The franchise was formed in 1946 as the Tri-Cities Blackhawks (named after Tri-City native Black Hawk) of the National Basketball League; it was based in the tri-city area between Moline, Illinois, Rock Island, Illinois, and Davenport, Iowa (now called the Quad Cities). Some sources state the team started the 1946-47 NBL season as the Buffalo Bisons and relocated to the Tri-Cities early in the season. When the NBL merged with the Basketball Association of America to form the National Basketball Association, the Blackhawks reached the playoffs in the NBA’s inaugural year, under the leadership of coach Red Auerbach.
However, the following season, after the team drafted Bob Cousy and made the blunder of trading his rights to the Chicago Stags (who would later surrender him in a dispersal draft to the Boston Celtics after they folded), they failed to qualify for the postseason. In 1951, the franchise relocated to Milwaukee, Wisconsin and became the Hawks. In 1953, the Hawks drafted Bob Pettit, a future NBA MVP. Despite this, the Hawks were one of the league’s worst teams, and in 1955 the Hawks moved yet again, this time to St. Louis, Missouri.
With acquisitions in the draft and free agency, the Hawks became one of the league’s top teams. In 1957, the team advanced to the 1957 NBA Finals, losing to the Boston Celtics in a double-overtime thriller in game seven. In 1958, the Hawks again advanced to the NBA Finals under coach Alex Hannum and captured their only NBA Championship in game 6 against the Celtics.
The Hawks remained one the NBA’s premier teams for the next decade. In 1960, under coach Ed Macauley, the team advanced to the Finals yet again, but lost – again to the Celtics – in yet another game seven thriller. The following year, with the acquisition of rookie Lenny Wilkens, the Hawks repeated their success, but met the Celtics in the Finals again and lost in five games.
The next few years the Hawks remained contenders, every year advancing deep into the playoffs and also capturing several division titles. Despite the success, owners of the team became wary of the aging Kiel Auditorium and wanted a new arena to increase revenue; they were however rebuffed by the city on several occasions. In 1968, the team was sold to new owners, Atlanta real estate developer Tom Cousins and Georgia governor Carl Sanders and moved to Atlanta, Georgia. Cousins’ firm developed the Omni Coliseum, a state-of-the-art downtown Atlanta arena, for the Hawks and the expansion Atlanta Flames hockey franchise, which opened in 1972 as the first phase of a massive sports, office, hotel and retail complex, most of which is now the CNN Center.
The years after the move showcased a talented Hawks team, including Pete Maravich, and Lou Hudson. However, after this period of success, the Hawks experienced years of rebuilding. The rebuilding process appeared to be the right direction when they ended up with the 1st and 3rd picks overall in the 1975 NBA Draft. However, it took a turn for the worst when draft picks David Thompson and Marvin Webster both signed on with ABA franchises.
In 1976 Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner bought the team and hired Hubie Brown to become head coach. In 1980, the Hawks team finished with 50 wins and won the Central Division. In 1982, the franchise acquired superstar Dominique Wilkins and promoted Mike Fratello to head coach a year later. From 1985-89, the Hawks were among the league’s elite, winning 50 games or more each season. However, the team could not advance past the semifinals of the Eastern Conference playoffs. After several seasons of mediocrity, Lenny Wilkens was hired as coach in 1993. In the 1993-94 season, coach Wilkens led the team to 57 victories, tying a team record. However, the team fell short again in the playoffs, losing to the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern semis in six games. The season was also marred with the trading of Wilkins, who remains the franchise all-time leading scorer for Danny Manning, who quickly left via free agency to Phoenix after the season ended. The trade was a public-relations disaster for Hawks management as ticket sales and overall interest waned without its superstar; in fact, it still sours many Hawk fans to this day. In 1995, coach Wilkens broke the record (previously held by former Hawk coach Red Auerbach) for most victories by an NBA head coach with victory number 939. Despite a couple of 50+ win seasons afterward, the Hawks were quickly ousted from the playoffs on both occasions, which led to further apathy by local fans who quickly grew accustomed to Hawk failures in the playoffs.
In recent years, the Hawks yet again have become one of the league’s worst teams, mainly because of horrible personnel moves made by the front office in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. In March 2004, the team was sold to a group of executives by the name of Atlanta Spirit LLC by Time Warner (who inherited the Hawks and Braves upon its merger with Turner Broadcasting in 1996), along with the Atlanta Thrashers pro ice hockey team, with which the Hawks share the Philips Arena. After the change in ownership, though, the Hawks still struggled. In the 2004-05 season, the Hawks gained the notorious reputation of the league’s worst team with a mere 13 victories (five less than even the expansion Charlotte Bobcats and the struggling New Orleans Hornets). Despite their league worst-record, though, the Hawks only landed the number two pick in the 2005 NBA Draft (the first pick went to the Milwaukee Bucks). With the second pick in the 2005 NBA Draft, the Atlanta Hawks selected Marvin Williams of the University of North Carolina. Marvin Williams was considered at the time to be the player with the most potential and marketablity of the draft class despite other talented and more accomplished players being available, such as Chris Paul and Deron Williams. Additionally, the Hawks also drafted Josh Childress and Josh Smith from the 2004 Draft, Salim Stoudamire in the second round of the 2005 Draft, and had nearly $25 million in cap space for 2005 free agent market.
However, despite the recent influx of talent acquired in the draft, they still hold the longest drought of not drafting an All-Star or Pro Bowl player in North American pro sports (23 years), going back to their 1984 selection of Kevin Willis. In the summer of 2005, the Hawks completed a sign-trade deal with the Phoenix Suns that landed Atlanta Joe Johnson in return for Boris Diaw and two future 1st round picks. They also signed Zaza Pachulia from the Milwaukee Bucks. These changes occurred after an apparent power struggle between the owners for nearly three weeks before the moves were made. Unfortunately, while the power struggle over Johnson has been resolved, the ownership situation remains in flux, with ligitation still ongoing.
As of 2006, the Hawks have shown some moderate improvement. Even with the league’s 4th worst record, during the 2005-06 season they still managed to triumph over the then-defending champion San Antonio Spurs, 94-84, and also defeated the Detroit Pistons while the latter had the league’s best regular season record.
The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors (12 in a row) in terms of the most consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance with seven in a row (see Active NBA non-playoff appearance streaks). They also hold the dubious distinctions of not advancing beyond the second-round of any playoff format since 1961 and the longest run of not winning an NBA title (49 years).
With the lack of success in the playoffs, and most recently, the regular season, along with often dubious decisions by the front office in terms of the draft and free agency, and the ever-embarrassing episodes in court over ownership of the franchise has greatly contributed to the fact that the team is constantly at or near the bottom of the league in home attendance. While many local and national columnists continue to barrage the city of Atlanta for its lack of fan support (for example, the sight of seeing an Atlanta Braves home playoff game with lots of empty seats is not uncommon despite the team only winning one world title in 14 consecutive playoff appearances), many longtime fans point to the lack of success on the court and the league-wide perception that they remain years away from being competitive as a reason to stay away from Philips Arena.
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