Friday, April 2, 2021

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame the St. Louis Hawks for Moving to Atlanta

The 1958 NBA Champion St. Louis Hawks

April 2, 1968: The San Francisco Warriors beat the St. Louis Hawks, 111-106 at the Grand National Livestock Pavilion -- a.k.a. the Cow Palace -- in Daly City, California, just south of the San Francisco city line. Despite 35 points from "Super" Lou Hudson, the Hawks were unable to beat the Warriors, who clinch this NBA Western Conference Semifinal, 4 games to 2.

The Warriors went on to lose the Western Conference Final to the Los Angeles Lakers, who lost the NBA Finals to the Boston Celtics. The Warriors became the "Golden State Warriors" in 1971, when they moved across San Francisco Bay to Oakland.

The Hawks never played under the St. Louis Hawks name again. Ben Kerner, who had founded the team in 1946 as the Buffalo Bisons, had moved the team to the Quad Cities region of Illinois and Iowa later that year, as the Tri-Cities Blackhawks; moved them again in 1951, to become the Milwaukee Hawks; and had moved them again in 1955, to St. Louis.
Ben Kerner

Now, after 13 seasons in the Gateway City, making the Playoffs in all but 1 of them, reaching the NBA Finals in 1957, '58, '60 and '61, and winning the 1958 NBA Championship, he has had enough. He sells the team to Tom Cousins and Carl Sanders, who moved them to Atlanta.

It's worth noting that the sale and the move had already been announced before what turned out to be their last game as a St. Louis team. Two days after that game, Atlanta native Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. If the sale had not yet been completed before April 4, I'm not sure if the NBA would have approved a move to MLK's hometown. It might have been, as a tribute.

The assassination was in Memphis, so if that had been the intended destination, it might have been denied. The American Basketball Association would later put a team in Memphis, but it was not taken into the NBA when the merger happened in 1976. The NBA would not have a team in Memphis until the Vancouver Grizzlies moved there in 2001.

Cousins was a real-estate developer, and he was planning on building an arena in downtown Atlanta. After 4 seasons at Georgia Tech's Alexander Coliseum, the Hawks moved into The Omni in 1972. They would remain there until 1997, when Atlanta's odd climate had rendered the arena unsafe. After 2 return years at Alexander, what's now the State Farm Arena was built on the site of The Omni.
Tom Cousins

Sanders had been elected Governor of Georgia in 1962, and was an ally of the Mayor of Atlanta, Ivan Allen Jr. Allen had led the construction of what became known as Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, which led to the move of baseball's Milwaukee Braves and the NFL expanding to include the Atlanta Falcons.
Sanders, late in life, long after
he'd returned to the private practice of law.
He was only 37 when he was elected Governor.

At the time, Governors of Georgia were ineligible for re-election, so Sanders couldn't run again in 1966, although he could sit out a term and run again in 1970, and did, but lost to Jimmy Carter.

Cousins and Sanders sold the Hawks to broadcast executive Ted Turner in 1975. That same year, Turner bought the Braves. He would succeed with CNN well before he succeeded with the Braves, and never did succeed with the Hawks. Turner had Cousins develop the CNN Center, in the same complex as The Omni. Kerner died in 2000. Sanders died in 2014. Cousins is still alive, age 89.

In their 1st 2 seasons in Atlanta, 1968-69 and 1969-70, the Hawks made the NBA's Western Division Finals, losing to the Lakers both times. They frequently made the Playoffs, and won regular-season Central Division titles in 1980, 1987 and 1994. But they missed the Playoffs 8 straight seasons from 2000 to 2007. In 2015, they won the Southeast Division and reached the Eastern Conference Finals, their only round-of-4 berth since 1970. But they've missed the Playoffs the last 3 seasons.

In other words, the Hawks have had only very limited success in Atlanta. At least competitively, they were better off in St. Louis. So, was the move a mistake?

