Born: December 12, 1932 Position: Power forward Professional Career:
Milwaukee Hawks (NBA): 1954-’55
St. Louis Hawks (NBA): 1955-’65
“I never tried to be a team leader in basketball. I wasn’t a guy who did a lot of talking. I just wanted everybody to see that I worked hard, that I’d give my full effort all the time. In business, I try to surround myself with the best people and then let them do their thing.” And if that doesn’t succeed? “Then we all sit down, talk it over, and work things out.”
That’s a fairly accurate description Bob Pettit gave of himself in that interview with Jack Ramsay. Many have worked as hard as Pettit but none harder. You listen to him speak for any length of time and invariably he returns to the ethos of hard work, determination and consistency. These would be hallmarks of his Hall of Fame career.
Bob’s initial forays into basketball were strongly encouraged by his father, a sheriff in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Despite being cut from the high school team twice, the practice ultimately paid off as Pettit eventually made the squad and would subsequently led them to the Louisiana state title. A fairly successful stint at Louisiana State University followed where he averaged ho-hum 27 points and 15 rebounds a game in his time as a Tiger. His play in these years, however, was predicated on him being a back-to-the-basket, low post threat. And at 6’9″ he had the height, but with only a scant 200 lbs to that frame, he didn’t have the weight to succeed in the pros that way.
So, Pettit totally retooled his game upon entering the NBA and would prove to better than ever.
Regular Season Record: 263-390
Regular Season Win Percentage: 40.3%
Playoff Appearances: 4
Playoff Series Wins: 3
Playoff Record: 11-12
Founded as the Buffalo Bison in 1946 in the National Basketball League, what is now the Atlanta Hawks performed quite the vagabond act during their first decade. Early in the 1946-47 NBL season, Ben Kerner moved his Bison franchise to the Tri-Cities of Illinois and Iowa, rechristening the team the Blackhawks. The club was a modest success in the NBL sporting an 85-83 record over three seasons and racking up two playoff appearances.
During the 1946-47 season, the Tri-Cities rostered William “Pop” Gates, an African-American player famous for his time with the New York Rens. Also on board was former New York Celtic and Fort Wayne Piston, Bobby McDermott. McDermott was hailed as the best long-distance shooter of pre-NBA basketball. The dominant force for the Blackhawks in these years, however, was 6’10” Don Otten who won the NBL’s MVP award in 1949.
Joining the NBA for the 1949-50 season, the Blackhawks spent two more mildly successful seasons in the Tri-Cities before moving to Milwaukee where the franchise became simply the Hawks.
They also simply stunk.
During their four seasons in Milwaukee, the Hawks never made the playoffs and “boasted” a win percentage of .324. During these years center Chuck Share and Mel Hutchins (one of the great defensive forwards of the era) were about the lone bright spots. Nonetheless, the situation was grim and dire as the franchise threatened to shut down. Fortunately, in the 1954 draft, a savior arrived in the nick of time.
Bob Pettit stormed the NBA winning Rookie of the Year for the 1954-55 season. The very next season he was named the league’s first MVP. Kerner – sensing Milwaukee was a lost cause – had packed up the Hawks and moved to St. Louis for Pettit’s MVP campaign. The Hawks’ fortunes seemed to immediately respond tot he change in scenario and Pettit’s greatness. Their 33-39 record in 1955-56 was their best since a 30-30 season in 1948. Although below .500, the Hawks sneaked into the playoffs, beat the Minneapolis Lakers, and barely lost to the Fort Wayne Pistons in the Western Division Finals.
With Pettit as the mainstay and savvy veterans like Chuck Share, Jack Coleman, Jack McMahon, and Alex Hannum, the Hawks were on the cusp of being perennial contenders. Armed with the #3 pick in the 1956 draft, the Hawks decided to swap the draft choice with the Boston Celtics.
Thanks to the exchange, the Hawks received Cliff Hagan and Ed Macauley and would catapult to 4 NBA Finals and a championship in the next five seasons. The Celtics for their part got some rookie center named Bill Russell.
C – Don Otten (1946-’50, 1951-’53) – 295 Games
12.6 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 36.0 % FG, 72.1% FT
F – Bob Pettit (1954-’56) – 144 Games
23.0 PPG, 15.0 RPG, 2.9 APG, 41.9% FG, 74.2% FT
F – Mel Hutchins (1951-’53) – 137 Games
10.5 PPG, 12.2 RPG, 3.0 APG, 37.3% FG, 65.0% FT
G – Frankie Brian (1950-’51) – 68 Games
16.8 PPG, 3.9 APG, 3.6 RPG, 32.2% FG, 82.3% FT
G – Bobby McDermott (1947-’49) – 82 Games
10.6 PPG, 73.3% FT
G – William “Pop” Gates (1946-’47) – 41 Games
7.6 PPG, 52.2% FT
G – Dike Eddleman (1949-’52) – 182 Games
13.8 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 2.3 APG, 35.1% FG, 65.5% FT
C – Chuck Share (1953-’56) – 188 Games
12.4 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 41.2% FG, 70.2% FT
Editor’s note: this article was originally written during the horrific Celtics-Hawks playoff series of Spring 2012
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.