The Lowdown: Slick Leonard

Slick Leonard

William Robert Leonard is a man of a million aliases. Some call him “Robert”. Others “Bob”. But the coolest of us call him “Slick”. As a legendary ABA coach, Slick proved to be tough, if not slippery, for opponents to handle. He took the Pacers to three titles in the upstart, renegade league. However, his time as a professional basketball player isn’t all that memorable.

Except when he tagged along with the Chicago Packers in the 1961-62 season. The Chicago Packers in 1961 were the 1st NBA expansion team in a decade. And my goodness did they show it on the court. Aside from Slick Leonard and rookie Walt Bellamy this team was absolutely atrocious. Beyond them, 8 other players appeared in 41+ games with the Packers that season. All but 3 would be out of the league the very next season. And only two survived the following year.

So with those facts in mind, it’s little wonder Leonard enjoyed a career season with the expansion Packers. Up to this point, Leonard had been a serviceable guard with the Lakers franchise. His claim to fame there had been a surprisingly great 1957 postseason where he averaged 21 points, 7.5 assists and 6 rebounds in 5 games. His other stake to stardom had been a coach-like  harping of his team’s shortcomings, in particular this rant to the Los Angeles Times:

“We’re so much better than that club (Cincinnati),” he said. “But we just don’t have the fire. We are a second place club, material wise, and we keep saying we’ll make up the games we’ve lost but there are only 31 games left.”

Not content with these salvos Leonard then bit into coach Fred Schaus for trying to make teammate “Hot Rod” Hundley, who he deemed a lackluster play maker, into a point guard:

“You can’t make a leader,” he said emphatically.

These quotes from January 1961 by an aging reserve may have played some role in Leonard’s subsequent availability in that summer’s expansion draft. Just a hunch on my part.

Now a member of the Chicago Packers, Leonard was free to not only shoot barbs but as many shots as he wanted on the court. Early in the season the Chicago Daily Tribune noted his playmaking ability and its impact, particularly on rookie sensation Walt Bellamy:

The Chicago Packers came up with a new star last night. His name is Bob Leonard, once an All-American playmaker at Indiana University.

The 29 year old backcourt man [cast aside in the player draft by the Los Angeles Lakers as being injury prone] dominated a second half rally that brought the Packers their second victory of the season. They have lost three.

Thanks to Leonard’s ball handling, Walt Bellamy… was able to score 35 points. Eleven of Bellamy’s field goals came in the second half and eight were the direct result of passes from Leonard.

Leonard himself had 27 points that game against the Knicks. Chicago stood at that point had 2 wins and 3 losses, a very respectable record for an expansion club. But the hard times hit hard and fast. Just three weeks later, Leonard again scored 27 points but Chicago lost to the Detroit Pistons. It was their seventh straight loss and put them at 2 wins and 11 losses.

In a mid-December contest that saw Bellamy (45 points) and Wilt Chamberlain (50 points) square off within the confines of the game, Leonard and Philadelphia Warriors point guard Guy Rodgers actually squared off following the (you guessed it) Packers loss:

[Leonard and Rodgers] traded punches in center court last night at the conclusion of Philadelphia’s 112 to 110 victory…

The Packers led, 110 to 108, with less than two minutes remaining, but baskets by Tom Gola and Rodgers gave Philadelphia the victory before 3,360.

The losing nights piled up in normal venues (Boston, New York, Philadelphia) and in neutral-site, zany locales like Louisville, Green Bay, East Chicago, Moline and Evansville. At least in February, Leonard secured some measure of revenge against his erstwhile club, the Lakers. Playing with an injured shoulder ol’ Slick scored 18 second half points, including five straight down the stretch, to give the Packers a rare win. However, it’d be important to note  Los Angeles was without Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.

Even the redemption was somewhat in vain this season. In fact, everything was somewhat in vain for Leonard this season. He finally was able to demonstrate his full abilities at age 29 after 5 seasons in the NBA. He averaged a career-high 16 points, 5.5 assists and 37.5% FG while connecting on 75% of his free throws. But his demonstrations came on what is truly one of the worst teams in league history. These Packers went 18-62 and surely would have been worse had it not been for Leonard and, even more so, Walt Bellamy’s incredible campaign.

The next season Leonard would only suit up for 32 games of playing action. The Chicago Zephyrs (yes, they changed their name after one season) were just about as awful as they were the previous season finishing 25-55.

However, the silver lining of this season (and the next) would be that Leonard was given his first coaching opportunity. Although, these formative coaching years were unimpressive, they were still instructive. Dismissed by the Baltimore Bullets (yes, the Chicago Zephyrs/Packers had already relocated) after the 1964 season, Leonard’s next coaching job would be with the Indiana Pacers of the ABA and he’d truly make his mark on professional basketball. But for one season, his playing career was something remarkable.

