Some blamed it on bad luck, others on old age. Some blamed it on one fast rookie, others on three slow veterans. Some blamed it on the forceful coach who was fired, others on the forceful owner who fired him. There was even a case for blaming it all on Khrushchev. But regardless of whose fault it is, it seemed quite plain last week—as they lost three games to teams they habitually had torn to tatters—that the once-mighty St. Louis Hawks, who have been shockingly and surprisingly dying since the National Basketball Association season began, aren't dying anymore. They are stone-cold dead.
How could a team that had won five consecutive Western Division titles and a world championship fall so far so fast, especially since its three most-publicized players were still available? The answer is logical, although it was unforeseeable. Two other players, skilled but unselfish, had made the Hawk machinery run. Without them, the team slowed down to a walk, as vulnerable in the fight for survival as the dinosaur. Indeed, the Hawks are now the dinosaurs of the NBA.
The St. Louis Hawks are the sole property of the wiliest and most successful promoter in the NBA, astute Ben Kerner. He rules them paternally or tyrannically, depending on the point of view. He brought the team to St. Louis from Milwaukee in 1955, at which point he didn't have enough money left from 10 years of losing basketball to buy shoe-laces for their sneakers. That first year in St. Louis the Hawks made $6,000. Since then they have earned Ben Kerner a net profit of more than $1 million in a league where owners congratulate themselves when they break even.
An excellent trader, Kerner built a winning team and sold it with spectacular imagination. This year, for example, his promotions will cost $60,000, a total most NBA teams wouldn't spend between now and doomsday. The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra played after one Hawk game this year. Jazz trumpeter Al Hirt will give a concert after another. A bowling tournament and rock 'n' roll dance are scheduled, and Count Basie will play at the annual "victory party," an ill-named affair that was arranged before the season started. "We'll hold it anyway. The fans deserve it," said Kerner recently. "Maybe we won't invite the players."
Kerner's most subtle and important promotion, however, concerned the Hawks' high scoring front line, Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagan and Clyde Lovellette. He ran a contest to get a name for them, settled on "The Unmatchables," and soon had all St. Louis thinking they were unmatchable. And though, as one ex-player put it, "He changes coaches like dirty socks" (seven in seven seasons), there was no changing of The Unmatchables. An image had been sold and Kerner wasn't about to break it up, even though he knew it had flaws.
"Yes, I built an image," said Kerner in his office last week, his face contorting in exquisite anguish as he talked of his troubles. "And rightfully. They are good players. They won me five division championships. Can I knock that? But these days you must have superstars in basketball. These players aren't superstars and they never were, no matter what people thought.
"So now people come to me and they say, 'What's wrong? Hagan can't play defense. Lovellette can't run. Pettit can't handle the ball. What's happened?' Nothing has happened. You think Hagan could ever play defense? You think Lovellette was ever a Carry Back? Last year we were fining him $25 every time he didn't get back to mid court. Those three are playing as well today as they did when we won. Maybe better. Other things have happened."
The "other things" were obvious. First, by winning, the Hawks were always drafting next to last, thus missing out on the Robertsons, Baylors and Wests who were greatly strengthening the competition. Second, the Hawks have always had to have a good ball handling guard to get the ball up to the big three. When the team was losing in 1956 Kerner gave up a fine talent, Willie Naulls, to get Slater Martin, who was just such a guard. With Martin they won. When Martin retired the Hawks got Lennie Wilkens, who teamed with John McCarthy to do the job last season.
"So comes East Berlin West Berlin," says Kerner, "and they keep Wilkens in the Army. Then everybody finds out what Cincinnati learned late last year, and we are in trouble."
Cleo, the unready rookie
What Cincinnati discovered was that the Hawks could be consistently beaten with a combination of a pressing defense and a fast break offense. "It's a wonder the league didn't find it out three years ago," says Kerner. "Sometimes I think we did it all with mirrors." But the Hawks might still have survived had not Paul Seymour, their coach, recognized their weakness and made two decisions. He decided a rookie, Cleo Hill, could be the answer to the guard problem, and that the Hawk offense must change, with more running by the big three and more set plays in which they would set up the guards for scores. Seymour was strategically right but psychologically wrong.
Hagan (31), Pettit (30) and Lovellette (33) couldn't have changed their style if they wanted to. What's more, Kerner didn't want them to. "They fill my house the way they play now [i.e., doing all the scoring]," he told Seymour bluntly. "So now I'll give you a secret," he said last week. "Sometimes you build a myth. Then you get to be the victim of your own promotion."
Four weeks after the season started, Kerner fired Seymour and hired the much-traveled Fuzzy Levane. Seymour had been right that skittery Cleo Hill was the most promising guard on the team, but he had tried to force Hill on the Hawks before Cleo or the team was ready. At one point he threatened a $100 fine for the next Hawk who didn't pass to Hill. Then an injury cost McCarthy for the season. With no first-rank ball handler to set them up, the front-liners were exposed as Kerner's "myth." What was apparent to Kerner in St. Louis was also evident on courts in three alien towns last week. Fuzzy Levane, not so much baffled by the team he had inherited as horrified by it, showed his concern before a big game against Detroit in Philadelphia. The Hawks may have to catch Detroit to make the playoffs. "We're too slow," said Levane grimly. "When we do run we can't handle the ball."
"All I know," said Pettit, who is playing his finest ball, "is I go out there every night feeling I've got to fight for my life." The Hawks fought furiously against Detroit, but the Piston backcourt broke the game open in the third period with the kind of guard scoring St. Louis can never get. That gave the Hawks their 27th defeat in 42 games. "I thought sure we'd win," said Larry Foust, subbing for Lovellette, who is now also injured. "We have a defeatist complex. Why? Hell. Put 10 human beings together and you've got 10 mysteries."
The next night at Syracuse, Levane came sadly out of the locker room after a pregame meeting. "I told them they've got to run, run, run," said Levane. "Then 1 looked at who I was talking to and I realized I might as well be talking to myself." He sounded like he knew in advance what the score would be. He did. The Nats' slick guard, Hal Greer, treated the Hawks like a Globetrotter toying with stooges. By the second half the Hawk attack had degenerated into nothing but outside shots. Woefully slow, their defense was negligible. They lost 134-122, and never looked worse.
Friday night in Boston the Hawks blew a 17-point lead in the second half to lose to those Eastern Division doormats, the New York Knicks. They were run to death, and a fast Knick guard, Al Butler, destroyed them. "A lot of people underestimate the value of the small man today," said big Bill Russell of the Celtics, who was watching. "They take the pressure off the big men."
Back in St. Louis the man who built the myth was surprisingly resigned. "The image has been destroyed," he said. "Now I can trade The Unmatchables. They'll understand. I made this team on deals, deals, deals. There isn't anybody who can fix it now but me."
Some year, maybe even next year, shrewd Ben Kerner will fix the Hawks. Meanwhile, to mark the time everything went wrong at once, Count Basie ought to dedicate a tune to troubled Ben at the coming "victory party." St. Louis Blues would be nice.