When Hawks vs. Celtics Meant Excitement

via St. Louis Sports History

The past two weeks, the cries of basketball fans everywhere have pleaded for the horrendous Boston Celtics – Atlanta Hawks 1st round series to end. Despite these pleas, the basketball gods willed that that contest continue for 6 excruciating games. Mercifully, it ended Thursday but in a typically painful way: mismanaged calls by refs and missed free throws by players.

However, Celtics vs. Hawks wasn’t always cause for concern. In fact, back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was the best match-up around in the NBA. To be precise, from 1957 to 1961, the St. Louis Hawks and the Boston Celtics met in the NBA Finals 4 times. There was plenty of in-game heroics and pre-game shenanigans to entertain all during this stretch, but that first clash in 1957 was perhaps the best.

There was oodles of back story, intrigue and, most importantly, delightful on-court play.

Seeds of a Rivalry

The antipathy between this New England city and Missouri burgh begins where all great rivalries do… the Tri-Cities of Iowa and Illinois.

Actually, let’s back this train up a bit further. The story begins in Buffalo, New York. It is there where Ben Kerner, a local businessman, established the Buffalo Bisons in the National Basketball League (NBL) in that league’s 1946-47 season, its 11th. Also started that year was the upstart Basketball Association of America (BAA). Unimportant right now, but hold that thought on the BAA.

Kerner’s experiment with pro basketball in Buffalo ended like all previous attempts did: failure. There had been two previous incarnations of “Buffalo Bisons” that went up in smoke. There was one in the American Basketball League of the 1920s and a previous one in the NBL (then known as the Midwest Basketball Conference) during the mid-1930s. Both attempts collapsed after a single season. This newest attempt by Kerner didn’t even last that long. The team suffering from horrendous attendance bolted for Moline, Illinois after 13 games.

Now, I know we’ve all contemplated packing our bags and moving to Moline for a fresh start, however Kerner actually went through with this plan not only because Buffalo was terrible for attendance, but Moline was excellent for it. 3 weeks before the move, a neutral site game between the Chicago Gears (with George Mikan) and Indianapolis Kautskys had drawn over 4,000 fans. That was stellar attendance and Kerner took note and thus the Tri-Cities Blackhawks were born.

Sidenote: Ben Kerner this season employed Hall of Famer William “Pop” Gates as a Blackhawk. Gates was African-American.  In fact, the NBL occasionally had been using black players for years, predating Jackie Robinson in MLB. 

Over the next couple of seasons, the Blackhawks were an above average team always making the playoffs in the NBL and the times seemed decent. Then along came a merger with the BAA in 1950 that created the NBA. The NBL had primarily been located in modest-sized Midwestern cities, while the BAA was in larger East Coast locales. The merger set in motion economic forces that would move the Blackhawks from the Tri-Cities of Moline, Davenport and Rock Port to Milwaukee, Wisconsin (renamed just “Hawks”) and then finally to St. Louis in order to financially compete with the old BAA teams in New York, Philadelphia and Boston. Not that any of those teams were rolling in dough. No one in professional basketball was then. But these moves were the difference between life and death for Kerner.

Before leaving the Tri-Cities, though, Kerner employed a plucky coach with a loud mouth and an enormous chip on his shoulder: Arnold “Red” Auerbach.

Although only 32, Auerbach, already had a good track record as coach with the Washington Capitals before arriving in the Tri-Cities in 1950, the year of the NBL-BAA merger. With the Caps in the BAA, Auerbach had amassed a .684 win percentage overall and a single-season win percentage of .817 in 1947. That would not be bested until the 1967 76ers. Auerbach had also demonstrated a keen touch in making personnel decisions in Washington.

Upon being hired in the Tri-Cities, Auerbach extracted from Kerner a promise to leave him total control over personnel. As you may guess, that pledge was quickly broken by Kerner who meddled in affairs and ultimately drove Red from the Tri-Cities after just one season. The broken promise and their clash of personalities, however, had cast the dye for the vitriol of the 1957 NBA Finals.

via bestsportsphotos.com

Player Growth

Landing in Boston the very next year in 1951, Auerbach began constructing a perennial playoff team that although really good, could never reach the Finals, let alone win it.

Ironically, the 1st piece of Boston’s eventual championship puzzle arrived unwanted and via Red’s nemesis Kerner. Bob Cousy had been drafted by the Blackhawks in 1950, but Cousy demanded a $10,000 salary from Kerner. The Blackhawks owner made a $6,000 offer. Cousy rejected the offer and his rights were traded to the Chicago Stags who then quickly disbanded leading to a dispersal draft. The main prize of the Stags roster was Max Zaslofsky followed by Andy Phillip and in a distant third amongst these guards was Cousy.

