But that trio didn’t last long, as Otten began to lose quickness as he aged and got into foul trouble a lot during this season. In fact, early in the season he managed to get EIGHT fouls in a game, a record that still stands to this day. That’s a record that he set a month into the league’s existence, that hasn’t been equaled in the 68 years since, and realistically may actually never be broken.

These foul troubles though got him in trouble with Auerbach, and in February he was traded for a younger replacement, a double-double machine named Jack Nichols. The team improved with Nichols in the lineup and snuck into the playoffs despite a losing record. In the playoffs Nichols played some of the best basketball of his career, but it didn’t matter, as the team couldn’t keep up with the Anderson Packers and lost in the first round.

In the offseason, six teams folded, and the Blackhawks got Frankie Brian, the star player of the Anderson Packers team that had knocked them out of the playoffs, in the dispersal draft.

Despite having a star point guard now in Brian, the management selected a pure passer with the 4th pick in the draft in future Hall of Famer Bob Cousy.

Auerbach thought that was a terrible pick though as he much preferred Larry Foust from La Salle and believed they didn’t need another point guard.

This was the second move in the last few months that the execs ignored his opinion on, and he quit two days after the draft out of anger at that.

The problem was, it wasn’t even worth drafting Cousy. He didn’t want to move away from the Boston area where he went to college because he loved his second job owning a driving school, so he demanded a $10,000 per year contract, almost twice what they could afford to offer.

So they ended up sending him to Chicago for cash, and they’d lost the best coach of the era for what ended up being absolutely nothing.

Despite these problems, the team started 3-0, including a win over Auerbach’s new team, the Celtics, to kick off the year. Three games later though, Jack Nichols left the team to enlist in the Marines, and that’s when things really started to go downhill.

The team went through two coaches within the first 26 games of the season, and started having financial troubles at the same time. Unable to afford to hire a new coach for the rest of the year, Todorovich volunteered to be a player-coach for the rest of the year.

The team really struggled on the court as well as off it, and though there was the positive of having two players in the first ever All-Star Game in Brian and Eddleman, they finished bottom of the West.

Brian wanted out by the end of the season, so they traded him to Fort Wayne for a couple role players (one of whom refused to ever play for the team), and Todorovich left the team as well to become an insurance broker, because at this point players would literally rather stop playing basketball than playing for the Blackhawks.

Since they’d finished with such a bad record, were losing money, and nobody wanted to stay on the team, it was expected that they’d have to fold by the end of the next season and in a last ditch attempt to save the team, Ben Kerner moved the team to a big market in Milwaukee and they became the Hawks.

Although the move to Milwaukee brought some stability to the team, they still couldn’t field a competitive team coming into the season, with two of their key players from an already struggling team having left. To try to help stabilize the often-changing roster along with the finances, they made the decision to bring back Don Otten to the team to form a partnership in the post with the number 2 pick Mel Hutchins.

Hutchins quickly made his mark as one of the best defensive big men in the league, and he also led the league in rebounds as a rookie, with 13.3 per game. Despite Hutchins’ efforts, the team was completely awful. Dike Eddleman was traded from the team while he was playing in the all-star game, a past-his-prime Otten led the team in scoring despite only scoring 13 points per game, and they finished with a dismal 17-49 record, easily worst in the league.

Now you’d think that getting the top pick in the draft would help kickstart some sort of turnaround. After all, teams these days tank specifically for that reason.

Well, the Hawks just happened to get the first pick in what must have literally been the worst draft ever.

With the first pick they selected Mark Workman. Mark Workman played a grand total of 29 minutes for the Hawks.

The team did improve though, as Jack Nichols came back from serving in Korea after two years and returned to lead the team, and fit in very well alongside Hutchins, who improved his game from the previous year and was named a starter in the all-star game.

They, as expected, didn’t have a great start, but they brought in solid role players throughout the season. They missed out on the playoffs again, but only by one game, and they looked like they were just short one or two pieces.

For the first time in their NBA history, they actually retained a coach through the offseason, and things were looking like they could actually be on the upswing for the first time in a while. Boy were they wrong.

Before the season even began, Hutchins was sold to Fort Wayne, dooming the season before a single game was played. On top of that, Nichols had a historically awful start to the season, shooting 21% for 15 games before being traded to Boston for five guys who would never play a game in the NBA.

Kerner didn’t want his team to give up on the season that early on, with the Hawks having not had a truly successful season since the merger, so he put together a trade to bring in Max Zaslofsky, one of the biggest stars from the late 40s. He quickly realized he didn’t have enough money to pay Zaslofsky, so he got traded just 9 games later.

They predictably fell back down to bottom of the west, fired their coach, and ended up with the second draft pick.

At this point Kerner was very tired of all of the losing, and thought it would be helpful to have someone employed to specifically take care of player management for the team, in addition to the coach, so he brought in Marty Blake as the first true NBA GM to take control of personnel decisions. Blake’s first couple moves proved to be very smart ones, as he brought in future Hall of Famer Red Holzman, who spent the year before as the team’s backup PG, as coach, and then drafted Bob Pettit with the second pick.

Pettit quickly became the face of the franchise, and went on to win Rookie of the Year and make both the All-Star Game and All-NBA First Team with crazy stats of 20 points and 14 rebounds per game as a rookie. More good news came their way though, along with bad news for the league itself, as the Baltimore Bullets folded, bringing the league down to eight teams.

The Hawks got the top pick in the dispersal draft, and selected the one guy selected over Pettit, Frank Selvy, who’d become a sensation in the basketball world in college after scoring 100 points, including a buzzer beating half-court shot to end the game, in his school’s first ever televised game. Selvy went on to have a very solid, if perhaps slightly underwhelming, rookie year, which he scored 19 points per game but wasn’t too effective in ways other than at scoring.

That ineffectiveness on defense and ball movement shouldn’t have mattered though alongside a star as good as Pettit, but unfortunately it did as they had absolutely no support in the team. Every role player from the previous couple years had taken a step back, and the acquisition of Chuck Cooper in the offseason hadn’t panned out as they were expecting either and he basically was just a defensive ace without much of a contribution outside of steals.

Without the Bullets around to be worse than them anymore, they finished bottom of the league despite improving their win-loss record, and would get the top pick again.


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