When we think of upstate New York, we don’t usually think of it as some kind of professional basketball hotbed. I mean, come on! Basketball? That flashy sport with all the selfish players doing all that big showoffy stuff? Waving at the audience? Making celebratory gestures? Nothing physical about it? No, the upstate Rust Belt cities like Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse all prefer their rough-and-tumble stuff like football, hockey, and lacrosse. Here’s the thing, though: Basketball only took its current image because of marketing. At the very core of the game is a sport in which every traditional Rust Belt value could easily be applied: Hard play, defense, teamwork, and careful planning win championships.
You want evidence? Here’s your evidence: FOUR NBA teams have all had their beginnings in upstate New York. Today’s Atlanta Hawks, Sacramento Kings, Philadelphia 76ers, and Los Angeles Clippers were all professional teams in New York. Okay, that’s not the most impressive resume – even the most storied and successful team on that list, the Sixers, hit rock bottom so hard a few years ago that they’re not getting nationally televised games this year. But still, the NBA has a history in a region that it abandoned. They started up back in the day when the National Basketball League was a thing, just before the formation of the Basketball Association of America and the subsequent merger between the two which created the NBA.
One of the teams in the NBL was the Buffalo Bisons. They were created in 1946 by the Erie County American Legion. The Bisons fielded William “Pop” Gates, who was one of the first two black players in the NBL. It’s tough to get a glimpse of the history of the Bisons, though, because they didn’t draw any fans. The team needed to draw 3600 per game to stay afloat in Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, but they were barely drawing 1000. Since professional basketball back in those days wasn’t much of a thing, general manager Leo Ferris couldn’t try to beg the city government or hold a fan drive. He saw the writing spelled out rather quickly; on Christmas of that very year, he announced that the Bisons would be moving to Moline, Illinois, part of a metropolitan area known back then as the Tri-Cities. (Today, the area is known as the Quad Cities.) The Bisons lasted only 38 days in Buffalo, during which they only played 13 games. The time was so inconspicuous that the Hawks don’t even acknowledge the Bisons in their timeline. When I originally researched this project a few years ago, the team website’s official beginning for the timeline was with their post-Buffalo identity, the Tri-Cities Blackhawks.
Things got a little bit better in the Tri-Cities, but not that much. They still had Gates, who finished second in team scoring, and Don Otten was the league MVP in 1948. Gates was out in 1948 to coach in Dayton, which made him the first black coach in any major professional sports league anywhere. In 1949, the BAA and NBL merged, and the Blackhawks became one of the newly-founded NBA’s original 17 teams. That year, they went to the playoffs under the leadership of new coach Red Auerbach. The year after that, they drafted a three-time All-American named Bob Cousy. You’ll want to remember those names, because they’re going to become important very soon. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to reach a deal with Cousy, so they traded him to the Chicago Stags. Auerbach wasn’t able to repeat his magic, the Blackhawks finished last in their division, and by 1951, none of that mattered anymore anyway. It was very obvious that the Tri-Cities area was too small to support the team – which, considering the status of professional basketball at the time, was saying something. In 1951, the Blackhawks moved again, this time to Milwaukee, where they became the Milwaukee Hawks.
The Hawks lounged around at the bottom of the standings during the four years they spent in Milwaukee. In 1954, they did make one major move which improved their fortunes for years down the line: They drafted Bob Pettit. Unfortunately, they didn’t automatically become good, and they ended up moving again in 1955, this time to St. Louis. And it was here – in the team’s fourth home in their eight years of existence – that the Hawks finally came of age. The St. Louis years still loom a great shadow over the rest of the team’s history, and that’s because it was in St. Louis that the team reached its full potential and became everything they were capable of becoming.
Everything in St. Louis started off with a mighty bang in 1956, when the Hawks drafted Bill Russell… Only to immediately trade him to the Boston Celtics in return for Cliff Hagan and Ed Macauley. Okay, it’s pretty easy to lambast the Hawks for that one considering what Russell became, but… This was not a bad trade! Hagan and Macauley were both outstanding players themselves. If you use the Hall of Fame as a barometer of how good players are, then you should know that both Hagan and Macauley are both in it. So is Pettit, for that matter. It was because of this trifecta that the Hawks spent the next decade as one of the best, most dominant, and most feared teams in the NBA. In 1957, the Hawks finished four games under .500, but they gave the league a taste of what was coming. That losing record managed to be the best in an atrocious division, and won a bye in the playoffs after defeating both the Fort Wayne Pistons and Minneapolis Lakers in one-game tiebreakers. In the Finals, the Hawks met the Celtics and their old friend Bill Russell… And his coach, Red Auerbach, who – being widely acknowledged even then as one of the great basketball geniuses who ever lived – was snapped up by the Celtics right off the bat after he left the Hawks. Oh, and they also had Bob Cousy playing one of the key roles on his team. Yeah, this Finals was a seven-game thriller, which Boston won in double overtime in the seventh game. In 1958, the Hawks managed to post their first winning record. They returned to the Finals, met the Celtics again, and avenged their previous loss in six games.
