[More St. Louis Hawks. This article, published in the February 1981 issue of Basketball Digest, comes from St. Louis journalist Denis Harrington who remembers when the Hawks nipped the Celtics in seven games to give St. Louis its first—and only—NBA crown in 1958. Helping to remember the feat are none other than Hawks’ stars Bob Pettit and Cliff Hagan. Take it away, boys.]
Do you remember? It happened on April 12, 1958. Pandemonium reigned on Pine Street. And why not? The St. Louis Hawks had just won the world championship of professional basketball. Remember? It was that championship season.
It’s hard to believe that more than 22 years have flitted by since then. But the memory lingers on. And some people remember more vividly than others. Bob Pettit and Cliff Hagan are two such people.
“The thing that remains foremost in my mind was how close we [the players] were,” Pettit recalled. “We were close on and off the court. All of us were friends. We worked hard and laughed a lot.”
It’s the way Hagan remembers the situation, too. “We were about as close as any group could be, given our diverse backgrounds and upbringing,” he reminisced.
And Hagan remembers even more. “Ours was a team in transition,” he said. “We were a mixture of the old and the new, both in experience and style of play. The long jump shot was just catching on in the league and practically none of our players used it.”
He chuckled. “Why our guards [Jack] McMahon and [Slater] Martin didn’t have it in their repertoire. McMahon used a set shot primarily, and Martin either drove or put up a one-handed push shot. And [Charlie] Share, our center, was nothing like the jumping jacks you see today.”
Pettit put it this way. “As a team, we did not have great total talent. But we had great desire, drive, and enjoyed playing together.”
The Hawks finished the 1957-58 regular season schedule atop the Western Division standings with 41 wins and 31 losses. Detroit and the Cincinnati tied for second place, and the Pistons won the right to meet St. Louis in the Western finals.
Despite the presence of George Yardley, the NBA’s leading scorer, Detroit was no match for the high-flying Hawks. They went down four games to one and absorbed a record 145-101 pasting en route. Now St. Louis faced Boston in the championship round.
Needless to say, feeling ran high in the Hawk camp. “Playing the Celtics was always an emotional, thoroughly draining experience,” Hagan related. “If you remember, they just edged us in the playoffs the year before. It took a double overtime to do it in the seventh game.”
And Pettit also remembered. “You can’t come much closer than we did that year [1956-57]. We were looking forward to playing them again.”
Surprisingly enough, the Hawks made no special preparations for the big rematch. “We had our game, and they had theirs,” Hagan explained. “And besides, we knew each other’s limitations so well, nothing much new could have been done at that stage.”
Pettit added: “Oh, there were personal things you had to be aware of. For instance, [Bill] Russell was left-handed. So, if he went left, you had to play him tight. But if he went right, you let him have the outside shot and concentrated on boxing him away from the board. He was an outstanding rebounder.”
And Bob Cousy came in for special consideration. “Cousy was their leader and a tremendous full-court passer,” Pettit recalled. “He ran their fastbreak. And you couldn’t let Boston fastbreak or they’d blow you right off the court. So, our plan was to get the boards, shut off the run, and to keep things at an even pace.”
The task of holding Cousy in check fell to Slater Martin. And in Pettit’s opinion, he was a deciding factor in the outcome of the championship round. “Slater was right on him all the way,” he noted. “And except for a few instances, he shut him down pretty well. Held him to just 10 points in one game and 13 in another.”
Coach Alex Hannum would have the Hawks do the same things that had worked so well during the regular campaign. They were to stay with a set offense and take the fastbreak only as opportunity allowed. All of which meant, get the ball up front to Pettit and Hagan.
“I can’t begin to tell you how unselfish my teammates were,” Pettit said. “They would usually go to Cliff or myself. Underneath, Charlie Share was forever passing off to one of us and then picking your man, leaving us an open shot.”
He thought a moment before adding, “We were a good defensive team, too. You didn’t win an NBA title without being a good defensive team.”
Pettit and Hagan went about scoring in different ways. Standing 6-foot-9, Pettit muscled his way to the hoop for payoff shots. He also feasted on offensive rebounds. Hagan, on the other hand, was small for a forward at 6-foot-4. To compensate, he put up hooks shots with either hand and used an effective jump shot along both sides of the lane.
The championship series opened in Boston on March 29 before a national television audience and 13,652 fans in the Garden. It was a hard-fought, foul-filled contest. The Celtics led by as many as 11 points in the second period, but the Hawks fought back to trail by only 59-53 at the half.
Boston led 83-80 at the start of the fourth period. Hagan sank two free throws to tie the game at 84. With two minutes remaining and the Hawks ahead, 101-100, Pettit dropped in three points to ensure the win. Final score: St. Louis 104, Boston 102. Hagan hit 33 points and Pettit 30. But it was Hagan worming his way underneath for lay-ins and sinking “eye-opening hook shots” that spelled the difference.
On March 30, it was all Boston (136-112) in the second game. The Celtics made 13 of their first 24 shots and were never in trouble. Hagan scored 37 points. Pettit still shudders. “My only comment is,” he said, “they beat the starch out of us, and I thought the game would never end.”
Game 3 was played in St. Louis on April 2. The score was 49-49 at the half, but the Hawks finally forged ahead and won 111-108. Pettit got back on track with 32 points.