St. Louis Hawks Franchise History: 1956-57 through 1965-66

St. Louis Hawks 1960s

Championships: 1
Conference Titles: 4
Division Titles: 5

Regular Season Record: 425-355
Regular Season Win Percentage: 59.9%
Playoff Appearances: 9
Playoff Series Wins: 8
Playoff Record: 47-43

Welcome to the Glory Days of the Hawks franchise.

Behind 1959 NBA MVP Bob Pettit, the Hawks made the playoffs every year in this period except in 1962. They made the NBA Finals four times squaring off with the Boston Celtics on each occasion. In 1957 and 1961, the Hawks barely lost in dynamic 7-game slug fests. In 1958, Pettit scored 50 points (including 19 of  St. Louis’s last 21) in the decisive Game 6 to give the Hawks their only championship.

There was more to this club than the superb Pettit, however. Cliff Hagan roamed as his sidekick at forward flinging in his hook shot at will. In 1960, Pettit (26/17), Hagan (25/11) and Clyde Lovellette (21/11) became the only trio of teammates in NBA history to all average over 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. At the end of this era, the buff and imposing Zelmo Beaty took over for Lovellette as the Hawks’ center. Reliable back ups in Chuck Share, Bill Bridges, and Ed Macauley provided these heavyweights with some in-game respite.

In the backcourt, Slater Martin was a defensive pest rarely seen. His reign of terror ended in 1960, but Lenny Wilkens picked up the slack as a floor general who unflappably delivered the ball to his high-scoring frontcourt.

The only thing that prevented the Hawks from enjoying even greater success in this period was owner Ben Kerner’s obsession with hiring and firing coaches. During this 10-year period, 10 different men served as head coach of the Hawks. Despite the revolving door of coaches, the St. Louis Hawks put together one of the best 10-year stretches in NBA history.

STARTING FIVE

C – Zelmo Beaty (1962-’66) – 299 Games
15.4 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 46.4% FG, 73.5% FT

F – Bob Pettit (1956-’65) – 648 Games
27.1 PPG, 16.5 RPG, 3.0 APG, 43.9% FG, 76.5% FT

F – Cliff Hagan (1956-’66) – 745 Games
18.0 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 3.0 APG, 45.0% FG, 79.8% FT

G – Lenny Wilkens (1960-’66) – 395 Games
14.2 PPG, 4.9 APG, 4.8 RPG, 41.4% FG, 74.5% FT

G – Slater Martin (1956-’60) – 248 Games
9.7 PPG, 4.5 APG, 3.7 RPG, 34.3% FG, 76.1% FT

BENCH

C – Clyde Lovellette (1958-’62) – 245 Games
19.3 PPG, 9.6 RPG, 46.1% FG, 82.5% FT

G – Richie Guerin (1963-’66) – 215 Games
14.1 PPG, 4.8 APG, 3.3 RPG, 42.1% FG, 80.3% FT

C – Chuck Share (1956-’59) – 216 Games
8.3 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 40.9% FG, 68.7% FT

Boston Celtics Franchise History: 1966-67 through 1975-76

Boston Celtics

Championships: 4
Conference Titles: 4
Division Titles: 5

Regular Season Record: 534-285
Regular Season Win Percentage: 65.2%
Playoff Appearances: 8
Playoff Series Wins: 16
Playoff Record: 70-47

Entering the 1966-67 season, the Boston Celtics had appeared in 10 straight NBA Finals winning all but one of them. However, the 1966 Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers showed that the Celtics had much to be concerned about. Up 3-games-to-1, the Celtics blew the series lead to the Lakers. In the decisive Game 7, the also blew a 16-point 4th quarter lead, but barely won the game 95 to 93.

Those 10 straight Finals appearances seemed to put tremendous strain on Boston. If they were to win a 10th title, they would have to withstand not only their talented opponents, but the wear and tear of endless playoff runs. They would also have to withstand the loss of Red Auerbach, who had coached the franchise since the 1950-51 season. In Red’s place, Bill Russell would be the first black coach in American sports while still retaining his place as the key player on the team.

As usual, the Celtics retooled for their latest title run. Don Nelson, who had been cut by the Lakers, was actually added prior to the 1965-66 season, but he would play a larger role going forward as a key scorer off the bench. Just as valuable would be a trade with Baltimore. The Celtics acquired Bailey Howell, an All-Star caliber forward, who could relieve some scoring pressure off of Sam Jones and John Havlicek. It should also be noted that point guard Larry Siegfried had fully matured into a capable and cool-handed player ready to take over the starting job from KC Jones.

The additions and the development provided Boston with 60 wins in the 1967 regular season. However, they finished 2nd in the East behind the 68-win Philadelphia 76ers. Concerned but not alarmed, Boston seemed sure to retain the title when playoff time rolled around.

Instead they got rolled on by the 76ers.

In a stunning rout, the Sixers beat Boston 4-games-to-1 in the East Finals, including a 140-116 demolition derby in the final game. Philly fans, weathered by years of defeat against Boston, jubilantly chanted “Boston’s Dead” as Game 5 came to a close. The Sixers led by Wilt Chamberlain went on to win the championship, the first non-Celtics club to do so since 1958.

