Fifty years ago, the St. Louis Hawks lost the NBA Finals to the Boston Celtics and a rookie center by the name of Bill Russell—a star in the making they’d traded to the Celtics just a year earlier. But it didn’t have to be that way. D.J. Wilson imagines a world in which the Hawks didn’t send Russell to Boston, Russell brought hoops glory to St. Louis—and the city became the center of the basketball universe.
Bill Russell had to laugh at the question, and he did so as only he can—with the kind of high-pitched cackle that makes people who haven’t been paying attention look up to see what could have caused such a noise.
The question was simple, yet the answer was hard to imagine: What if the Hawks had traded Russell’s draft rights to Boston in 1956, as Red Auerbach had wanted? What if Russell had played for the Celtics for all those years and brought those 11 National Basketball Association titles—a string of championships that started with a dramatic double-overtime win in game seven of the 1957 NBA Finals—to Boston instead of St. Louis?
“I can’t imagine what it would have been like,” said the gray-goateed Russell. “All those years, the Celtics were the enemy, the one team that was our biggest challenge. And playing for Red Auerbach? I hated to see him light that cigar when he had the game won. Yet I don’t know ... maybe a lot of the same stuff would have happened there. The Hawks and the Celtics were pretty even teams—except for me.”
As usual, Russell displayed no false modesty about his abilities or his achievements. Despite being statistically dominated by Wilt Chamberlain through the ’50s and ’60s, he was the one to bring home the championships. To Russell, it was all about winning. He made the St. Louis Hawks the preeminent NBA franchise during his reign. No other pro franchise, in any sport, approached the dominance shown by the Hawks during those years. Russell reinvented the game, and in doing so he made St. Louis the center of pro basketball.
The official NBA Encyclopedia begins its summation of the 1956–1957 season with these two sentences: “The scoring title went to Philadelphia’s Paul Arizin in 1957, but nobody paid much attention. The league had been overwhelmed by a shot-blocking, rebounding revolution in the form of Bill Russell.”
That’s hardly news to any St. Louis fan of pro basketball. They know the hold Russell had on this city from 1957 until his retirement from the game in 1969. He was the Hawks’ focal point, leading them to more world championships than even baseball’s New York Yankees.
But fans and nonfans also know Russell’s role as a prominent public figure—a different type of civic leader, the first black man in St. Louis sports who was accepted, regardless of whether he was liked, for his excellence and his independence. He achieved for the Hawks what, to a lesser degree, Bob Gibson and Lou Brock did for the Cardinals. He put a black face on success.
Back in the spring of 1956, though, none of that could have been anticipated.
When Hawks owner Ben Kerner decided to draft and sign Russell with the third pick in the draft, instead of signing and then trading him to the Boston Celtics, as had been proposed, it was the local sports equivalent of Julius Caesar’s decision to cross the Rubicon. Kerner had opted for glory over caution.
Although Russell turned out to be a dominant force and, in many ways, the godfather of pro basketball, back in ’56 Kerner had the chance to take the cautious, fan-friendlier route and swap him for a hometown hero, Ed Macauley, and a solid college center, Cliff Hagan.
Until Russell’s midseason arrival, in December 1956, the Hawks had shown promise without ever closing the deal. Russell’s arrival would transform a decent team in a solid basketball town into a dynasty. They were on the verge.
So were the Celtics. And Auerbach—the coach and general manager of the Boston Celtics at the time—wanted Russell. The 6-foot-10 center from Oakland had led the University of San Francisco to two consecutive national championships, ending with 55 straight victories. His shot blocking, defense and rebounding were already legendary.
Making the deal even more interesting was Auerbach and Kerner’s history. Nearly 10 years earlier, Auerbach had coached Kerner’s Tri-Cities Blackhawks, which would later become the Milwaukee Hawks before moving to St. Louis in 1955. After Auerbach’s only losing season as a coach—a 28-29 record—Kerner fired him. He left for Boston, where he coached until 1966.
For decades Kerner, who died in 2000 and was buried in St. Louis, maintained that he never had a doubt about drafting and signing Russell. “What did Auerbach take me for, a fool?” Kerner had been known to say. “I knew Russell was what we needed, and I knew the impact he’d have on this game. Not signing him would have been basketball suicide.” But others who knew Kerner’s and the Hawks’ financial predicament have a different recollection of the transaction.
In a trade offer for the Russell pick, Auerbach offered Macauley, the St. Louis native and former Saint Louis University star, and Hagan. Macauley led SLU to the National Invitational Tournament title in 1948 and played with the pro St. Louis Bombers in the late ’40s. He’d be a draw at the gate. The downside of the offer was that Macauley’s best days were in his rearview mirror.
In drafting Russell, Kerner had to keep in mind that the star in the making would miss about half of his rookie season to play on the U.S. Olympic basketball team in the Melbourne Summer Games.
Kerner wanted an immediate box-office draw, yet being a shrewd businessman, he also knew that a shorter season would cut down on Russell’s salary. Auerbach knew the multitalented Russell would complete his Celtics team—and that’s exactly what got Kerner’s interest.