The Celtics evened the series at St. Louis on April 5 without injured Bill Russell. Frequently using Cousy in the pivot and artfully shuffling his players, Boston coach Red Auerbach directed his squad to an easy victory. Hagan led the Hawks with 27 points. Final score: Boston 109, St. Louis 98.
Back in Boston on April 9, the Hawks edged the Celtics, 102-100, in another down-to-the-wire contest. Pettit, Hagan, and Martin combined for 71 points.
On April 12 in St. Louis, the Hawks at last fulfilled their promise. Despite a furious last-quarter charge by the Celtics, they held on to claim their first and last world professional championship. Pettit scored a record 50 points. Final score: St. Louis 110, Boston 109.
Even today, Pettit holds the magic of the moment dear to his heart. “It was the highlight of my career,” he said. “Of all the games I played, that championship game meant the most to me. It still does.”
Hagan feels much the same. “Helping to win the championship was the greatest attainment of my professional career,” he said. “We each received a ring, and it’s one of my most-cherished possessions.”
April 12, 1958. Pandemonium reigned on Pine Street. The St. Louis Hawks had just won the world championship of professional basketball. Remember? It was that championship season.
[As nice as the remembering is in Denis Harrington’s article, it really doesn’t do justice to the heart-pounding drama of the decisive Game 7. I’m guessing that Harrington lacked the space to open up and wax adequately eloquent. You know the story: damn editors! So, let’s allow Robert Byrnes, the venerable St. Louis Globe-Democrat sports columnist from the late 1950s, do the honors. His memorable column ran on April 14, 1958.]
The Hawks were leading by three points, the clock showed just 17 seconds left to play, the Celtics had the ball, and Ben Kerner put his head in his hands.
This was the game for which he had waited for 13 years, a game which would put the team on top of the toughest basketball league in the world—and now, after the Hawks had led most of the way, after Bob Pettit had played perhaps the most-superb game any man had ever played on a basketball floor, the outcome was in doubt.
“This has to be it,” Kerner said. “We’ll never be this close again.”
The strategy was simple. The Hawks had to let somebody on Boston walk in for a basket, concede the two points for possession of the ball. The only thing that could hurt here was a foul in addition to the basket.
So, Bill Sharman rolled in untouched for the score. The Hawks had the ball with 13 seconds left. Slater Martin and Ed Macauley, a couple of tough old pros, made their way up to the center of the floor.
There is considerable doubt that the Hawks got the ball past midcourt in the allotted 10 seconds. There is equal certainty that the Celtics committed a half-dozen fouls trying to wrestle the ball away. The officials apparently figured that the only question then was possession of the ball, and they called neither side’s infractions.
But it was all over. Macauley let out a whoop and flung the ball 50 feet in the air. It was a big one for Easy Ed, too. He may be retiring, and he wanted to go out a champion. He did.
After that, it was a frenzy of excitement as players whacked each other and shouted and hollered. Over on the west side of the floor, friends and fans pounded Kerner on the back. Mayor Tucker fought his way through the mob with his close friend and Kerner’s legal adviser, Mike Aubuchon, to be among the first to offer congratulations.
Publicist Marty Blake, who had lived through the lean days with Kerner, raced across the floor and threw his arms around his boss, just screaming, “Benny, Benny, Benny.”
Upstairs in the dressing room, players were shouting and yelling—all except the greatest of the great, Pettit. Thoroughly spent, physically and mentally, Pettit sat on a stool, his head in a towel for almost 10 minutes—unmoving, unseeing, unhearing. For a moment, he didn’t recognize his own father, Robert Pettit, Sr., when he came by to offer congratulations. Then, he smiled wanly for the first time.
Dr. Stan London, whose deft treatment and knowledge of how an athlete feels had helped the Hawks all season, came by and cast a worried look at Pettit. He talked to him briefly, then nodded his head. “He’ll be all right in a few minutes,” Dr. Stan said. “He’s almost in a state of shock at the moment, but he’ll come out of it quickly. What a job he did.”
What a job everybody did, in fact.
This was a glory night. There’s nothing to compare with the excitement of cheering a champion. And the huge crowd was reluctant to leave the Auditorium. Hundreds of fans stood by the door through which the players would emerge. First to come out were where Bill Russell and Sam Jones of the Celtics. It was heartening to hear the sportsman-like St. Louis fans give them a great round of applause—and the cheers also for Sharman and Frank Ramsey, the next to come out.
Then the Hawks, reluctant to leave the celebration, started to filter out. First to appear was Cliff Hagan, then Charley Share and Coach Alex Hannum, all cheered roundly—and Jack McMahon and Macauley and Med Park and finally Pettit, revived at last.
It was a great night for Ben Kerner, a great night for Alex Hannum. They had their differences during the season, but we suspect they’re resolved now.
It was a great night for Hawk fans, for St. Louisans who had supported the team from the start and were rewarded in three years time with a championship squad. And it was Mike Aubuchon who supplied one good memory. “Remember,” Mike said, “a few years ago when we were losing teams here and the sports outlook was dim, some of us got together one day at the Ad Club to talk about it. I remember that Don Pyke said, ‘Someday, some man with vision will come along with faith in St. Louis and help us rebuild.’”
Don Pyke, one of the greatest believers in St. Louis, died the same month that Kerner was bringing his Hawks to St. Louis. They would have loved to each other.