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Relocated NBA Teams: The St. Louis Hawks

Between 1955 and 1968, the Hawks franchise was based in St. Louis and was then known as “St. Louis Hawks.” The team had begun in 1946 as the Tri-Cities Blackhawks and then spent three seasons (1951/52-1954/55) in Milwaukee before owner Ben Kerner moved the team to St. Louis. The Kiel Auditorium was their home stadium during their time in St. Louis but they occasionally played at the higher-capacity St. Louis Arena.

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The move to St. Louis heralded a period of success for the team after having been rooted to the bottom of the table during their years in Milwaukee. During their 13 year stint in St. Louis , they only failed to make the playoffs a single time. They reached the NBA Finals 4 times, winning once. They also reached the conference finals ten times and were crowned division champions six times. Their sole NBA championship came in 1958. They had reached the Finals the previous year but fallen to the Boston Celtics by 4 games to 3. In winning the 1958 championship, they avenged their loss to the Celtics, with Bob Petit putting in a performance to remember. In game five, which proved to be the title decider, Petit scored a playoff record 50 points to secure the only NBA championship for the Hawks. They would face the Celtics twice more in the 1960 and 1961, losing both, with the Celtic’s Bill Russell in unstoppable form. That stint between 1957 and 1962 is unquestionably the most successful period for the Hawks but also the most painful due to the near misses of 1957, 1960 and 1961. In 1967/68 the team posted their best regular season record 56-26, finishing first in the division but ironically they were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the San Francisco Warriors.

Bob Petit was the shining star for the Hawks. Signed as a rookie during the team’s last year in Milwaukee, Petit became the first winner of the NBA MVP award during the 1955/565 season. Over the next decade, he would be an important fixture in the team’s forward line, consistently finishing among the best scorers in the NBA. In 1956 the Hawks made perhaps one of the biggest blunders in NBA draft history. Their second overall draft was none other than Bill Russell. Russell had just completed college at the University of San Francisco where he had led the Dons during a two seasons unbeaten run with his unique defensive ability. Boston Coach Red Auerbach had been a big admirer of Russell and negotiated a deal to get Russell from the Hawks in exchange for Cliff Hagan and Ed Macauley. Hagan and Macauley were themselves decent players and were phenomenal to the Hawks in the few years that followed. However their contributions fade when compared Russell around whom the most successful dynasty in NBA history was formed in subsequent years.

Their star player was Bob Petit.

Why the St. Louis Hawks Relocated

The Hawks were by no means a dismal team and were in fact one of the best teams in the NBA during the 50s and early sixties. However, their early success in a way contributed to their financial decline. In the latter years of their St. Louis stay, the Hawks saw fan attendance fall steadily as they failed to scales of previous years. This was further complicated by the sorry state of the Kiel Auditorium. The three-decade old arena which only seated 10,000 people was crumbling and the team needed a new home urgently. Some home games, especially against big opponents were played at the higher capacity St. Louis Arena but a permanent move there was out ruled because it was poorly maintained and in any case had new permanent tenants in the form of the NHL’s Blues by 1967. Kerner’s attempts to get the city of St. Louis to build a new stadium for the Hawks were rebuffed by officials and eventually, he sold the team to Atlanta based real estate moguls Tom Cousin and Carl Sanders. The new owners moved the team to Atlanta and renamed it the Atlanta Hawks. Despite hosting successful NFL and MLB teams in the form of the Rams and the Cardinals, the city of St. Louis is yet to see a return of NBA action since then. One journalist famously quipped that there would be a Starbucks on the moon before another NBA team comes to St. Louis. Nevertheless talk of an expansion or relocation team has been rife in recent years and St. Louis fans hope this comes true so that damning prophecy never comes to fruition.

St. Louis Hawks Notable Players

Richie Guerin G 1963-1967
Bob Pettit F 1955-1965
Cliff Hagan G 1956-1966
Slater Martin G 1956-1960
Lenny Wilkens G 1960-1968
Ed Macauley F 1957-1959
Clyde Lovellette C 1958-1962
Al Ferrari G 1955/56, 1958-1962
Chuck Share C 1955-1960
Clyde Lovellette C 1958-1962
Lenny Wilkens PG 1960-1968
Zelmo Beaty C 1962-1968
John Barnhill G 1962-1968
Bill Bridges C 1962-1968
Richie Guerin G 1963-1967

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