In his seat at midcourt, feet stretched out to the raised floor, Ben Kerner watches his St. Louis Hawks. As Lenny Wilkens brings the ball upcourt, Kerner tilts his face to the scoreboard, and his eyebrows seem to pull his eyes up after them. His face is constructed that way, in a delicate balance; when one feature moves, it triggers another. Photographers are fascinated by it. When his mouth curls up and he says something like, "Ya follow me?" his eyes automatically shut. The score confirmed, Ben returns to the action and lights another cigarette in the chain. Off season, he smokes hardly at all.
This is Kerner's 21st year in the game, on a serpentine route from Buffalo to Tri-Cities (now Quad Cities) to Milwaukee to St. Louis. A bachelor, carrying the franchise as salesmen do Samsonite, changing coaches as others do TV repairmen, Kerner's life has been a series of skirmishes, and he has never escaped his early image. A cagey hustler, he was called, a cutrate Sol Hurok who would always be around, promoting, as long as there was another city in the Midwest and the Harlem Globies could be brought in for a prelim. Today the St. Louis franchise is worth something like $3 million—all Ben's—and the Hawks are off on an 11-1 tear, with a commanding lead in the Western Division. And Kerner is still promoting. His latest stunt has been so effective that Advertising Age decided to keep Madison Avenue abreast of developments. What Kerner is doing is giving away every seat in the house for the San Diego game this Sunday. He bought full-page newspaper ads to announce it, and the Hawks were swamped with 45,000 requests for the 10,000 seats. "Distributing free tickets is not an easy problem," says Kerner, in the nasal voice that suggests a poor Jimmy Cagney imitation.
Still, despite the evidence of continuing, hard-earned success, despite the fact that his teams win and that he makes money in the shabbiest arena in the NBA, he is regularly dismissed as an oldtime nickel-dime cigar smoker. He is given credit, grudgingly, only for being a dodo with unusual powers of survival.
In another time, when brash acumen and ambition were prized characteristics, Kerner would stand as a proud symbol, Horatio Alger. But in sports today, with the spiffy municipal arenas and hot TV money, the guy who once scrambled for a buck in the dance halls of an earlier era is held in a kind of sneering tolerance by the new gentleman owners. Kerner is likely the last of his species. Now the owners buy in at the top, and the occupation is a pastime.
The success of Kerner's team is also contrary to modern-day programming. The Hawks do not even have a superstar (last year's leading scorer, Lou Hudson, may someday earn that status, but he is now a soldier). They win with hustle, cunning and brawn and are rewarded with anonymity. The coach is Richie Guerin, who succeeded to that precarious station on Dec. 27, 1964. There had been 10 before him in 12 years but now, amazingly, Guerin is "the dean of NBA coaches." The lesson, perhaps, is that even Henry VIII eventually would have found The Right One if he'd been as choosy as Ben Kerner.
Guerin and the team have prospered despite an unusual number of injuries and a succession of player retirements (Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagan, Richie Guerin). This year's version of Coach Guerin, the one in winged-tip loafers, is hardly different from last year's sneakered model, when he was still part of the act on the court. He is respected and appropriately tough, not the least bit shy, as the Hawks say, about "hitting you in the hip" with a fine.
There is a change in the team, however, because of Guerin's absence as a player. His departure, after Pettit's and Hagan's, resulted in a complete overhaul of the team's style. Whereas for years St. Louis played pattern ball, setting things up for the reliable but slow front line, it is now a running, pressing team. The Hawks take more shots than ever before. Wilkens, Joe Caldwell and Zelmo Beaty are averaging around 20 points a game and the other three regulars are also in double figures. This has not led to neglect of the traditionally tough defense. Indeed, the press has aided it.
Wilkens, a crafty apparition, is the conductor of the attack. Just turned 30 and recovering from two seasons of foot injuries, he bridles at talk that he has slowed down. Since his two backcourt partners—Dick Snyder and Caldwell—are both converted forwards and not proficient ball-handlers, Wilkens' good health is essential to St. Louis success. Among his massive teammates, Wilkens looks rather like the coxswain of an imposing crew, and he runs things with the same authority, calling plays in an unhurried, conversational voice.
"It was hard to break away from pattern ball after so many years," Wilkens says. "With Richie, we couldn't run, and I also think at times there was a subconscious feeling that we all had to give up the ball to the coach when he was in the game. It wasn't a serious thing, but it was there sometimes. For instance, I'd take the ball out, and while maybe my instinct would be to look quickly upcourt, I'd just naturally turn and give it to Richie."
The voice at the other end of the court is Wilkens' roommate and loyal pinochle partner, Beaty, The Z. He is a constant guide on defense, talking his teammates through picks and screens. At 6'9", Beaty is acknowledged the best center in the league after the big three, Thurmond, Chamberlain and Russell. Small in that company, Beaty must go to the high post a lot, depend more on guile and mobility, and try to lure the giants outside.
"They ask me sometimes," he says, " 'why doesn't The Z get more rebounds?' They forget, I'm often 15 feet away from the basket when the shot goes up."
With Wilkens and Beaty, the Hawks, as they say in baseball, are strong up the middle. The flanks are protected by the big forwards—Bill Bridges, a handsome, sturdy man, who achieved All-Star status last season when he was fifth in the league in rebounding; and Paul Silas, thinner now but no less babyfaced, who averages more rebounds per minute played than any other forward in the league. For more speed, Caldwell is the swing man up front. Cheating a step or two on defense the way Frank Ramsey once did, he surely leads the league in breakaway layups. The others accept his facility for this glory job and generously assume the more onerous task of defensive rebounding.
Such an intelligent, agreeable sharing of responsibility and credit is visible in every effort of the Hawks. The victories have been too close and the schedule too easy so far for anyone to assume they can keep up the pace but their ability to shift attack and defense to take advantage of changing situations will always help them.
Here they are against Cincinnati last week. Snyder quickly takes his smaller guard into the pivot for the easy turnaround jump. Next the Hawks clear a side for Caldwell to go head to head against a weak defender. Silas enters, and Wilkens directs the flow underneath, playing to the muscle. The Royals' center is in foul trouble; the Hawks promptly start moving the ball inside to Beaty.
Or the night before, against Baltimore. A Hawk press flusters the Bullets; Wilkens turns the helter-skelter game into cool baskets at his end. Now back to Beaty, for the Bullets' big men have fouled out. He puts in four in a row, and the Bullets start watching him more carefully. Quickly then The Z moves high. Bridges slips underneath with his smaller guard, and the play turns to him. A rookie is left with Wilkens. Now he calls his own number.
Kerner permits himself a contemplative smile as Wilkens slithers home. The crowd in seats distant from the floor prepares to leave. Kerner folds his collar back. When he moved to St. Louis, in 1955, Kiel Auditorium, a borrowed opera house, was a classy NBA showplace, third-largest in the league. Kerner added the scoreboard, helped finance the new floor and additional seating, and has supplied a team that has missed the playoffs only once.
But now Kiel is the smallest in the league, and Kerner is warning that he may abandon St. Louis. What he is saying is that it is not Kerner the times have passed by.