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame the St. Louis Hawks for Moving to Atlanta

5. They'd Already Been Moved. The franchise had just completed its 22nd season, and was moving to its 5th city: Buffalo, Quad Cities, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Atlanta. Outside of the last 2 cities, this move was not a big deal.

4. The Arena Situation. The Kiel Auditorium, named for former Mayor Henry Kiel, had been the Hawks' home since they moved to St. Louis in 1955. Like the Philadelphia and Baltimore Civic Centers, Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall, the Cincinnati Gardens, and many other arenas of that era -- Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto had been like this, but that was no longer the case -- its seats were in a horseshoe shape, with a stage at the open end.
The Kiel Auditorium

It opened in 1934, built in the Art Deco style, had never been modernized, and seated only 9,300 people. Ben Kerner had occasionally had Hawks games moved to the St. Louis Arena (sometimes spelled out in full, as "Saint Louis Arena"), nearly twice as large. But the Auditorium was more or less downtown, while the Arena was a few miles out, on the city's western edge. And it was even older, opening in 1929, and wasn't exactly in great shape.

It was being renovated, so that was a good thing. On the other hand, this was being done to accommodate the NHL's expansion St. Louis Blues, so there would now be far fewer available dates there.
The Saint Louis Arena

Kerner asked the City of St. Louis for a new arena. After all, it had just built Busch Memorial Stadium for the baseball Cardinals and the football Cardinals, and was funding the renovation of the Arena for the Blues. But the City would not budge.

He couldn't ask the County government, as St. Louis is an "independent city," not in any county. There is a St. Louis County, practically surrounding St. Louis City, but that would put the team further out. The State of Missouri wasn't willing to fund a new arena, either.

Going across the Mississippi River to East St. Louis, Illinois, was a non-starter: That city was already developing a reputation as a poverty-stricken, crime-ridden wasteland. A 1990 Time magazine article about it was titled "A City Without Bootstraps," and repeated a familiar joke about cities like that, including Detroit and Cleveland: The crime rate was finally going down, because there was nothing left to steal.

So Kerner looked to sell. He thought he found a buyer in 1967, a group willing to move the team to New Orleans, including future right-wing TV talk-show firebrand Morton Downey Jr. But the deal fell apart, and Kerner found the Atlanta group.

As I said, Tom Cousins was a real-estate developer, and he had the plan for The Omni. Whatever problems that arena had by the 1990s, in 1972, it was a step up from the Kiel Auditorium. The Auditorium was torn down in 1992, to make way for a new arena for the Blues. Now known as the Enterprise Center, it opened in 1994. The St. Louis Arena was demolished in 1999.

3. Atlanta. Once it was determined that the Hawks would move, Atlanta seemed like a good choice. In 1968, St. Louis had about 625,000, and was shrinking fast, due to "white flight." Atlanta had about 500,000, and it's still about that now. Today, St. Louis City has about half as many people as it did then, although the metro area has about 3 million people. But that's about half as many as Atlanta's metro area.
St. Louis, circa 1960

But it was more than that. In 1968, in spite of a new Busch Stadium and the Gateway Arch having recently opened, St. Louis felt like a city of the past. Atlanta felt like a city of the future. Or, to put it another way: Had Kerner sold the Hawks to someone willing to keep the team in St. Louis, it still might not have worked out, and they might have moved in the 1970s, anyway; while Atlanta would have gotten an expansion team in the next few years, or an ABA team that would have been taken into the NBA.

Elected Mayor of Atlanta in 1961, Ivan Allen Jr. was a businessman, and he understood that he had the chance to change the image of his City, and to help change perceptions of the State of Georgia and of the South itself. The city underwent its greatest construction phase since after its burning in the Civil War 100 years earlier. He built the Memorial (now the Woodruff) Arts Center, in effect Atlanta's version of Lincoln Center. He created MARTA, which reworked the city's bus system and built its subway. He also got Interstate 285, a beltway, a.k.a. "The O Around the A," built.

