Alex Hannum | Spirit of The Champion

Alex Hannum

By Curtis Harris

From 1957 to 1969, the Boston Celtics won 11 of the NBA’s 13 championships.

Their dynastic domination featured two interruptions in 1958 and 1967. The man who stood as the strong-willed roadblock to their absolute domination of the NBA in this era was Alex Hannum. It was Coach Hannum’s St. Louis Hawks in 1958 that defeated the Celtics in the NBA Finals in six games. It was Coach Hannum’s Philadelphia 76ers in 1967 that swarmed Boston in five games in the Eastern Division Finals to end their streak of eight straight championships.

Those ‘67 76ers were clearly the pinnacle of Hannum’s coaching career leading the team to a then-record of 68 wins. But Hannum was a perennial success wherever he coached and was named one of the NBA’s 10 Best Coaches ever in the 1996-97 season.

Hannum coaching in the 1967 Eastern Division Finals. Longtime Nationals/Sixers forward Dave Gambee looks on as Wilt Chamberlain is kneeled over and Luke Jackson takes off his warm up jacket.

Born in Los Angeles, Hannum attended and played basketball for the University of South California during the 1940s. His college career, like many young men of the era, was interrupted by World War II. Hannum served over three years in the Marines before the war finished and he returned to college ball at USC graduating in 1948. His time in the Marines, however, would lead many of players in later years to refer to him as “Sarge” as he applied some of the finer points of military leadership to the basketball court.

Hannum’s professional career in basketball began inauspiciously as a player with the National Basketball League’s Oshkosh All Stars for the 1948-49 season. Averaging six points per game, Hannum helped Oshkosh reach the NBL Finals in 1949 where they lost to the Anderson Packers.

During the summer of 1949, the NBL and the Basketball Association of America merged to form the NBA that we know today. Oshkosh, however, was left on the outside of the merger and Hannum was picked up by the Syracuse Nationals as they joined the NBA. Hannum’s career averages were never particularly gaudy. The burly forward averaged six points and four rebounds per game over eight seasons with the Nationals, Rochester Royals, Fort Wayne Pistons, and Milwaukee/St. Louis Hawks.

It was in his final playing season with the St. Louis Hawks (1956-57) that Hannum found his true niche in pro basketball.

Playing for the Hawks in 1956, Hannum (#6) is about to receive the pass from Chuck Cooper versus the Philadelphia Warriors.

Clearly on his way out of the league, Hannum was tapped by Hawks owner Ben Kerner to coach the team for their final 31 games. As player-coach, Hannum led the team to a 15-16 record, but the record belied how he re-energized the club. In the playoffs, their sharper edge with Hannum came to bear. They swept through the Western Division Playoffs to the NBA Finals where they met the Boston Celtics. Today, we think of Boston as the dominating team of the era, but the 1957 Finals was the first time the franchise reached the NBA championship and Hannum’s Hawks could have easily been the NBA’s premier franchise of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.

The 1957 series was an all-time classic with Hall-of-Famers Bob Pettit, Slater Martin, Cliff Hagan, and Ed Macauley leading the Hawks against Boston’s cavalcade of stars including Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, and Bill Sharman. Game 1 went into double overtime and finished with a Hawks victory: 125-123. Game 7 had an identical 125-123 double overtime finish, but this time with Boston as the victor.

The heartbreaking loss was avenged the next season when Hannum’s Hawks defeated Boston in six games to win the NBA title. In that decisive Game 6, Pettit descended upon the Celtics with 50 points including 25 in the fourth quarter. The Hawks could have been a budding dynasty of their own behind Hannum’s coaching and Pettit’s talent, but a dispute with owner Ben Kerner led to Hannum leaving the club prior to the 1958-59 season.

Hannum (lower left) and the 1958 NBA Champion St. Louis Hawks.

In retrospect their parting seems inevitable. Kerner was constantly firing and dismissing coaches (16 different Hawks coaches between 1950 and 1966), while Hannum was a wanderer (seven different coaching jobs between 1957 and 1974 in the NBA and ABA) who loved his offseason construction business.

After a brief hiatus as a private citizen in southern California, Hannum returned to the NBA with the Syracuse Nationals as their head coach for the 1960-61 season. Hannum’s first coaching stint with the franchise was generally successful reaching the Eastern Division Finals in 1961. Although he left the franchise to move back to California in 1963, Hannum’s time helped him build relationships with Dave Gambee, Hal Greer, Chet Walker, and Larry Costello, all of whom would be important members of the 1967 championship 76ers.

As usual, Hannum didn’t miss a beat in finding his next coaching job. The San Francisco Warriors hired him on for the 1963-64 season.

That 1964 season, Hannum got the opportunity to coach Wilt Chamberlain for the first time. Under Hannum’s emphasis on a more egalitarian offensive flow, Chamberlain’s scoring average dropped from 45 points per game the previous season to 37 points. (Remember that’s low for Wilt back in those days). Meanwhile his assists increased from 3.4 to five per game. The Warriors under Wilt and Hannum reached the NBA Finals, where Chamberlain put on a spectacular display in his first trip to the championship round averaging 29 points and 27 rebounds a game against the feverish Boston Celtics defense of Bill Russell.

