The Atlanta Hawks, peaking at exactly the right moment, have suddenly established themselves as very real contenders for the NBA championship. Their confidence is genuine, to the point that defeat would bring disillusion, not merely disappointment. Surely, it would hardly be smart for one to assume that the New York-Milwaukee winner in the East is home free. In fact, the way the Hawks have gone for the last month, Pete Maravich should have demanded a no-cut contract.
"I've always felt," says Bill Bridges, the Hawks' captain, "that the team that enters the playoffs with the fewest problems is going to win. Considering the problems we have had in the past, it is no surprise, in retrospect, that we didn't win." Considering this, too, it is no surprise that Los Angeles, forced into an entirely different kind of offense and defense to accommodate the return of Wilt Chamberlain, was struggling to survive in the first round against a second-year expansion team. The Phoenix Suns, led off the boards by Paul Silas and Connie Hawkins, surrounded Wilt. On offense the Lakers seemed almost befuddled by his presence. In contrast, the other real big man, Lew Alcindor, led his Bucks with dispatch past Philadelphia, four games to one. Wilt can take some solace from the fact that, just as NBA referees have always exercised a double standard where he was involved—permitting opponents to do everything but set dynamite charges to his ankles—so too are they trying to even things up by letting Alcindor's opponents assault him with impunity. "An Unseld or a Reed is going to beat Lew up worse than we did," 76er Center Darrall Imhoff said after the series. "If he thinks this was physical, wait till he gets to one of them."
Willis Reed, of course, is the one Alcindor now gets to. The league MVP, fortified with cortisone shots, brought New York home again over Baltimore, but this time it took seven games and everything the Knicks had. Reed had 36 points and 36 rebounds in the third New York victory but, overall, he and Wes Unseld fought to a standoff. The losers' Earl Monroe was the outstanding performer of the series, with shooting displays—against Walt Frazier—that were as remarkable as any playoff crowd ever witnessed. In the end, though, the Knick defense provided the margin of victory.
Atlanta, on the other hand, cut easily through Chicago in five games. The Hawks' one loss to Chicago was their only defeat in 11 games, going back to March 8, and their confidence is all the more impressive since it is fresh and can hardly be based on tradition. This is a team that has not yet won a playoff series from anything but expansion fodder since 1964. Besides, the Hawks are almost all somebody else's rejects, and they seldom receive individual acclaim. They tend to blur in the public mind since none was a fantabulous super-duper in college. Coincidentally, there is not a white hope among them.
In point of fact, the Hawks really were a dull team to watch for many years, being a clutch of burly plodders. "Those were your bodybuilding teams," says Joe Caldwell, his mandarin face split by a luminous smile. The Hawks obtained Caldwell in a trade with Detroit on Dec. 28, 1965 and, with hindsight, one can say that was the day the character of the team began to change.
If the Hawks have become fast and flashy, their record this year still was nothing special. Aside from a nine-game winning streak right after the start of the season, and the last six at the end, Atlanta was an aimless, losing club. The Hawks finished first in a division that had only one other team, Jerry West, over .500.
Atlanta's ineffectiveness was the result of Zelmo Beaty's jumping to the rival ABA. Jimmy Davis fell heir to Z's role, but, playing 35 minutes a game, he lost 12 pounds by February. More and more he had to yield the rebounding tasks to Bill Bridges, who, though only 6'6", finished as the fourth leading rebounder in the league.
Near the end of January the team had a meeting. There was nothing exceptional about this; the Hawks are forever having meetings. It could drive a player crazy if he didn't enjoy them—like the old joke about the wino who said he'd rather be a drunk than an alcoholic since alcoholics had to attend meetings. The Hawks will get together for almost any reason. They rely on a search for communal catharsis. "We believe in talking things over," Lou Hudson says. "We get rid of a lot of things that way."
Anyway, at this particular meeting, Caldwell and Walt Hazzard started pushing similar lines of thought—that the Hawks were falling back into their old deliberate ways. When they missed the break they were getting too involved in setting up everything just so for a particular play. Guerin agreed, and the Hawks turned to free-lancing.
Shortly thereafter, as the Feb. 1 trading deadline drew near, Guerin ran up a large phone bill in a Los Angeles motel. By the time he finished he had traded the rights to Beaty to San Francisco for what turned out to be Maravich and had acquired Center Walt Bellamy from Detroit for cash and an extra first-round pick the Hawks had that was originally Milwaukee's, via Phoenix. (That's correct.) In the draft this pick turned out to be somebody named Gary Freeman of Oregon State. Guerin's coup means that the Atlanta front line of Bellamy, Bridges and Caldwell was obtained by the surrender of John Barnhill, Shellie McMillon, Al Ferrari and Gary Freeman.
Bill Russell has often said that some games that Bellamy played against him were the best any man ever showed him, but Bellamy's inconsistency is implicit in that statement. His nadir was reached at Detroit, where he was literally not playing a full minute at the end of his stay, but since joining Atlanta he has performed with a vengeance. Not only has he given the Hawks what they hoped for—board strength and offense in the middle—but his passing off the high post has been a real bonus, and he has been scrambling and diving for loose balls like a rookie.