The Celtics, Knicks and Philadelphia Warriors all laid claim to Zaslosfky and after constant bickering, NBA Commissioner, Maurice Podoloff announced he was deciding this through drawing names out of a hat. Phillip went to Philly. Max went to the Knicks. And, sorrowfully, the Celtics ended up with Cousy.

In another dispersal draft that offseason (teams came and went easily), the Celtics had been more enthused over their acquisition of center Ed Macauley from the now-defunct St. Louis Bombers. The Celtics’ final piece for this original Big Three came the next year. Chuck Share was traded to the Fort Wayne Pistons for guard Bill Sharman, who was the primary mover in creating the classic shooting guard role and would later become a Hall of Fame coach in addition to his Hall of Fame playing career.

Meanwhile, in Tri-Cities/Milwaukee/St. Louis…

Ben Kerner’s move to Milwaukee in 1952 wasn’t panning out as hoped. Initial interest was strong but then the appearance of the Milwaukee Braves in baseball killed all enthusiasm for basketball in the city. Attendance was pathetic and Kerner was basically flushing his money down the toilet. The final season of the Hawks in Milwaukee came in 1955 and the team’s saving grace came aboard that season: Bob Pettit.

The rookie forward from Louisiana State University didn’t immediately make the team a winner, who could with its dreadful roster, but he gave Kerner the star he needed to build around.  The next season, the Hawks’ 1st in St. Louis, the team finally made the playoffs for the 1st time since 1950 when they were the Tri-Cities. Although losing in the Western Division Finals, hope and interest was exploding in St. Louis for their Hawks. Especially in their young star Pettit who in only his 2nd season won the league’s MVP honors.

The Fateful Trade

While St. Louis was exhibiting its youthful western character, Boston was feeling a Puritanic weight. Year after year, Sharman, Cousy and Macauley would roll to a great regular season only to stumble in the playoffs. Auerbach knew the team had maxed out its potential and a shake up was needed. The team had plenty of offense, the problem was defense and rebounding. Macauley was a great, Hall of Fame center, but he was too frail to get the job done. Luckily for the Celtics, the man who could solve their problems was entering the draft in 1956: Bill Russell.

However being such a good regular season team meant Boston had no hope of getting the coveted center without trading up. The Rochester Royals owned the 1st pick and Celtics owner Walter Brown, friendly with the Royals owner, learned they intended to take guard Si Green 1st overall. Now the Celtics gunned for the 2nd pick to make their move. The problem now was that the loathed Bob Kerner and the Hawks possessed that pick.

Surprisingly, Kerner agreed to trade the pick straight up for Ed Macauley. Macauley was a native of St. Louis and would naturally draw fans. Then at the last minute, Kerner, perhaps sensing how desperate Boston was, upped the ante. Boston also had to include the rights to forward Cliff Hagan. Hagan was a college standout at Kentucky before serving in the military. His time was now up with Uncle Sam and he’d finally join the NBA.

Auerbach was incensed over this last-minute ploy, but gave in nonetheless. He had to have Russell.

Collision Course

As the 1956-57 season began, it wasn’t Russell but another Celtics rookie who would garner much praise: Tommy Heinsohn. The burly power forward surprised everyone who knew he was good, but not this good. His offense and rebounding were able to keep the Celtics not only afloat but made them the best team in the league in the absence of Russell who was competing in the Summer Olympics during the beginning of the NBA season. (the Olympics were in Australia that year).

When Russell finally joined the Celtics the team went into overdrive, running away with the best record that season.

The Hawks on the other hand struggled with an unstable head coaching position (three different coaches that year) and misuse of players. Luckily for them, the West was brutally mediocre that year as all three playoff teams (including St. Louis) finished with a 34-38 record. That record, however, belied how the Hawks were becoming a cohesive machine by season’s end.

Veteran point guard Slater Martin (4x champ with the Lakers) was acquired midseason and he had a steadying influence on the court while the coaching position finally fell upon Alex Hannum, who although technically still a player hardly ever suited up. Hannum’s best move was keeping Cliff Hagan at the forward spot.

Hagan’s 6’4″ height had led to him being used as a guard but he was far more effective at forward, despite his height. The Hawks caught fire in the postseason sweeping the Minneapolis Lakers in the Western Division Finals. The Celtics had also swept the Eastern Division Finals against Syracuse. No one gave the Hawks much of a chance, given their sub-.500 record, against Boston in the Finals.

Let the Drama Unfold

The Hawks stunned the basketball world with a 125-123 double overtime victory in Game 1 of the Finals in Boston Garden. Pettit led the way for St. Louis with 37 points while Sharman led Boston with 36. The scrappy Hawks weren’t able to replicate that performance in Game 2 as Boston demolished St. Louis 119-99. But that Game 1 victory by the sub-.500 Hawks on the best team in basketball upped the already considerable pressure on Cousy’s Celtics to finally win a title after 6 straight postseason exits.