Hannum and Wilt Chamberlain at the 1965 NBA All-Star Game

The Warriors would lose to Boston in five games, but the next season didn’t see San Francisco consolidate their place as the West’s premier team. Instead, Chamberlain began the next season with pancreatitis, lost considerable weight, and missed training camp as well as the first five games of the season. Although he recovered physically from the ailment, Chamberlain’s relationship with Warriors owner Franklin Mieuli soured during the ordeal. With second-year big man Nate Thurmond on the roster, Mieuli decided to trade Wilt to the 76ers in early 1965 after the All-Star Game.

Hannum didn’t want to trade Wilt, but for now their partnership was put on hold.

Finishing the tumultuous 1965 season with a 17-63 record, the Warriors rebounded in 1966 with a 35-45 record behind the sensational rookie Rick Barry. Even with things looking up in San Francisco, Hannum was dismissed as coach. The reasoning was that Alex wouldn’t devote himself to the Warriors all 12 months of the year. Hannum, remember, had his construction business in southern California to attend to in the offseason.

According to Frank Deford of Sports Illustrated, Thurmond was devastated by Hannum’s loss: “I cried today when I found out about Alex. I love that man. He was so much a builder of men. He has a way with men. I played a lot of games this year with a lot of pain in my back. I did it for myself, for the Warriors and for my teammates. Mostly I did it for Alex. With the pain, I'm not sure that I could have done it for anybody else.”

Thurmond’s words were a testimony to the bond and trust Hannum could instill in a team. But Nate the Great’s loss would be Philly’s gain as Hannum signed on to be the 76ers coach for the 1966-67 season reuniting with Wilt.

Hannum observing the action in a 1967 playoff game. Matt Guokas is standing while Wilt Chamberlain, Luke Jackson and Hal Greer look on from the bench.

Hannum’s egalitarian style of offense and personable way of dealing with players unlocked the full potential of the 76ers. A Sports Illustrated article in 1967 featured rave reviews from players on the ‘67 team plus Hannum’s former Syracuse understudy Johnny Kerr:

“His colleagues hold his leadership, his philosophy, his technical approach and his general mastery of the art of coaching to be without peer. Nearly everyone in the NBA will start raving about Hannum at the mention of the name. Try [Larry] Costello: ‘I've never heard of anyone who didn't like Alex.’ [Chet] Walker: ‘Alex Hannum is the greatest thing that ever happened to us.’ Chicago Bulls Coach John Kerr: ‘He's a man's man. If you could pick a father, you'd pick Alex Hannum.’ Etc.”

The 76ers over the previous two seasons had finally asserted domination over Boston, at least in the regular season. When playoff time rolled around though, they would be flummoxed by the Celtics and their experienced cohesion under Bill Russell.

Hannum, the only man to have beat the Celtics in the playoffs since Russell arrived, firmly asserted Wilt as the passing focal point of the offense not as the primary scoring threat. The Big Dipper’s assist average surged to 7.8 that season while five teammates averaged between 13 and 22 points per game. Of course, Wilt still being Wilt, he averaged a “mere” 24 points a game, but did so shooting an astounding 68% from the field.

The use of Wilt as the primary cog of an offense that featured copious off-ball cuts and screens, allowed every Sixers player to lift each other to new heights and the team finished with an NBA record 68 wins. In the playoffs, they demolished the Cincinnati Royals and finally upended the Boston Celtics in the East Finals. In the NBA Finals, they had a hard-fought series against Hannum’s old club, the San Francisco Warriors. Still, they prevailed in six games over the Bay Area squad.

Hannum raucously rooting on his players in a 1963 Syracuse Nationals game.

The next season, the 76ers finished with the league’s best record (62-20) under Hannum, but a broken wrist suffered by Billy Cunningham plus the determination of the Celtics proved enough to prevent Philly’s repeat as NBA champs. The Sixers lost Game 7 of the East Finals by a score of 100-96 to Boston.

Unsurprisingly, Hannum again quickly departed a coaching job. Anxious to return to his native California, Hannum accepted a job as coach of the ABA’s Oakland Oaks for the 1968-69 season. In typical Hannum fashion he lasted there just one season, but in that one season he also led the Oaks to the ABA championship.

Hannum’s coaching career lasted five more seasons: two with the NBA’s San Diego Rockets (the forerunner of the Houston Rockets) and three with the ABA’s Denver Rockets (now the Nuggets of the NBA). Hannum retired from coaching for good in 1974 at age 50.

His remarkable career was belatedly recognized in 1998 with induction to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Even though Hannum is no longer around - passing away in 2002 at age 78 - his presence still resounds with the Nationals/76ers franchise. He spent two years as a player in Syracuse, three more years there as coach, and finally two years in Philadelphia leading them to their magical 1967 season.

Indeed, his former players still credit “Sarge” as the key ingredient that turned the 76ers from the NBA’s best regular season team of the period to perhaps the best team ever.