Kerner read the situation correctly and had little trouble signing his draft pick. He was known to be frugal to a fault—rumor had it that Russell wanted a $25,000 signing bonus—yet he knew that he had a bargaining chip worth more than money to the young rookie. Russell was born in Louisiana and still had family there, so Kerner sold him on the massive reach of the team’s official broadcaster, KMOX-AM, which could easily reach the Gulf of Mexico—and Russell’s family—at night. Some owners (among them the Harlem Globetrotters’ Abe Saperstein) saw an arrogant young black man demanding more money; Kerner saw a cash cow. If Russell accomplished half as much in the pros as he had in college, he would no doubt make Kerner a very rich man. So Kerner signed him to a $17,000 contract, the salary taking into account the games Russell would miss by playing in the Olympics.
After helping the U.S. team to a gold medal in the Olympics, Russell played in 48 of the Hawks’ 72 regular-season games. He finished that season with the league’s highest average number of rebounds, 19.6 per game.
In his first year in St. Louis, Russell proved that he could draw fans. His first game at Kiel was a sellout, and 18,000 paid to see his first pro game in Madison Square Garden.
That same season, the Hawks met the Celtics in the NBA Finals, defeating them in a classic double-overtime seventh game, 125-123. Kiel was packed for every game. Russell had only just begun to show what he would mean to basketball—and St. Louis.
Russell’s achievements on the court were only part of his effect on St. Louis.
Off the court, Bill Russell was no Stan Musial. He was the anti–Stan the Man.
The Cardinals’ Musial came off as the Lawrence Welk of baseball. For the superstar Musial, everything was “wunnerful,” because he was an authentic, traditional—and white—superstar. He had no hassles, and the fans loved him.
Then there was Russell. Anyone who dared interrupt him for an autograph during a meal or a conversation might be rejected like a lazy layup. In 1963, he told The Saturday Evening Post, “What I’m resentful of, you know, is when they say you owe the public this and you owe the public that. You owe the public the same thing it owes you. Nothing. ... I refuse to smile and be nice to the kiddies.” Because of his prominence in sports and his un–Jackie Robinson–like demeanor, he received death threats in the mail, and he eventually asked the FBI for protection. After his playing days ended, he requested his FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act. That file described him as “an arrogant Negro who won’t sign autographs for white children.”
That acetylene attitude didn’t play well in sleepy River City. There were rumblings of resentment from the local white power structure, particularly when Russell stepped to the forefront of the civil-rights movement.
Unlike Gibson and Brock, Russell was willing to take a stand on social issues, including the 1963 demonstrations at Jefferson Bank & Trust to protest the bank’s refusal to hire blacks for white-collar jobs. Two days after Martin Luther King’s March on Washington—which Russell had also attended—hundreds picketed the Jefferson Bank at 2600 Washington. Russell was among them.
That Jefferson Bank demonstration, with Russell and Alderman William Clay—who would later be elected to Congress—in the lead, was often cited as a turning point in St. Louis race relations. Not only did it force the corporate community to deal with discriminatory hiring practices, it also suggested that violence wasn’t necessary.
Race was something Russell took seriously. Although he had been brought up in Oakland, he was born in Louisiana, and many of his relatives still lived there. The civil-rights struggle held real meaning for him.
Through it all, Kerner never once tried to muzzle Russell. Kerner’s Jewish roots lent him sensitivity to the civil-rights issue—and he knew he couldn’t quiet Russell if he tried.
When Russell moved to St. Louis, he bought a home in the Ville, a middle-class area in North St. Louis. Instead of opening a local restaurant like Musial, he bought a rubber plantation in Liberia. When he bought a large car, it was a Lincoln Continental; he said he wanted to avoid the stereotype of a rich black man driving a Cadillac.
In the ’60s he loved to hang out with St. Louis comedian and civil-rights activist Dick Gregory. He even campaigned for Gregory during the comic’s 1968 write-in campaign for president, which earned more than a million votes. In looser times, Russell socialized with actor Redd Foxx.
White St. Louis, in many ways, refused to accept Russell, and Russell had little patience for white St. Louis. White St. Louis backed the Hawks on the court during the basketball season—as long as they won. One plus was that star forward Bob Pettit—whose given name was Robert E. Lee Pettit—always got along with Russell. That they both had Louisiana roots may have helped, yet what seemed more important was they both excelled at their craft and had the same fervor for winning.
Off the court and in the off-season, Russell’s demeanor rubbed many fans the wrong way, though the championships lessened any public outcry. Russell did live in St. Louis throughout his career, but when his playing days were over, he moved on.
Kerner’s decision in 1956 to keep a potential black superstar and not trade him for two white players whom St. Louis knew (Macauley) or would more easily accept (Hagan) reverberated through the local culture. Black faces in the stands were more common at Hawks games than at Cardinals games.
In the late David Halberstam’s book 1964, the baseball Cardinals were given credit for hiring black players while the Yankees stayed virtually lily-white. To be fair, though, the ’64 world-champion Cardinals had only four black players—Brock, Gibson, Curt Flood and Bill White—on the entire team. By that same time, the Hawks were half black, and their black superstar was loud and proud.
Russell didn’t solve the city’s racial problems, nor would he have solved Boston’s if he had been traded. Both cities were residentially segregated and went through school-desegregation lawsuits that led to the busing of students. In a landmark 1948 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court used a St. Louis case, Shelley v. Kraemer, to declare racially restrictive covenants unconstitutional. Before that, building owners could agree to not sell to anyone who was not white. That was eight years before Russell came to St. Louis.
Bill Russell would have been Bill Russell no matter where he went—he came to St. Louis and stayed Bill Russell—but he became a superstar, and that made all the difference in gaining the city’s respect. White fans’ acceptance of Russell, however reluctant, showed that merit and ability can trump bigotry, at least in sports.
Russell did not stay in St. Louis, but he left much in his wake.
He never made his dim view of the city’s shortcomings a secret, so in 1970, after staying on two years as a player/coach, he got in his Lamborghini and left the town—and his wife—and drove to L.A. He seldom came back to St. Louis to visit.
The Hawks, however, hadn’t gone anywhere.
In the midst of their dominance, Kerner figured out that the game had outgrown him. He’d been crafty enough to keep Russell from going to Boston, but the next decade and a half had worn him out. Gussie Busch, beer baron and owner of the baseball Cardinals, was a regular at Hawks games—he sat courtside with Kerner, and the pair played gin rummy once a week—so when it was clear that Kerner had lost his zeal for the game, Busch stepped in and bought the team for $50 million, a figure unheard of at the time.
Kerner had piloted the franchise through years of unparalleled success, but the one battle he couldn’t win was over Kiel Auditorium. He’d never cared much for the funky old arena, but the city owned it and wouldn’t do much to it, save for a minor renovation in 1962 that brought its capacity to 10,000 and change. Once Busch bought the Hawks and helped get Busch Stadium built downtown, though, he finagled a deal for the Hawks’ new home right next door. He used his considerable pull with the city to tear down the old Cupples warehouses next to the new stadium and had Busch Center, an 18,000-seat basketball arena, built in 1970.
When the elder Busch died, in the fall of 1989, his heirs sought to distance themselves from pro sports. After selling the Cardinals in 1996 to a group of investors led by Bill DeWitt II, the brewery sold the Hawks the following year to Wal-Mart in-law Bill Laurie, who once played point guard for Memphis State. In 2005, Laurie gained a minority investor when St. Louis native and pro-sports fan Cornell Haynes (a.k.a. Nelly) bought a share of the team.
The Hawks’ success left plenty of other marks on the city.
When the Hawks moved from Milwaukee to St. Louis for the 1955–1956 season, coach Red Holzman came with them. The former player had had little success as a coach up to that point, leading the Hawks to just 36 wins in a season and a half. The first season inSt. Louis wasn’t much better, and the 1956–1957 campaign got off to only a marginally better start, with the team posting a 10-14 record in the two months before Russell joined the team in late December. But with the big rookie on the squad, the Hawks’ fortunes turned almost immediately, and the team racked up 13 wins in 16 games.
Kerner had always had an itchy trigger finger when it came to firing coaches, yet even he could see that Holzman was the right fit for the Hawks and Russell. Holzman stressed defense and team play—the hallmarks of Russell’s style—and Kerner recognized how well the two meshed. Despite the coach’s early stumbles, Holzman kept him on and made him the Hawks’ general manager after the 1964–65 season. One of Holzman’s first moves as a GM was to draft Crystal City, Mo., native Bill Bradley out of Princeton. Bradley went on to have a Hall of Fame career in St. Louis, and one year after retiring in 1975, he ran for the U.S. Senate seat from Missouri, defeating Missouri Attorney General John Danforth. Crushed by the defeat, Danforth retired from politics and became an Episcopal bishop.
The future of hockey in St. Louis wasn’t nearly as bright as that of basketball. The St. Louis Blues arrived in 1967 and benefited from the National Hockey League strategy of putting all six expansion teams in a separate division. No matter how new—or how bad—the teams were, someone had to finish in first place in that division. The Blues did and made it to the NHL Finals, only to lose four straight games to the Montreal Canadiens.
The Blues never won a game in the NHL Stanley Cup Finals. Always a bridesmaid and never a bride, the team left St. Louis for Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in 1983, when R. Hal Dean retired as chairman of Ralston-Purina and his successor sold the team to Bill Hunter, who had founded the Edmonton Oilers.
That didn’t mean that there weren’t die-hard hockey fans in St. Louis; it just meant, as in many markets of similar size—Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee—that it was tough to support two pro winter-sports teams.
Despite all the success, it’s hard to say the Hawks own this town. They have 11 world championships—one more than the Cardinals—but they don’t have the Cardinals’ generational history. The Hawks arrived in 1955; the Cardinals got started in 1892. Your father may have taken you to a Hawks game. Your grandfather would have taken you to a Cardinals game.
St. Louis may indeed remain a baseball town, yet if Ben Kerner had taken the bait from Red Auerbach in 1956 to trade Russell, St. Louis might never have had the chance to be a basketball town, too. It might have been the Hawks who packed their bags and fled—and if that had been the case, local winter-sports fans might still be waiting for the Blues to win their first Stanley Cup.