A repeat affair seemed to be in the offing for the 1967-68 season.

Again, Philly finished first in the East. And again they had Boston pummeled. Up 3-games-to-1 in the East Finals, Philly looked to easily repeat as champions. Pissed at the circumstances, John Havlicek strode into the locker room prior to Game 5 and wrote a simple word on the chalkboard…

PRIDE

It may seem straight from a Disney film, but the tactic amazingly worked as Boston stormed back to become the first team to ever dig themselves out of a 3-1 hole and win a series. In the Finals, the Celtics and Havlicek showed no let up. They dispatched familiar foe Los Angeles in six games. Hondo averaged 27 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists in the series. In Game 6 he made sure to bury the Lakers with a 40-point performance. Howell chipped in a cool 30 points to aid the effort.

The 1968-69 season would prove just as, if not more, daunting for the Celtics. The New York Knicks were coalescing into a title contender with Willis Reed and Walt Frazier leading the way. The Baltimore Bullets were doing the same with Wes Unseld and Earl Monroe. The 76ers seemed to take a step back after trading Chamberlain, but Billy Cunningham turned in a spectacular season to keep them afloat. The toughened East meant Boston finished 4th place, snagging the last playoff spot.

In a mild upset, the Celtics defeated the Sixers 4-1 to advance to the East Finals against the heavily-favored Knicks. Boston stunned the NBA by defeating New York in six games. It was a close victory though. Boston’s Game 4 and Game 6 wins were each by a single point. Nonetheless, Boston moved on to the championship round.

The Finals seemed to setup the perfect culmination for this era of Celtics basketball. Boston’s two longtime foes the Lakers of West and Baylor, and Wilt Chamberlain had combined forces the previous summer and seemed destined to definitively end the Russell Celtics. Jerry West (38 PPG, 7.5 APG) and John Havlicek (28 PPG, 11 RPG, played every minute of the Finals) battled all series providing amazing performances. The turning point, however, came in Game 4 courtesy of Sam Jones who would retire after the series finished.

With LA looking to take a 3-1 series lead, Boston was down 88-87 with barely a second left in the game. With possession, Boston inbounded the ball and Jones caught the pass tossing up a haggard runner that rolled around the rim before settling through the net. The win gave Boston the breathing room to eventually force a Game 7 on the Lakers’ home court. That (in)famous game ended 108-106 in Boston’s favor thanks in no small part to a Don Nelson jumper near the game’s end that hit the back iron and sailed three feet straight into the air before going through the hoop.

With 11 titles in 13 years, Bill Russell officially retired from the NBA and Boston had to retool.

A New Big 3

1970s Celtics
Jo Jo White, Don Chaney, John Havlicek, and Don Nelson lined up for action against Milwaukee

With Russell and Jones retired, the Celtics stumbled in 1969-70 missing the playoffs for the first time in two decades. For the 1970-71 season, Boston again missed the postseason, but there was undeniable improvement and retooling in effect. First off they improved from 34 to 44 wins. Secondly, Boston drafted Jo Jo White (in 1969) and Dave Cowens (1970) to form a new Big 3 to go along with the venerable Havlicek. With Tom Sanders, the brilliant defensive forward Don Chaney and instant bench offense extraordinaire Don Nelson still in the fold, Boston would look to make a big splash in the 1971-72 campaign.

With 56 wins, Boston captured the 1972 Atlantic Division crown, but fell to the New York Knicks in the Conference Finals. Undeterred, the next season Boston won an astounding 68 games, the best in the entire history of the franchise spurred by the acquisition of forward Paul Silas to bolster frontcourt defense and rebounding. Cowens meanwhile was named league MVP and Boston got a rematch with the Knicks in the Conference Finals. However, a shoulder injury to John Havlicek derailed their return to championship glory. The series ended with Boston’s first Game 7 loss on their homecourt.

Falling back to 56 wins in the 1973-74 campaign, Boston more importantly maintained its health while adding rookie guard Paul Westphal. In their third straight matchup with the Knicks in the ECF, the Celtics finally demolished their foe in a 4-1 series victory. Havlicek in particular relished the rematch as he averaged 30 points in the five-game series.

Returning to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1969, the Celtics faced off against the Milwaukee Bucks of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The series see-sawed back and forth with neither team winning back-to-back games. The classic series is famous for Cowens diving like a mad man to gather a loose ball on the court and for Kareem nailing a game-winning, last-second skyhook in Game 6. In the end, Boston took the series in seven games and John Havlicek took the honors of Finals MVP.

Boston failed to repeat as champs in 1975, despite winning 60 games in the regular season. But in 1976, after trading Westphal for all-star guard Charlie Scott, they struck back with their second title in three years. That 4-2 series victory over the Phoenix Suns was again a classic, especially the triple overtime Game 5. Best remembered for Suns forward Gar Heard’s unbelievable turnaround jumper, Havlicek and especially Jo Jo White were just as heroic in their efforts to deliver Boston a win. White for his efforts was named the MVP of the 1976 Finals.