He got Atlanta Stadium (later Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium) built and, although it wouldn't open until after he left office, he worked with Cousins to get The Omni approved. This enabled the city to go from no major league teams when he took office on January 1, 1962 to 3 when he left on January 1, 1970. Within 3 years after that, the NHL would expand, and the Atlanta Flames were born. They weren't well-supported, though, and, after 8 years with Atlanta teams in all 4 major league sports, the Flames moved to Calgary in 1980.
Allen posing inside the stadium his Administration was building, 1964.
It opened in 1965, and hosted the Beatles
before the Braves or the Falcons.

More low-income housing was built in his 8 years than in the previous 30. He needed to do this to alleviate the concerns of local black leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King Sr., that he wasn't doing enough for the poor and was focusing too much on business, especially downtown -- a criticism since leveled at many urban mayors, black and white alike (including Newark's Sharpe James in the 1980s and '90s).

"It is wonderful to be idealistic and to speak about human values," Allen said, "but you are not going to be able to do one thing about them if you are not economically strong. If there is any one slogan I lived by as Mayor of Atlanta, that would be it."

So, with the concerns of both business and civil rights in mind, he brought the 2 concepts together. The day he was sworn in, he ordered all "WHITE" and "COLORED" signs removed from City Hall, and personally desegregated the City Hall cafeteria by dining with local black activists. He desegregated municipal hiring. He hired the city's first black firemen. He let it be known that black Atlanta policemen would be allowed to arrest white criminals. He desegregated the city's pools.

By January 1964, 6 months before President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, 14 Atlanta hotels had already desegregated themselves. Allen billed Atlanta as "The City Too Busy to Hate." That made the sports establishments stand up and take notice. 
2. Black and Blue. As I said, white flight meant that St. Louis City was becoming majority-black, while St. Louis County was mostly-white. Fewer white fans were willing to come into the city to watch basketball, the most black sport. But they were willing to watch hockey, the most white sport.

The fact that the Blues were good immediately -- the NHL's expansion structure meant that 1 of the 6 new expansion teams would make the Stanley Cup Finals in 1968, '69 and '70, and it was the Blues each time -- shouldn't have mattered, because the Hawks made the Playoffs in 12 of their 13 seasons in St. Louis, including 4 trips to the Finals, and a trip to the Conference Finals in their next-to-last season.

And since white fans had more money to spend than black fans, having an NBA team and an NHL team at the same time was bad news for the bottom line of the NBA team. If the Blues hadn't come, would the Hawks have stayed? Maybe not, although the St. Louis Arena would have been available for the Hawks more often. If St. Louis had been denied the NHL team, maybe the City would have gotten serious about building Kerner a new arena.

1. St. Louis Didn't Miss Them. The city is baseball first, every other sport second. They love the Cardinals, they support the Blues, and anything else is just a sidelight. They lost the football Cardinals in 1987 and the Rams in 2016. They haven't gotten an NBA team back, and only had one in the ABA (named "The Spirits of St. Louis") for 2 seasons. The threat of moving the Knicks to St. Louis in the 1996 film comedy Eddie was total fiction.

There's no major college football team within 100 miles of St. Louis. The Dome at America's Center, former home of the Rams, has twice hosted the Big 12 Conference Championship Game, but was a bad choice for it, partly due to geography: It's too far east for most of that league's schools. Saint Louis University has had a good basketball program for many years, but it's a "mid-major."

Losing the Hawks didn't hurt St. Louis the way losing the Dodgers hurt Brooklyn, losing the Colts hurt Baltimore, losing the Browns hurt Cleveland, or losing the North Stars hurt Minnesota. It looks like it didn't hurt St. Louis much at all. After all, when was the last time you saw someone on Twitter tell an Atlanta Hawks fan, "That team should go back to St. Louis where it belongs"?

VERDICT: Not Guilty.

No comments: