Editor’s note: this article was originally written during the horrific Celtics-Hawks playoff series of Spring 2012
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.