Boston’s latest Big 3 of Cowens, White, and Havlicek augmented by Nelson and Silas had done admirably well to restore Boston’s NBA dominance. But as the Celtics prepared for the 1976-77 season, change was again afoot. Silas was traded to Denver. The timeless Havlicek was finally nearing retirement.

As Boston entered its next decade it’d have to figure out to bridge another gap from one title-winning core to another.

STARTING FIVE

C – Dave Cowens (1970-’76) – 465 Games
19.1 PPG, 15.5 RPG, 3.8 APG, 1.2 SPG, 1.1 BPG, 45.6% FG, 76.5%

C – Bill Russell (1966-’69) – 236 Games
11.9 PPG, 19.6 RPG, 5.1 APG, 43.8% FG, 56.0% FT

F – John Havlicek (1966-’76) – 803 Games
22.7 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 5.7 APG, 1.3 SPG, 44.6% FG, 83.0% FT

F – Don Nelson (1966-’76) – 797 Games
11.5 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 1.6 APG, 48.9% FG, 77.8% FT

G – Jo Jo White (1969-’76) – 542 Games
19.0 PPG, 5.1 APG, 4.4 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 44.6% FG, 82.1%FT

BENCH

F – Paul Silas (1972-’76) – 325 Games
11.5 PPG, 12.3 RPG, 2.7 APG, 43.9% FG, 72.5% FT

F – Bailey Howell (1966-’70) – 323 Games
18.0 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 1.5 APG, 48.0% FG, 73.9% FT

F – Don Chaney (1968-’75) – 485 Games
10.2 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.3 SPG, 45.0% FG, 77.4% FT

Boston Celtics Franchise History: 1956-57 through 1965-66

Boston Celtics

Championships: 9
Conference Titles: 10
Division Titles: 9

Regular Season Record: 554-216
Regular Season Win Percentage: 71.9%
Playoff Appearances: 10
Playoff Series Wins: 20
Playoff Record: 81-41

After four years of abject mediocrity in the 1940s, the Celtics stumbled upon the Big 3 of Bob Cousy, Ed Macauley, and Bill Sharman. Their combined offensive genius hit the end of the road in 1956. Macauley was sacrificed to St. Louis in the Russell trade. Sharman and Cousy, however, remained on board for this new era.

Trading for Bill Russell in the spring of 1956 wound up the biggest move in building a title contender. But it was certainly not the only move.

Arnie Risen, Jack Nichols, and Andy Phillip were three key veterans at the end of their career who would provide know-how and timely reserve minutes to spur on their younger teammates. Risen was a former All-Star center traded by the Rochester Royals to Boston for cash in the fall of 1955. He in particular nurtured the young Bill Russell and taught him the fine points of playing as an NBA center. Nichols was a tough rebounding forward also nearing the end of his career, but had been with Boston since 1953. Phillip, another former All-Star, was brought in to back up Cousy in 1956. These cagey vets would be augmented by a bevy of young up-and-comers.

Russell was the cream of the young Celtics crop. However, he didn’t join the team until December 1956 as he played for Team USA in the 1956 Summer Olympics – held in Australia, hence the odd timing for those in the Northern Hemisphere.

When Russell finally joined the Celtics, they were an NBA best 16-8 thanks to the aid of fellow rookie Tom Heinsohn and the blossoming of Jim Loscutoff and Frank Ramsey. Heinsohn and Ramsey were scoring machines, but delivered the offensive fireworks at different times. Heinsohn was in the starting lineup, while Ramsey came off the bench. Meanwhile, Loscutoff was the burliest power forward you could ever meet. Never afraid to rough up other players, Loscutoff more than earned the nickname “Jungle Jim”.

This formula of in-their-prime stars (Cousy, Sharman) with cagey vets looking for a title (Risen, Nichols, Phillip) and hungry youngsters (Russell, Heinsohn, Loscutoff, Ramsey) would be the formula to see Boston to many titles over the next decade.

Heading into the 1956-57 playoffs, the Celtics exorcised past demons by sweeping the Syracuse Nationals in the Eastern Division Finals. Remember, these were the same Syracuse Nats that had beaten Boston in the previous four postseasons. In the Finals, the Celtics matched up with the St. Louis Hawks. Led by Bob Pettit, the Hawks also underwent a dramatic transformation in 1956 by acquiring Macauley and Cliff Hagan from Boston and Slater Martin from the New York Knicks. All four of these men would become Hall of Famers.

In Game 1 of the series, St. Louis won 125-123 in double overtime on Boston’s home court. Several exciting games followed, culminating with a Game 7 victory by Boston. The score? 125-123 in double overtime. Clearly the series could have gone either way and Boston was fortunate to escape with its first title.

Over the next four seasons, Boston and St. Louis would play in three more championship bouts attempting to settle who the NBA’s foremost franchise was. The Hawks quickly struck back winning the 1958 title over Boston. In 1960, the rubber match went to seven game before Boston subdued the Hawks. By 1961, it was clear Boston was winning the arms race with the Missouri ball club. The Celtics routed St. Louis in five games.

With four championships in five years, the Celtics asserted themselves as the first class team of the NBA. Young faces like K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, and Tom “Satch” Sanders stepped in to replace and relieve retiring veterans seamlessly keeping the green machine running. Likewise, as old enemies faded (the Hawks and Nationals) new ones appeared in the Philadelphia Warriors featuring Wilt Chamberlain and the Los Angeles Lakers with Elgin Baylor and Jerry West.

These two challengers nearly dethroned Boston in 1962.

The Celtics survived the Warriors’ onslaught, 109-107, in Game 7 of the Eastern Division Finals. In the NBA Finals, Boston escaped the Lakers in Game 7 by a final score of 110-107 in overtime. The road to the title in 1963 proved nearly as difficult. The upstart Cincinnati Royals, led by Oscar Robertson, pushed Boston to seven games in the East Finals. Sam Jones (47 points) and the Big O (43 points) gave a duel for the ages that Boston won 142-131. In the NBA Finals, Boston again faced the Lakers. And again they won the title by a tiny margin. The decisive Game 6 ended 112 to 109 in favor of Boston.

That would be Bob Cousy’s final game as a Celtic.

New Era, Same Results

Hondo and Russ

Typically, Boston bid farewell to a key piece but had other men ready to step in. For the 1963-64 season veteran ringers in Willie Naulls and Clyde Lovellette beefed up Boston’s frontcourt while Larry Siegfried was rescued from obscurity to help sop up some of the point guard minutes with Cousy gone. Perhaps most important of all, John Havlicek, a second-year forward, blossomed as a sixth man extraordinaire. By the time “Hondo” retired in 1978, he would be the Celtics’ all-time leading scorer. In fact, he still is.

As these changes and new faces took their place, the constant was Bill Russell. His basketball genius did not remain constant, though. His defense, shot-blocking, and rebounding were as spectacular as ever, but now his offensive game grew to new heights to replace some of the magic lost by Cousy’s retirement. By 1966, Russell had been flirting with 5 APG for 5 straight seasons making him one of the league’s premier passers among big men equaled only by Wilt Chamberlain and Johnny Kerr.

Speaking of Wilt, the Celtics defeated his San Francisco Warriors in 1964 for Boston’s first post-Cousy title. After a trade to the Philadelphia 76ers, the following season, Chamberlain was again bounced by Boston in the Eastern Finals. With his growing collection of championship hardware, Russell became the poster boy for team play and team success juxtaposed to Wilt’s seemingly selfish play. Even the Lakers duo of West and Baylor seemed to be a misguided one-two punch never able to knock out the invincible Celtics. At least that’s how some media would tell the story.

Looking closely at the Celtics over this span strips away the veneer of undisputed, easy dominance. Intricate examination actually reveals cracks in the façade, especially by 1966.

For the first time since 1957, Boston did not finish with the NBA’s best regular season record in that 1965-66 season. In the playoffs, they were pushed to brink by the Royals and then again by the Lakers in the Finals. After going up 3-games-to-1, the Celtics escaped with another title thanks to a 95-93 victory in Game 7 over Los Angeles. That razor thin win prevented one of the largest collapses in playoff history, especially considering the Lakers were down 16 points entering the fourth quarter.

During that nearly catastrophic Finals series, Auerbach made it official that Bill Russell would succeed him as Celtics coach for the 1966-67 season. That would make Russell the first black coach in major American pro sports. But after nine titles in 10 seasons, could Boston maintain its ridiculous run under a new coach and with age creeping up on its most important player?

STARTING FIVE

C – Bill Russell (1956-’66) – 727 Games
16.1 PPG, 23.4 RPG, 4.0 APG, 44.0% FG, 56.1% FT

F – Tom Heinsohn (1956-’65) – 654 Games
18.6 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 2.0 APG, 40.5% FG, 79.0% FT

F – Frank Ramsey (1956-’64) – 559 Games
13.7 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.7 APG, 40.0% FG, 81.0% FT

G – Sam Jones (1957-’66) – 656 Games
17.0 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 2.4 APG, 45.7% FG, 79.4%

G – Bob Cousy (1956-’63) – 496 Games
17.7 PPG, 7.9 APG, 4.3 RPG, 37.9% FG, 80.0% FT

BENCH

G – Bill Sharman (1956-’61) – 334 Games
19.8 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 2.6 APG, 42.5% FG, 90.4% FT

G – KC Jones (1958-’66) – 598 Games
7.6 PPG, 4.2 APG, 3.6 RPG, 38.6% FG, 64.9% FT

F – John Havlicek (1962-’66) – 306 Games
17.8 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 2.7 APG, 41.4% FG, 75.3% FT

F – Tom “Satch” Sanders (1960-’66) – 460 Games
10.6 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 1.1 APG, 43.2% FG, 74.6% FT

F – Jim Loscutoff (1956-’64) – 440 Games
5.8 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 0.7 APG, 34.2% FG, 64.6% FT

St. Louis/Atlanta Hawks Franchise History: 1966-67 through 1975-76

Championships: 0
Conference Titles: 0
Division Titles: 2

Regular Season Record: 404-415
Regular Season Win Percentage: 49.3%
Playoff Appearances: 7
Playoff Series Wins: 3
Playoff Record: 21-31

The Hawks bid farewell to St. Louis with one of their strongest seasons in years in 1967-68 by setting franchise records of 56 wins and a .683 win percentage. Unfortunately, in the playoffs, the Hawks were upset 4-games-to-2 by the San Francisco Warriors and exited their St. Louis era on a sour note. Under coach (and sometimes player) Richie Guerin, the Hawks kept chugging in Atlanta for the next two seasons with back-to-back 48-win seasons and appearances in the Western Division Finals.

The roster was in flux, however, throughout this period. Upon moving to Atlanta, the Hawks traded longtime point guard Lenny Wilkens to Seattle. Big and skilled center Zelmo “Big Z” Beaty left for the ABA. As did forward “Pogo” Joe Caldwell. The Hawks managed to keep a hold of “Sweet” Lou Hudson and added “Pistol” Pete Maravich in 1970. Still hanging on as well was a defensive mad man and tough as nails rebounder, Bill Bridges. In early 1970, making, up for the loss of Big Z, the Hawks traded for Walt “Bells” Bellamy.

The roster may have been in chaos, but at least all the players had splendid nicknames.

Added together, though, the moves were never truly enough to keep Atlanta a stalwart and they slid from the realm of contender. After 1970, the Hawks posted just one winning season (46 wins in 1973) in this period, although they made the playoffs seven times. The string of playoff appearances was more a testament to the imbalanced conferences than Atlanta’s own power. Their next winning campaign wouldn’t be until the 1977-78 season.

The Hawks waning fortunes at the end of this period leads to one of the great what-ifs in basketball history… What if Julius “Dr. J” Erving had played for the Hawks instead of the Virginia Squires of the ABA? Atlanta signed Erving to a contract in 1972, but ultimately the contract was ruled invalid. Erving’s brief stint in some exhibition games for Atlanta leave the tantalizing prospect of Pistol Pete, Sweet Lou, and the Doctor as true teammates only a fantasy for basketball and Hawks fans.

Ultimately, this period was one of transition and missed connections and chances. Through it all, Lou Hudson was the linchpin in this swirl of changes. He played every season of this era with the Hawks and cemented his status as a franchise legend.

STARTING FIVE

C – Walt Bellamy (1970-’74) – 338 Games
15.6 PPG, 12.2 RPG, 2.8 APG, 50.8% FG, 58.4% FT

F – Bill Bridges (1966-’72) – 419 Games
14.1 PPG, 14.4 RPG, 3.3 APG, 45.8% FG, 69.8% FT

F – Joe Caldwell (1966-’70) – 323 Games
16.8 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 3.1 APG, 47.7% FG, 62.5% FT

G/F – Lou Hudson (1966-’76) – 672 Games
22.4 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 2.9 APG, 1.9 SPG, 48.9% FG, 79.3% FT

G – Pete Maravich (1970-’74) – 322 Games
24.3 PPG, 5.6 APG, 4.2 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 44.8% FG, 80.9% FT

BENCH

G – Herm Gilliam (1971-’75) – 280 Games
12.5 PPG, 4.9 APG, 4.3 RPG, 1.7 SPG, 45.0% FG, 82.1% FT

G – Mahdi Abdul-Rahman (1968-’71) – 244 Games
14.3 PPG, 6.3 APG, 3.7 RPG, 44.4% FG, 76.0% FT

C – Zelmo Beaty (1966-’69) – 202 Games
20.5 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 1.8 APG, 47.8% FG, 76.3% FT

Pro Hoops History HOF: Johnny “Red” Kerr

(University of Illinois Archives)
(University of Illinois Archives)

The Syracuse Nationals lost a heart-breaking NBA Finals against the Minneapolis Lakers in 1954. Several of their players were hobbled, if not lost to injury. Still they dragged the mighty Lakers – winners of three of the last four NBA titles – to seven games. For the Nationals, the loss stung but with a healthy roster they could return to the Finals and win it all the following year.

Indeed, that’s exactly what they did, but they had more than good health. Syracuse was bolstered by a young center who helped shore up the middle: Johnny “Red” Kerr.

The 6’9″ center initially backed up Ephraim “Red” Rocha, but by the 1955 NBA Finals Kerr was the team’s second-leading scorer behind the venerable Dolph Schayes. Schayes was certainly the star, but the Nationals prided themselves on being a selfless well-balanced team. The decisive Game 7 against the Fort Wayne Pistons saw seven Syracuse players score between 10 and 15 points as the Nats pulled out a 92-91 win.