A team built like the Hawks is usually good for a handful of titles. But that didn’t quite prove to be the case in St. Louis. It wasn’t that the Hawks started to age and dwindle – they stayed at the top of the league for the next decade, winning a couple more division and conference titles. The problem in this case was the damned Celtics, who were out fielding probably the greatest dynasty ever seen in professional sports, at least in North America. This was the era when the Celtics won the NBA title every year for eight years, and 10 in those 11 years. In later years, when the Hawks stopped making the Finals, they still made deep playoff runs.
In spite of their success, though, the Hawks were getting to be suspicious of the conditions of their home arena, the Kiel Auditorium. The place was in bad condition and only held 10,000 people. While they were drawing enough to warrant occasional use of the larger St. Louis Arena when popular opponents were in town, that place was in even worse shape. Although it was being revamped because the NHL put a team there, the Hawks still refused to move. They got greedy, kept asking for a place of their own, and kept getting put in their place by a city council that apparently had a fucking brain back then. Since the owner wasn’t able to get what he wanted, he threw the traditional sports team owner hissy fit and sold the team. The new owner moved them to Atlanta in 1968.
Unfortunately, the move to Atlanta coincided with a drop-off in fortune. Although the Hawks had some talent – most notably Pete Maravich and Lou Hudson – they started dropping off around that time. In 1975, the Hawks got a huge break when they somehow ended up with the first and third overall picks of the Draft. And those picks were both pretty well-used. The first pick, David Thompson, became a fixture in All-Star games and All-NBA First Teams. The other pick, Marvin Webster, didn’t have quite such a glorious career, but he did have a couple of seasons as a solid contributor to the teams he played for. Problem was that neither of those players ever accomplished anything for the Hawks. The American Basketball Association was up and running by then, and both of those picks started their careers by signing contracts with the ABA’s Denver Nuggets. Thompson saw the Nuggets through their early years in the NBA, playing for them until 1982, when he went to the Seattle Supersonics until hanging up his sneakers in 1984. Webster’s four-team career went through Denver, Seattle, and the New York Knicks before concluding in 1987 with the Milwaukee Bucks.
The 1982 Draft had a player named Dominique Wilkins. He was selected third overall by the Utah Jazz. That gave the Jazz a superstar who would set them up for the next dozen years. The Jazz, however, also had two problems: The first was money. The second was that Wilkins was repulsed by the idea of playing in fucking Utah. Upon the fast realization that the mounting circumstances would lead to Wilkins never, ever playing for them, the Jazz eagerly traded him for whatever they could get. And what they got was John Drew, Freeman Williams, and a million dollars in cash from the Hawks. Although Drew was a two-time All-Star and Wilkins really forced Utah’s hand in trading him, this is still one of the most lopsided trades in the league’s history. (Both of Drew’s All-Star years were before his trade to the Jazz.) With Wilkins, the Hawks returned to a place they hadn’t been since their 50’s heyday: To the echelons of the NBA elite.
From 1985 to 1989, the Hawks went every year with at least 50 victories. That culminated with a 57-win 1987 season which was good for the division title and… A quick playoff exit. See, during the 80’s, NBA parity basically became a nonexistent concept. The Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers were running roughshod all over the league, and when they all got old at the end of the decade, it was the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons who started taking the title. The only time the monotony was broken up was in 1983, and that took a Sixers team loaded with Dr. J, Moses Malone, Maurice Cheeks, and Andrew Toney to take everyone out. In 1991, the Hawks drafted Stacey Augmon, who made the All-Rookie First Team. Unfortunately, Wilkins got hurt, and the Hawks ended up missing the playoffs without him. Despite that hiccup, the Hawks continued to be an exciting team throughout the 90’s, with the additions of Mookie Blaylock and, in 1993, Lenny Wilkins as coach. The 1994 season turned out to be the end of Atlanta’s era, though, when the team traded Dominique Wilkins to the Clippers.
During the 1995 season, Lenny Wilkins broke the all-time record for victories, which Red Auerbach held until then. But that was one of very few good things to happen during that season. In the late 90’s, the word “average” was spelled H-A-W-K-S. They did enjoy a brief resurgence in the late 90’s with Dikembe Mutombo leading the way. Hell, they even managed to beat the Pistons in the playoffs. But that was more of the Hawks being a surprise out-of-nowhere team than anything that came because they had some kind of building plan in place. Team icons Blaylock and Steve Smith were both traded in 1999. Mutombo was traded two years later.
