I've written quite a bit in this project so far about the humble beginnings of the NBA, when even the highest level of professional basketball was a hard blue collar sport, catering to the ruffian dayworkers who frugally saved slowly, bit by bit, for a better living. I've covered how a lot of today's big time glamor teams began as small, humble little operations in the most industrialized parts of what is now the Rust Belt: The Los Angeles Lakers originally formed as the Detroit Gems; today's Philadelphia 76ers were once the Syracuse Nationals; the high-flying Sacramento Kings began as a factory team in the 1920's called the Rochester Seagrams; hell, Buffalo had TWO teams run off, and they both still exist! The second team was a far more recent development. That team, the Buffalo Braves, was founded only in 1970, bolted to California in 1978 to become the San Diego Clippers, and currently plies its trade in Los Angeles. The Braves did leave a strong indent on Buffalo, and it's not all that unusual to see locals wearing old Braves gear. The Braves even have a preservation organization floating around, trying to encourage the hockey team to raise the number of former Braves star Bob McAdoo to the rafters of their building, which they once shared.
As for the earlier team, as far as Buffalo is concerned, they dropped off the face of the Earth. They're still around, alright, but it seems that even most of the team's biggest fans forget its origins. They were an original member of the NBL, formed all the way back in 1946, when the city of Buffalo meant something to people other than those who actually lived there. That team currently exists as…. The Atlanta Hawks. How did this come about?
Well, it's actually pretty understandable that fans would forget about the team's Rust Belt origin. People talk about how the Braves only lasted for eight years in Buffalo, but this team, the Buffalo Bisons, existed for the blink of an eye in sports team years. The Bisons were around for only their first 13 games ever played. That's right, 13 games before owner Ben Kerner packed up everything and took the team to Moline, Illinois. Moline is part of what is now called the Quad Cities, a region in the northwestern part of Illinois which encompasses Moline as well as the cities of Rock Island and East Moline in Illinois, along with Bettendorf and Davenport, two cities in Iowa. Back then, however, the region was only called the Tri-Cities, so they were renamed the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, after the Black Hawk War which was fought in Illinois. They were part of the 1949 merger which officially created the NBA.
The Tri-Cities Blackhawks have another forgotten but very important distinction: They employed Red Auerbach briefly. Yeah, THAT Red Auerbach. He resigned around the time of the merger because he was pissed at the team for trading away a player he favored. They were also the team that originally drafted Bob Cousy, but they traded his rights to the Chicago Stags. Remember those names because in another paragraph or two, they're going to become very important.
By 1951, it was apparently decided the team couldn't make any more of a go of it as the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, so they moved to Milwaukee and hacked off half their name, becoming the Milwaukee Hawks. Two years later, they drafted Bob Pettit, a future league MVP. Sadly, that didn't stop them from being one of the league's worst teams, and they were soon gone once again, this time moving down to Saint Louis, Missouri. Although the Saint Louis Hawks ultimately ended up moving again, it was this particular move with which the team truly came of age. The Hawks began taking a real shape and identity in Saint Louis. Before their move to Saint Louis, they featured a player/coach named Deangelo King from their earliest days in Buffalo. Beyond that, they were faceless. In Saint Louis, they grew up and began giving basketball fans the noteworthy accomplishments in their history.
Bob Pettit led the team. By 1957, they were in the Finals, where they met the Boston Celtics. NBA enthusiasts are well aware that a matchup with the Celtics back then was never a good thing, because they were led by a talented fundamental player named Bob Cousy and an innovative coach named Red Auerbach. Pettit and company held their own, eventually going down in a double-overtime seventh game, which brought Boston its first NBA Championship. The two teams met again in a Finals grudge match the following season; in six games, the Hawks avenged their defeat the previous year. It's still the only Championship the Hawks have ever won.
For the next decade, the Saint Louis Hawks were one of the league's premier teams. They won another two Conference Championships, in 1960 and 1961. They also faced the two people who got away earlier in their history, Cousy and Auerbach, in both Finals, and lost both times. That 1961 Conference Championship was their last Conference Championship, even though they also grabbed a rookie named Lenny Wilkens, who spent the rest of the decade taking the Hawks to division titles and deep playoff runs. The Hawks were actually one of the most stable and successful teams in the league for the time.
Unfortunately, successful as the team was, there was a difference between NBA success and SUCCESS back then. That became a little bit of a bump in the road because the Hawks were playing in the Kiel Auditorium and occasionally at Saint Louis Arena. Both of them were aging and mounted up a lot of maintenance problems but, since the Hawks were an NBA team at a time the NBA was barely on the map, the city laughed in their faces when they asked for a new place to play. Ben Kerner finally decided that he had to liberate himself from the team and sold them to Tom Cousins, a real estate developer in Atlanta, and former Georgia governor Carl Sanders. Since they were both from Georgia, it figured that a moved would be in the works, and it was. The team hightailed in 1968, moving to their current home in Atlanta.
Following the move, the Hawks were still a very good team, fielding players like Lou Hudson and Pete Maravich. But within a couple of years after the move, the team was stinking up the NBA, and so they started rebuilding, a process which was taking them the right way until the 1975 NBA draft. There was no way the Hawks could miss at this, because they had somehow managed to pick up both the first and third overall draft picks. Unfortunately, by this time the American Basketball Association was out loose in the basketball world, trying to prove itself on the level of the NBA. What happened was that both of those wonderfully high draft picks, David Thompson and Marvin Webster, signed on with ABA teams instead of the Hawks. And so, just like that, bye-bye rebuilding plan! Somehow, though, they did manage to overcome that little obstacle and win their division in the 1980 season, thanks in large part to coach Hubie Brown.