Kerr’s playing style was tailor-made for the Nationals gaggle of talented players. With guards like Larry Costello and Paul Seymour, Kerr would set devastating “big ass screens,” as Warriors forward Tom Meschery called them. Kerr’s sideways picks utilized his ample posterior to knock opponents off balance and he’d then roll to the rim for a bucket.

Kerr was even more dangerous when he was the man with the ball in a screening situation. Those “big-ass picks” would clear a wide lane to the basket for Costello, Seymour, and later Hal Greer to drive to the basket. Sure, Red could pass off the ball normally, but the flamboyant center wouldn’t hesitate to bounce a pass between his legs and hit the cutter perfectly in stride.

Although he played himself into shape during training camp, Kerr rarely missed a game once the season started. In fact, he played 844 games in a row during one stretch of his career. It was a record that stood for almost two decades until Randy Smith claimed the title of Iron Man.

Actual basketball skills aside, Johnny Kerr has been widely hailed as one of the best teammates in basketball history. His gregarious, affable sense of humor surely explains much of the adulation. Chet Walker, a man who had experienced considerable racial discrimination, noted Kerr was a veteran presence who didn’t just ease his transition to the NBA, but also was one of the first white men to treat him simply as a man.

Kerr’s humor often belied that serious sentiment he brought to life and basketball. When asked why he kept playing through various injuries during his Iron Man streak, Kerr joked, “I was afraid if I missed a game my wife might make me do the dishes.” Kerr would go on to decades of work in the NBA as a coach and broadcaster, but when his playing career finally came to an end Johnny “Red” Kerr revealed the drive that made him tick for 12 magnificent seasons and also made him sorrowful he’d never lace up the sneakers again:

“My last game was in St. Louis when Baltimore was knocked out of the playoffs. I spent a long time in the dressing room, just taking off my uniform. Finally, I was down to only my stocking feet. I could look out the door and see that Kiel Auditorium was nearly dark. Guys were folding up the chairs, sweeping up the garbage and I heard the popping of paper cups. I put on some clothes, went into the arena and watched them dismantle the floor. I began to think that there would be no more nights after the games, drinking beer with the guys. No more parties at the house with Betsy and the players and no more times when my name was announced and people cheered.  I was 34, I had never made more than $30,000 as a player, and I cried that day in St. Louis. Not because I wouldn’t play again; my body was hurting too much to play anymore. But because I wouldn’t be a basketball player.”

Years Played: 1954 – 1966

Syracuse Nationals
Syracuse Nationals

Accolades

NBA -
Champion (1955)
3x All-Star (1956, 1959, 1963)

Statistics

NBA – 905 Games
13.8 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 2.2 APG, 41.8% FG, 72.3% FT

Contemporary NBA Ranks (1954-55 through 1965-66 season)
4th Rebounds, 13th RPG
10th Points
7th FGs Made, 13th FTs Made
17th Assists
1st Games Played, 3rd Minutes Played

The 6’2″-and-Under Champions Club

Napoleon

Life should be grand for Chris Paul. He delivered 22.5 points, 12 assists, and 2.5 steals per game while shooting 51% FG, 75% FT, and 45.5% 3PT in the Western Conference Semi-Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder. His regular season saw some injury woes but he’s still likely to make another All-NBA 1st Team, which would be the 4th such selection of his career. Of course the Clippers losing their series against Oklahoma City is dispiriting, but basketball fans can bask in Paul’s great efforts.

Well, some can. Not all.

Roll that beautiful Chris Paul critique footage!

The criticism will start anew after the Clippers playmaker delivered more heartache during his team’s season-ending 104-98 loss to Oklahoma City in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals Thursday night at Staples Center.

Paul finished with 25 points and 11 assists but will be recalled mostly for the offensive foul with 3 minutes 35 seconds left that probably sealed the Clippers’ fate.

Paul was dejected after the loss and his continued failure to reach the Conference Finals, let alone the NBA Finals:

“It’s not just to get out of the second round. It’s to win a championship. I don’t know anybody in our league that plays for the Western Conference finals. That’s not enough.”

Well, given the circumstances of the NBA, having a 6’0″ tall player as your leading man rarely means winning a championship. Extending the height to 6’2″, only five NBA franchises have garnered a title with a player that tall reasonably, not unequivocally, considered their best player.

The Rochester Royals 1950-51

The first franchise was the Rochester Royals back in the 1950-51 season. Their best player was Bob Davies, a 6’1″ guard/forward who was one of the first players in the major pro leagues to dribble behind his back. The Royals, however, were a well-balanced machine with Bob Wanzer and especially Arnie Risen contesting best player honors. Indeed during the postseason, the 31-year old Davies had a miserable time averaging 16 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3 assists on 34% shooting over 14 games. However, Risen and Wanzer rose to the ocassion. Wanzer notched 12.5 PPG, 5 RPG, and 4 APG while shooting 47% FG and 91% FT. Risen was a beast in the post with 19.5 PPG and 14 RPG including a dominating NBA Finals against the Knicks which would have secured a Finals MVP for Risen had it existed then. There was also defensive ace Jack Coleman who threw in 10 points, 13 rebounds, and 5 assists per game in the postseason.