The Hawks have gone out of their way to welcome the big man. Davis, who was to be replaced in the starting lineup by Bellamy, stood up at a downtown fans' luncheon and said, "I just ask that you all will be as nice to Walter as you have been to me." It was a situation that, in essence, was to be duplicated a few weeks later when Hazzard, hearing on the radio that Maravich had been signed, got dressed and drove downtown to greet the young man who will be his well-publicized competition next season. Each move was in character, for the Hawks are a kind of diplomatic corps, or, more accurately perhaps, they resemble a group of U.S. Senators; they are strong-willed individuals, by nature independent types, but also capable of submitting themselves to the highest team discipline. "In my heart and soul," Richie Guerin says, confusing his perceptions a bit, "I've never seen a more close-knit team."
Among the Senators, Guerin is the majority leader, with Assistant Coach Gene (Bumper) Tormohlen his whip. Both are part of the team as well as over it since, in a transparent expansion-inspired subterfuge, both technically remain on the active list. Tormohlen has given up the pretense of a uniform, but Guerin does still dress, although the attire appears to trouble him occasionally. He regularly pulls down on the bottom of his shorts when he stands up, rather like a shy young beauty pageant also-ran who suddenly finds herself parading bare-limbed before a large assemblage. Guerin dresses off the court like his charges, too, and favors the tinted glasses that most of the boys in his band affect, but he is clearly the boss. "Goddammit," he recently began a friendly time-out, "sit down here"—lighting particularly into Hudson, who had just sunk a 20-footer.
Of the playing Senators, Bridges, the elder statesman, has always responded well to Guerin and is an obvious candidate to succeed as a coach himself. He rooms with Hudson, who resembles everybody's favorite younger brother. Lou is friendly, open, handsome, at 25 still unmarried. Caldwell is the balding blithe spirit with a voice that he has surely expropriated from Comedian Nipsey Russell, but he is also the team's player representative and is well cast as shop steward since he verges on ubiquity, on and off the court. Hazzard, the man in control of the floor, is by turns analytical and animated, philosopher and comic.
With Bellamy at center, every member of the starting five has played in an All-Star Game, though all have been overlooked in the final all-league voting. The Hawks themselves are reluctant to cite any one of their number as more equal than the others. Indeed, faced with naming someone to succeed Beaty as team MVP, Guerin gave up and had the trophy inscribed, simply, HAWK TEAM.
Nevertheless, if he is not the most valuable or the best or whatever, Caldwell is surely the fulcrum on which the Hawks turn. This is because his duties are so susceptible to change, and because his peculiar talents are the most difficult to replace. The Hawk game is so fluid and flexible that even when Hudson is off—and he is one of the best shooters alive—nearly adequate accommodations can be made, at least for a while. But Caldwell's value is elemental, as the Chicago series showed.
Spidery and tireless, able to dart and hover with equal facility, Caldwell is operationally similar to a LEM. Certainly he can land anywhere, and while he and Hudson have switched this year and he lines up as a forward on offense, this is mostly just a convenience to the scorer. Joe gained initial notoriety by perfecting the art of "cherry picking"—cheating downcourt at the last moment while on defense, and, steps ahead of the retreating opponents, taking a long pass (usually from Bridges) for an easy layup. But to continue to rate him primarily for this ability is to list Babe Ruth as a pitcher. "Joe is the best defensive player in the league," Chicago's Dick Motta said after one game last week, and that opinion is spreading. Guerin uses Caldwell—who is 6'5", 195—on the opponent's main offensive threat, guard or forward, though he would prefer having Caldwell on a guard because then Caldwell pressures the ball all over the court. "They all want to bring it up, work it up themselves, which is fine," Caldwell says, "but after a while they throw it up, they throw it up."
If his man doesn't have the ball Caldwell is so quick he can take great risks in overplaying to cut him off. And he is relentless. He tells the story on himself about the time he first played against Bill Russell. Caldwell was determined not to be intimidated by a reputation and, as a consequence of this bravado, he drove 10 straight times on Russell, which resulted in 10 straight blocked shots. "The next time I'm coming down the court, ready to go right at him the 11th time," Caldwell says, "and I pass Russell around midcourt. He looks over at me, and then he turns to Sam Jones and he just says: 'Who is that boy?' "
Against Chicago, Caldwell was put on Forward Chet Walker, the Bulls' leading scorer. Chet went an exasperating 14 for 36 in the first three games, all Hawk victories. In the fourth game Caldwell handled Walker with aplomb in the first quarter, but then Guerin shifted him to Guard Shaler Halimon when Halimon entered the game. Halimon had made 11 baskets in the third game, and had almost brought the Bulls back. Against Caldwell, Halimon took six minutes to get a shot off and went scoreless in 19 minutes of play. Walker, reprieved at last, went on to make 39 points.
Caldwell himself scored 38, and averaged 29 for the series after a 21-point season. "He's got to be the most underrated player in the league," Motta says. "I used to see him a lot when he was at Arizona State. I didn't think he'd make it then because he had no shot. He worked on that himself. But you have to give the outside shot to him. You can't play close on him, because he can go by anybody all night."
Because Caldwell—and the other Hawks—will cheat for the fast break, they have been vulnerable to opponents who get second shots through good offensive rebounding. But Atlanta has all its other flanks protected, and is a prime candidate to become the first Western team to win the NBA title since their ancestors, the St. Louis Hawks, won in 1958.
The players believe in that possibility with what borders on a kind of mysticism. Bridges, speaking carefully, trying his best to translate an emotion, says: "I don't exactly remember when it was, but suddenly it spread over us. It was something that I had never experienced before, and I can't describe it. But suddenly this feeling was just with us all and we knew we would win. We knew that. Even Walter Bellamy believes that now, and every day he believes, the better we are."