The famous 1984 draft didn't have a big impact on the Hawks. Their big draft play of the 80's was…. Well, it actually wasn't really anyone in any year. But in 1982, the Utah Jazz drafted a certain player named Dominique Wilkins. The Jazz, however, had serious money problems - as in, they were seriously lacking it. Wilkins also didn't find the idea of playing in Salt Lake City very appealing, and he was telling that to anyone who would listen. Fortunately, Atlanta swept in and made a trade for him. Wilkins began his Hall of Fame career in Atlanta, and the Hawks were once again one of the best teams in the league by the late 80's. Unfortunately, they got caught in playoff purgatory, always falling to the likes of the Celtics or Detroit Pistons before they even got to the Conference Championship. After many years of this, the team brought back Lenny Wilkens to coach in 1993. They also decided to trade Dominique Wilkins in 1994.
Even without the help of Dominique Wilkins, Lenny Wilkens was able to lead the Hawks to several seasons of over 50 wins. In 1995, he even managed to break the record for number of coaching victories when he won game number 939. Dikembe Mutombo and Alan Henderson became decorated players, but the team STILL couldn't get out of the second round of the playoffs. By the millennium, the Hawks were crashing and burning on quite a regular basis, especially after they traded Steve Smith to the Portland Trail Blazers for Isaiah Rider and Jim Jackson. Smith had been a popular player and a community pillar. Rider was misbehaved. In 2001, mismanagement woes set in when the Hawks, first of all, drafted Spanish star Pau Gasol but ceded his rights to the Memphis Grizzlies in a trade that also involved Shareef Abdur-Rahim. In 2004, Rasheed Wallace and Wesley Person were traded to Atlanta from Portland for Abdur-Rahim, Theo Ratliff, and Dan Dickau. The key player in that trade, in the eyes of the Blazers, was Wallace, an NBA All-Star. In his debut for the Hawks, Wallace scored 20 points, six rebounds, five blocks, two assists, and a steal for one hell of an all-around performance. After that, the Hawks, with all their genius, shipped him to the Pistons literally the next day. It was a three-way trade with Boston, and the player they eventually got out of it was Chris Mills.
In 2005, the Hawks began trying to set things right by getting Joe Johnson from the Phoenix Suns. By 2009, they were finally winning more often than they were losing again. They're finally winning 40 and 50 games a season again, but even so, they've still never killed their second round playoff hiccups. Since the move to Atlanta, they still have yet to sniff the Conference Championship.
Walt Bellamy, Connie Hawkins, Moses Malone, Pete Maravich, and Dominique Wilkins are Atlanta Hawks Hall of Famers, though Bellamy, Malone, and Maravich are in there based on considerable contributions to other teams. Cliff Hagan, Ed Macauley, Bob Pettit, and Lenny Wilkens were all primary contributors to the Saint Louis Hawks. Bob Houbregs is a nondescript Hall guy drafted by the Milwaukee Hawks in 1953, but he was out by the next year and played most of his career with the Detroit Pistons. Pettit, Wilkins, and Lou Hudson have had their numbers retired by the team. The number 17 was retired for Ted Turner which, knowing everything I know about Turner, was probably his idea. Pettit was a two-time league MVP, Dikembe Mutombo was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, and Dominique Wilkins is their greatest player. Pettit and Wilkins are the only two All-NBA First Team players, though, and Wilkins only got that honor once. The rest of the Hawks players who got individual honors did so only a handful of times, and they really don't comprise the league's A-list.
Notably, it was the Atlanta Hawks who first drafted Pete Maravich. Despite everything he ever achieved, he never won a league MVP award, and he was never a First Team guy. He was part of the Rookie First Team, and made the Second Team once. Maravich played in Atlanta for the first four years of his career.
There's a lot of frustration to be taken with the Atlanta Hawks. They've been on deep playoff runs and have had great seasons, but they've never been to the Conference Championship or won 60 games in a season. They've also screwed up with the draft a lot, losing Bill Russell, among other players. This is a team best known for three things: The first is their glory years in Saint Louis. The second is a ridiculous logo that reminded people of Pac-Man while they were using it. The third is Dominique Wilkins. Pete Maravich played a very significant chunk of his years in Atlanta. Even though the majority of his career was with the New Orleans Jazz, it's still six years with the Jazz and four with the Hawks, so he accomplished everything he did with a lot of time in Atlanta. Yet, the Hawks haven't seen it fit to retire his number.
Atlanta often gets listed at the top of those sports misery cities. In the end, the Hawks are just another team Atlanta lucked out enough to pull out of some other place. They certainly have a hell of an identity there, but it isn't a great one. Much of their greatest works were from Saint Louis, and their original identity as the Buffalo Bisons was so meaningless and short that the Hawks don't mention it on their website, in any capacity - as far as the organization's official story is concerned, they started as the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, and with only 13 games under their belts as the Bisons, it's difficult to blame them. They're a middling team, overall - just good enough to keep its fanbase hopeful without winning it all. Memorable mostly because of a previous identity. Only on TV outside Atlanta when they're good. Players who were good enough, but never quite transcendent. They're like the other teams in the Atlanta metropolitan area - entertaining, but otherwise faceless.
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About the reviewer
Nicholas Croston (BaronSamedi3)
Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial. Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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