Davies may have been the best player, but it was truly a full team effort.

The Boston Celtics 1956-57

The Celtics were the next NBA champ to exhibit a wondrous 6’1″ dribbler as their best player. Bob Cousy was the regular season MVP for the NBA and had appeared in the All-Star Game all seven seasons of  his pro career. The Celtics had also made the postseason every year of his career, but had never made the Finals. Finally, in 1957 Boston won the Finals as Cousy averaged 20 points, 9 assists and 6 rebounds in the playoffs.

Don’t be too quick to give Cooz all the credit, though. His longtime running mate Bill Sharman averaged 21 PPG. Rookie forward Tommy Heinsohn dropped 23 PPG and 12 RPG. Oh yeah, another rookie – Bill Russell – contributed 14 points and 24 rebounds nightly. Russell would wind up winning MVP the very next season in 1958 quickly supplanting Cousy as the Celtics’ best player.

But in 1957 was Cousy or Russell the better Celtic? It’s debatable. Nonetheless, the point is still standing: a short star needs a some equitable talent.

The Los Angeles Lakers 1971-72

No one can still figure out who was better for the Lakers in 1972: Wilt Chamberlain or Jerry West. The team won 33 straight games on their way to 69 wins in the regular season. They trounced opponents in the playoffs breezing to the title with 12 wins and 3 losses. West and Wilt played vastly different but complementary roles. Wilt cleaned the glass, defended the paint like crazy, and produced highlight dunks here and there. West pestered the perimeter, ran the offense as the point guard, and drained long-range bombs.

Their regular season stats reveal their productive schism.
Wilt – 15 PPG, 19 RPG, 4 APG
West – 26 PPG, 4 RPG, 10 APG

Jerry West, however, played the worst postseason of his career that year. Prior to 1972, he had averaged 31 PPG, 6 APG, and 6 RPG on 48% FG and 81% FT shooting. In 1972 he bottomed out at 23/9/5 – still great for a 33-year old guard – but shot a miserable 37.5% from the field. It was even worse in the Finals where Mr. Clutch put up 20/9/4 on 32.5% shooting. The Big Dipper meanwhile feasted on the Knicks to the tune of 19.5 points and 23 rebounds a game on 60% shooting.

In the end, it’s likely a wash as to who was more instrumental for those Lakers.

The Seattle SuperSonics 1978-79

The champion oft-forgot, the 1979 Sonics were one of the most egalitarian teams to take the title. The youthful trio of Jack Sikma (23 years old), Dennis Johnson (24) and Gus Williams (25) did the heaviest lifting while veterans like Paul Silas, Freddie Brown, and John Johnson capably helped out the young bucks.

The splits of three contenders for Sonics’ best player don’t concretely solve the question, but it gives a tentative answer…

Regular Season

  PPG RPG APG BPG SPG FG% FT%
Gus Williams 19.2 3.2 4.0 0.4 2.0 49.5% 77.5%
Jack Sikma 15.6 12.4 3.2 0.8 1.0 46.0% 81.4%
Dennis Johnson 15.9 4.7 3.5 1.2 1.3 43.4% 76.0%

Playoffs

PPG RPG APG BPG SPG FG% FT%
Gus Williams 26.7 4.1 3.7 0.6 2.0 47.6% 70.9%
Jack Sikma 14.8 11.7 2.5 1.4 0.9 45.5% 78.7%
Dennis Johnson 20.9 6.1 4.1 1.5 1.6 45.0% 77.1%

On balance, Gus Williams emerges as the premier, but not definitive, candidate for best player on the 1979 Sonics. The 6’2″ guard would lose out on Finals MVP to the 6’4″ Dennis Johnson. Guess that didn’t help settle matters.

The Detroit Pistons 1988-89 and 1989-90

The only time a multiple championship teams were led by a diminutive player. Still in his prime, but maybe a hair past his peak, Isiah Thomas was the linchpin of the Bad Boys Pistons. If ever a team won a title based on gang tactics, it was these Pistons squads. Bill Laimbeer, James Edwards, Dennis Rodman, and John Salley delivered body blows to frustrate opponents. But the real threat to Thomas’s claim to best player on these teams came from his young, stoic backcourt mate: Joe Dumars.

Dumars proved so valuable he snared the 1989 Finals MVP in a sweep over the LA Lakers. Put winning Finals MVP doesn’t automatically catapult you to best player on the team. When it’s all said and done, Isiah was the orchestrator of the Pistons’s assault even if the disparity between himself and his teammates wasn’t the chasm we like to imagine exists between a team’s best player and the secondary pieces.

So what does any of this mean for Chris Paul? Or for any future pipsqueak star?

It means that they can be the best player on a team that wins an NBA title, but the team has to be extremely well-balanced. And even if that short star plays the role of best player, it’ll be hard for contemporaries and future generations to easily discern that.