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.


Part: 1 | 2 | | 4