Quick Intro: Atlanta Hawks History
A quick intro to Atlanta Hawks history begins in 1968, when the franchise gave the Deep South its first NBA team. Superstars such as "Pistol" Pete Maravich and Dominique Wilkins thrilled fans during their stints in Hawks uniforms, but they were never able to defeat the marquee teams of their eras in the playoffs. While Eastern Conference foes stormed past the Hawks to championship glory, the Atlanta franchise followed a boom-and-bust path.
Former Georgia governor Carl Sanders teamed with real estate developer Thomas Cousins to buy the Hawks franchise in 1968 and move the team from St. Louis to Atlanta. The franchise began in 1946 as the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, moved to Milwaukee in 1951 and then St. Louis in 1955. Forward Bob Pettit led the franchise to an NBA title in St. Louis in 1958, when the Hawks beat the Boston Celtics in six games.
By the time the team arrived in Atlanta, however, Pettit—a two-time NBA MVP and the first player to score more than 20,000 points in a career—had retired. The team's biggest star was "Sweet" Lou Hudson, who guided the team to the Western Conference Finals in each of the club's first two seasons in Atlanta, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers both times. In 1970, the Hawks staged what seemed like a coup, landing the NCAA's all-time leading scorer, flashy point guard "Pistol" Pete Maravich. Maravich was supposed to be the star who brought a title to Atlanta; in four seasons with the Hawks, Maravich averaged 24.2 points and 5.6 assists a game, but the team only had one winning record and did not win a playoff series.
The Hawks traded Maravich before the 1974-75 season and were in danger of leaving Atlanta for good, despite the 1972 opening of a new home arena, the Omni. However, media mogul and Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner stepped in to purchase the team in January 1977 and save professional basketball in Atlanta. The franchise, however, was in a down period, failing to win more than 50 games or move past the second round of the playoffs during the 1970s.
The Hawks' plight seemed to turn around before the 1982-'83 season, when they landed the rights to University of Georgia's star forward, Dominique Wilkins, in a trade with the Utah Jazz. Wilkins, a lithe, 6-foot-7-inch forward with jaw-dropping athleticism, immediately became a fan favorite and franchise cornerstone in Atlanta, increasing his scoring output every season until he led the league with an average of 30.3 points per game in 1985-'86 and winning the dunk contest in 1985.
Meanwhile, the Hawks were collecting talent, including Kevin Willis, Glenn "Doc" Rivers, Anthony "Spud" Webb, Wayne "Tree" Rollins and Hall of Famer Moses Malone. This group led the Hawks to one of the best four-year runs in franchise history, as they averaged more than 50 wins from 1985-'86 through 1988-'89. However, they never maneuvered further than the Eastern Conference Semifinals in the playoffs, losing to Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics twice in those four seasons. Wilkins stayed in Atlanta until he was traded during the 1993-'94 season; he left the franchise as its all-time leader in points scored, games played and field goals.
The franchise moved on behind head coach Lenny Wilkens, who led the team to 57 wins in the 1993-'94 season and rebuilt the team around a nucleus of Steve Smith, Mookie Blaylock, Christian Laettner and Dikembe Mutombo. The team remained successful for a few season and Wilkens became the NBA's all-time winningest coach in 1994-'95. However, the run of success ended in 1999-2000, when the Hawks opened their new home, Phillips Arena, with the then-worst season in Atlanta history—a 28-54 campaign that was Lenny Wilkens' last.
The worst era in Atlanta Hawks history followed, as the team did not reach the playoffs again until 2007-'08, when they still won only 37 games in the regular season. However, the franchise received several high draft picks during this time and built a young nucleus of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Al Horford. They won 47 games in 2008-'09 and advanced to the second round of the playoffs, the team's most successful season since the 1990s.