For the last 35 years, Marty Blake has been identifying top college and international talent as the NBA’s Director of Scouting. A former general manager of the St. Louis and Atlanta Hawks in the 1950s and ’60s, Marty will be sharing thoughts and observations from the road as he crisscrosses the country identifying top collegiate talent throughout the season leading up to the 2006 NBA Draft in June.
THE NBA PLAYOFFS – GREAT RIVALRIES FROM THE PAST
With the NBA Playoffs starting out with a bang, let’s step back and take a page from the past and go over the playoff battles of yesteryear.
The mid-1950s found the Boston Celtics and the St. Louis Hawks triggering the first big time rivalry. Adding mystique to the mix was the preseason trade that saw the Hawks trade their first round choice (Bill Russell) to the Celts for veteran hometown St. Louis hero Ed Macauley and the rights to former Kentucky All-American, Cliff Hagan.
Ironically, despite his many All-American honors and his two NCAA titles while playing for the University of San Francisco, Russell was not the top pick in the 1957 NBA Draft.
Rochester had the top selection and chose Sihugo Green of Duquesne University, who upon reporting to the Royals that year, was called up to military service and spent two years in the army. So much for immediate availability, which was the so-called reason Rochester took Green. They did not want to wait two months for Russell to return from the Olympics.
Boston dispatched Syracuse in three straight Eastern Division games to reach the Finals while the Hawks, coached by veteran forward Alex Hannum, had a much harder road to travel.
That spring, Fort Wayne, St. Louis and Minneapolis each tied for first with identical 34-38 records.
The Hawks, having played a neutral court game the night before in Milwaukee, their former home, had to travel home early on the morning of March 14 to play Fort Wayne in a noon game in the only building available, the practice gym of St. Louis University.
The Hawks took command early and won 115-103.
Two days later, St. Louis hosted the Minneapolis Lakers at the 4,000 seat Washington University gym and beat them 114-111 to earn first place in the West.
I remember that game vividly since, after the win, the players proceeded to toss me in the Washington University indoor pool. I sank slowly to the bottom, weighted down by some $400 in coins from the program receipts from that game. Fortunately, center Charlie Share and guard Slater (Dugie) Martin jumped in and rescued me.
Slater told me later he realized I couldn’t swim.
After I dried off, I counted the program receipts and was short some fifteen dollars and change. Owner Ben Kerner asked me if we should call a team meeting to discuss what happened to the money.
I assumed he was kidding and never did.
The Lakers went on to beat Fort Wayne for second (131-127 and 110-108) and then we swept Minneapolis in three (118-109 and 106-104 at home and 143-135 at their place in double overtime). This was the first of two double overtime games the Hawks were to play in the playoffs.
The seven game Finals won by Boston was the opening salvo for both teams key battles to come in future years.
St. Louis beat Boston in the first of two there, in double overtime, 125-123, then lost 119-99.
The Hawks returned home for two – edging Boston 100-98 in the third game, but dropping the fourth game 123-118.
Two days later, the Celtics won on their home court 124-109, and the Hawks evened matters (again two days later) 96-94 at home.
The finale in Boston was to become a classic. The game went two more overtimes and with one second remaining Boston led 125-123.
The Hawks had to take possession under their own baskets having used all their timeouts. Player-coach Hannum devised a play whereby he would take the ball out of bounds and throw it the length of the court right above the Celtics basket. He drew up a screen for ace forward Bob Pettit at the top of the key, hoping Pettit could get the rebound and get off the shot – all within a second.
Hannum’s throw was on target…the ball bounded back to Pettit who tossed up a perfect shot only to see the ball roll around and around and drop off to the side.
The Hawks had won three games by a total of six points and the Celtics won four games by a total of 42.
The Finals would be even closer the following year.
A huge crowd greeted the Hawks upon their return to St. Louis that day.
A side note to the game:
As I approached the Boston Garden for the final game, Les Keiter, one of the top radio/TV announcers of that period, stopped me and asked “if I wanted to make 25 dollars.”