Trading away the good players quickly seemed to turn into Atlanta’s ply trade. They traded for Glenn Robinson, who led the team in scoring for the one year he was there. In 2004, they had All-Star Rasheed Wallace post 20 points, six rebounds, five blocks, two assists, and a steal. It was one of the greatest all-around performances the Hawks had ever gotten from any of their players. And it was literally the only one they ever got from Wallace. And when I say that, I don’t mean it’s the only GOOD performance they ever got from him. I mean it’s the ONLY performance they ever got from him, period. After that lone, single game he played for the Hawks, he was traded to Detroit. In Detroit, Wallace kept being the same great player was was for one game in Atlanta, and helped the Pistons win the NBA Championship that year. There was no two ways to argue it – the Hawks just plain sucked by now. By 2005, they had the worst record in the NBA, and they didn’t look like they were going to turn around anytime soon because they kept blowing their prime Draft picks on deadweights.
Relief, thy name was Joe Johnson. The Hawks made a trade with the Phoenix Suns that got Johnson to Atlanta, and he didn’t some cheap: Boris Diaw, whom the Hawks sent to Phoenix directly, was a useful fella who was good for 13 points per game. But the centerpiece of the trade that had Phoenix drooling was probably getting to own the two first round draft picks the Hawks ALSO sent there. Johnson started a career-defining stint in Atlanta, and two years later, the team selected Al Horford with the third selection in the Draft. Horford made the All-Rookie First Team, and the Hawks suddenly looked respectable again. In the middle of the 2008 season, they traded for Mike Bibby. While that season saw them finish at 37-45, they still got into the playoffs for the first time since 1999, and all things considered, they were also starting to show some real signs of improvement. Although they couldn’t get past the first round, they did manage to push the eventual Champion Celtics to seven games. In 2009, the Hawks managed to win 47 games for their first winning season since – you guessed it – 1999. In the playoffs, they won their first series since that same year. The Cleveland Cavaliers pounded them in the second round, but now the Hawks looked like they really had something to build on.
In the later half of the aughties, the Hawks were making the playoffs every season. They even managed to make hopeful runs in the playoffs on a few occasions. Unfortunately, the good times looked like they were about to end in 2012 when the Brooklyn Nets traded a ginormous bounty to Atlanta for Johnson. While they did make a trade with Utah for Devin Harris that same day, losing Johnson’s firepower looked like it would hurt. The Hawks battled through the season, though, and managed to post 44 wins and make the playoffs again. They were in and out at the hands of the Indiana Pacers, but their best move was yet to come.
This was something that started in 2012, when the Hawks hired Danny Ferry to be both the President and the General Manager. That might not sound like much, but Ferry’s background was as the Vice President of the mighty San Antonio Spurs, who have been basically the most well-oiled machine in the NBA for the last two decades. So it should come as no surprise that in 2013, the Hawks would hire Mike Budenholzer – also a former Spur – as the new head coach. They also began stacking up talent: Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague, and Kyle Korver all signed over time. In the 2015 season, the Hawks saw the gelling of what they were building. Budenholzer was Coach of the Year as he guided Atlanta to 60 wins, which was the best in Hawks history. The team won its division and entered the playoffs as the top seed in their conference. In the playoffs, they dumped the Joe Johnson-led Nets and the Washington Wizards, punching their ticket to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time ever. Unfortunately, it was in the Conference Finals where they ran into the one team in the Eastern Conference capable of beating them: The Cavaliers of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love. While the Hawks were the class of the East that year, the Cavs still made short work of them, and rather easily at that; the series was a sweep. The Cavs went to the Finals. But the Hawks did rebound with a strong 48-win year to follow that up, and with two ex-Spurs helming them, they’re looking like they’ll have an open window for a few more years.