Switching scenes to St. Louis, the Hawks won on their home court 100-98 to capture a 2-1 series lead. Despite this setback, Boston managed to win Games 4 & 5 to take a 3-2 series lead. With Game 6 in St. Louis the Celtics were at last on the cusp of securing that elusive title for Auerbach, Cousy and Sharman.

But that undersized forward Cliff Hagan had other plans. In an ugly shooting display, both teams finished under .400 from the field. So it was unsurprising that with a couple of seconds left and the scored tied at 94, Bob Pettit clanked on a jumper that would have won the game. Hagan, however, slipped in underneath the basket and was able to tip in the miss finishing off the Celtics that night and tying the series at 3-3. To everyone’s shock, there would be a Game 7.

The Celtics locker room wasn’t exactly in turmoil, but it wasn’t a scene of kumbaya either. Owner Walter Brown issued an edict that there would be changes to this expensive roster (Cousy and Russell were 2 of the 3 highest paid players in the NBA) if they didn’t bring home the title. And Coach Auerbach wouldn’t be the one with the pink slip. Furthermore, fingers were pointed at Tommy Heinsohn for failing to block out Hagan on the fateful tip-in.

The drama of Game 7 unfolded on national television. And the NBA couldn’t have asked for a better showcase for its game. Well, aside from Cousy and Sharman combining to shoot 5-40 from the field. The Hawks backcourt of Slater Martin and Jack McMahon were responsible for that eye-gouging performance as they harassed the Celtics guards.

The battle in the frontcourt though was mesmerizing. Hagan and Pettit combined for 63 points while Heinsohn and Russell for 56 points and 55 rebounds. As the game wound down to its final moments, the Hawks led 101-100.

Hawks forward Jack Coleman received an outlet pass at midcourt and was home free for a layup to clinch the game and the title. Except Bill Russell wasn’t having any of that. The Celtics center, starting underneath his own basket, covered all 94 feet of the court in a flash as he caught up with Coleman and swatted the layup as the Hawk released it.

But the excitement was just getting started. Bob Cousy was hacked and stepped up to the line with a chance to seal the game for Boston who had now gone up by a point. The 1st free throw fell through easily. The 7-year veteran had waited for this moment to finally remove all doubt to his greatness. And on the 2nd free throw he completely missed the rim altogether. Instead of an insurmountable three-point lead, the Hawks only had to make up 2 points in the last few seconds.

Bob Pettit drove the ball to the hoop and was fouled by Russell. The Hawk stepped up to the line and calmly sank both of his free throws. Overtime.

St. Louis  jumped out to a 4-point lead only to have Boston catch back up and take a 2-point lead. With a 113-111 lead, the Celtics let Jack Coleman slip by for a layup with 10 seconds left and the game headed to a 2nd overtime.

Heinsohn fouled out in the 2nd overtime after scoring 37 points and caroming 23 rebounds. Not bad for a rookie but he was inconsolable and buried his head in a towel for the rest of the game, unable to watch. The Celtics remained on top thanks to 6th Man Frank Ramsey’s hot shooting (10 points total in the overtimes) and held on to a precarious 125-123 lead with just a trickle of time remaining.

St. Louis had already pulled several miracles in this series and another seemed destined. Having to inbound the ball the full-length of the court, player-coach Alex Hannum told his Hawks they had only one play that could salvage their season: Hannum himself would  inbound the ball and get it to Pettit by chucking it the full length of the court and have it ricochet off the backboard to Bob’s hands for a final desperate shot. Surprisingly, this is a play they ran in practice often and it worked half the time.

Hannum received the ball from the official and heaved the ball as he said he would (Slater Martin wise-cracked he’d throw his arm out of its socket doing that). The throw was purely on target and bounced off the backboard into Pettit’s hands. But the forward bobbled the ball for a moment before being able to flip up a short shot as time expired. The ball rolled around the rim before finally dropping off.

The Celtics had survived and won their 1st title. The label of chokers and underachievers would be buried for Sharman and Cousy while rookies Russell and Heinsohn were just beginning pro careers laden with golden rings. The victory was probably sweetest of all for Red Auerbach. It came at the expense of his nemesis Ben Kerner and added insult to the injury he gave Kerner in Game 3 when they had an argument over basket heights:

“Kerner took Arnold’s questioning the basket as a personal affront. He was screaming obscenities at Arnold, questioning his integrity. Arnold had his back turned to Kerner. As Kerner came closer, Arnold just turned around and leveled him. He really cold-cocked Kerner, put him right down at midcourt with a sold-out crowd waiting for the game to begin.” – Bob Cousy

Auerbach was fined $300 for his “unbecoming conduct”. It was probably worth every penny to old Red.

Seth Carstens