He said he was doing the radio broadcast of the game for CBS on a national broadcast (there was no television of the event) and needed a color man. Of course I accepted and off we climbed to the highest peak of the Boston Garden to our lofty perch alongside long-time Celtics play-by-play man, Johnny Most.
I never got the 25 dollars.
The two teams met again in the Finals in 1958.
Philadelphia beat Syracuse two out of three then lost to Boston in the Eastern Finals, four games to one.
Detroit ousted Cincinnati two straight then lost to the Hawks, again four games to one. The last two games were by scores of 145-101 and 120-96.
The stage was set. The Finals sold out in both cities – minutes after the tickets went on sale.
Opening in Boston, Saturday, March 29, the Hawks once again edged the Celtics 104-102 but were blown away the next day, 136-112.
Three nights later, April 2, the Hawks won 111-108 but Boston knotted the Finals at two apiece with a 109-98 win on April 5.
The series then moved to Boston where four days later, April 9, the Hawks won another thriller, 102-100.
The finale was equally exciting. The Hawks finally won it 110-109 as Pettit scored a game-high 50 points including 19 of the final 21 markers as he took charge of the win.
The final tallies show just how close the teams were.
The Hawks won their four games by a total of eight points while the Celtics won their two by a total of 35 points.
The rivalry was to continue into the next year but without the same result.
Boston edged Syracuse four games to three to make the Finals (after the Nats won two straight from Philadelphia).
Minneapolis knocked off Detroit in three then beat the Hawks four games to two in the Western Finals. The Hawks star point man, Slater Martin, suffered a near career ending leg injury which contributed to the defeat.
The Lakers edged the Hawks 98-97 for their third win (in St. Louis) and finished them off in Minneapolis the next day (March 29) at home 106-104.
Boston quickly dispatched Minneapolis in four outscoring them by 41 points.
A year later in 1959-60, the Hawks added Larry Foust and Clyde Lovellette at center and former number one NBA draft pick (1957) Sihugo Green to their mix and won their third straight Western crown.
Boston edged Philadelphia in six and the Hawks gained revenge for the previous year’s playoff loss to Minneapolis by slipping by the Lakers in seven games.
The Finals that year was a typical Boston-St. Louis war.
The Celts opened up at home blasting the Hawks 140-122 with the Hawks evening it up two days later, 113-103.
The series returned to St. Louis with Boston scoring a 102-86 win. The next afternoon, Sunday, April 3, the Hawks won 106-96.
Boston won going away at home 127-102 in Game 5. Then keeping with past nailbiters, the Hawks won at home 105-102.
Two days later at Boston, the tank was empty for the Hawks. The Celtics won in a breeze, 122-103. Slater Martin was to retire shortly after.
The battles continued next year, 1960-61.
Lenny Wilkens joined the Hawks as their top draft choice while Boston added Tom (Satch) Sanders.
The scenario remained the same.
Syracuse knocked off Philadelphia in three straight games but fell to Boston in live.
The Lakers, now in Los Angeles, beat Detroit three games to two, and then lost to the Hawks in the Western Finals for the second straight year, four games to three. Elgin Baylor averaged 34.8 to finish behind Wilt for the scoring title that year.
The Hawks had to win the final two games of that series to move up winning 114-113 in overtime in Los Angeles and 105-103 at home April 1.
The Hawks then had to play the opening game of the Finals the next day, April 2, in Boston and lost 129-95. They were to win only one game, at home April 8, 124-120.
A year later, injuries to centers Clyde Lovellette and Larry Foust, and the loss of Lenny Wilkens to the service saw them fail to make the playoffs for the first time since 1955.
The Celtics-Hawks playoff adventures were at an end.
The Los Angeles Lakers were to take the place of the Hawks in the Finals against the Celtics, setting another classic rivalry.
NEXT WEEK: The Lakers and the Celtics were to take over the Finals for five of the next seven years.