The Hawks have four retired numbers: Bob Pettit, Dominique Wilkins, Lou Hudson, and Dikembe Mutombo. Technically, they’ve retired the number of former owner Ted Turner – he’s honored among the retired numbers, but had no number to retire. The number of Pete Maravich is due to be retired very soon this season. Maravich is one of those players who comes with a mystique; if there was a sports equivalent to James Dean or Buddy Holly, it’s probably him. Maravich played in the NBA for only ten years, from 1970 to 1980, for the Hawks, Jazz (in both New Orleans and Utah), and Celtics. That was two teams at their most painfully helpless, followed by a year with Boston right when Larry Bird started to make them good again but being injury-forced to retire before they emerged. His impending number retirement in Atlanta will be his third – his number was already retired by both the Jazz and the New Orleans Pelicans, the latter of which Maravich never played for. He also died at the relatively young age of 40 of heart failure. He’s considered an influential player because many of those who played against him said he was the greatest ballhandler ever and arguably the greatest long-range shooter. His last year in the NBA was the year the league created the three-point field goal, and Maravich went 10-for-15 shooting for three. Dominique Wilkins goes without saying – he played in Atlanta for 12 years and was one of the league’s superstars. He had a sort of highlight rivalry with none other than Michael Jordan. Unfortunately, he never reached Jordan’s heights of greatness. Jordan had a better team surrounding him, and he was also famous for hating to lose more than anything else on the planet. Wilkins was more or less another one of his victims – the Bulls and Hawks weren’t really rivals. They played against each other in the playoffs only twice during the Michael and the Jordanaires era. And of THOSE series, Wilkins and Jordan only played against each other once – Wilkins was long gone when they tangled in the playoffs again. And that lone Wilkins/Jordan series came along when Wilkins was nearly at the end of his rope. The Bulls swept the Hawks.
If you look at a list of the Hawks’ coaches, you can’t help but notice just how many of them are legends someplace else. First, I mentioned Red Auerbach, who has a lot of boosters as the greatest basketball coach, anywhere, ever, and justifiably so. He lasted a year before becoming an icon for the Celtics. But from 1954 to 1957, the Hawks’ coach was another legendary Red: Red Holzman, who is still an icon in New York City for coaching the Knicks dynasty in the early 70’s. Then, right after Holzman was done, the Hawks turned one of the players on the team into a player/coach. That player was Alex Hannum, who would later turn up in Philadelphia guiding the 76ers team that broke up Auerbach’s hold over the league. Lenny Wilkens was a legend as both a player and a coach. Wilkens was the one who took the all-time victories record from Auerbach, but don’t let that fool you into thinking he was a better coach. Wilkens was a damn excellent coach himself, no doubt, but his victory record came about because he lasted longer than Auerbach. His coaching career took him through six teams, and he was in the league for so long that his coaching is defined by TWO of those teams. Atlanta, however, is one of them. (The other is Seattle, where he did two gigs totaling around 12 years. He was the coach of the 1979 NBA Champion Sonics team.) Finally, there was Hubie Brown, who won one of his two Coach of the Year awards with Atlanta.
There’s a very quirky aspect to the history of the Hawks. At this point, they’re definitely Atlanta’s team, over and out. You can’t even argue that anymore. Dominique Wilkins played in Atlanta. Joe Johnson played in Atlanta. Pete Maravich, Dikembe Mutombo, Mookie Blaylock, and Al Horford all played in Atlanta. But the Hawks have one of those weird Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers sports history timeline splits because of their history in St. Louis. For everything the Hawks achieved in Atlanta, they’ve never even managed to visit the Finals there. They got to the Eastern Conference Finals once, and despite having the best record in the conference that year, they were brutally dismantled by the Cavaliers there. All of their conference titles and their single championship were things that happened in St. Louis. Although you can point out that most of their better players and good records happened since their move to Atlanta, that’s mostly because of their longevity there – the St. Louis teams still had plenty of talent and accomplishments, especially for a team that didn’t last for even 15 years. Hell, Bob Pettit and Dominique Wilkins are the only two Hawks to ever make the All-NBA First team. Pettit made it almost every year in St. Louis, but Wilkins only made it once in Atlanta. When you adopt a team, you usually don’t do it with history in mind, but in a few cases, it’s still something to consider. When a team won one championship ever in a place that it’s not currently in, you may want to consider it.
I love to write about team traditions and identity, but those seem to barely be applicable to the Hawks. Don’t get me wrong here; the Hawks have a whole lot more of both of those than Atlanta’s NFL team does. They command a certain amount of respect, and the fans seem to be more attached and devoted to the Hawks than to the Falcons. But that doesn’t mean it’s a whole lot. They seem to be a team of contradictions: Flashy but inconspicuous, successful but not championship-caliber, storied but ahistorical. An adopting fan could certainly do a lot better… But then again, they could also do a lot worse.
Uptempo style is never boring; often an underdog and great dark horse pick; a generally reputable and respected team which doesn’t come with a bandwagon stigma; are identifiable despite lack of success
Could easily be mistaken for Atlanta’s NFL team; most of their greatest achievements happened in another city; have a bad habit of either choking or just not being good enough – their 2015 visit to the Eastern Conference Finals was their only playoff run that lasted beyond the second round in Atlanta
Should you be a fan?
Well, why shouldn’t you? They’re not a bad team to pick. They offer a nice chance of success and a respected identity without the enmity. Just don’t expect the country to fawn over them come that elusive title.