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History of the Atlanta Hawks – Origins, Playoff Record, Head Coaches, and More

By Jennifer Hassan in NBA
| December 11, 2020 7:21 am PDT
History of Atlanta Hawks

There was once a team in upstate New York called the Buffalo Bisons. They lasted about one month in that far northern city before deciding that Illinois had greener pastures.

In Illinois, the Bisons became the Tri-Cities Blackhawks and played in the Aurora-Elgin area for five years before deciding to try their luck in Milwaukee. In Wisconsin, the team became the Hawks, figuring they would try out a new logo and a new look.

In 1968 the Hawks found their “forever home when they arrived in the balmy city of Atlanta and established themselves as the team we know today.

Hawks History Overview

Despite bouncing around between cities and arenas, the Hawks have had good success in reaching the playoffs consistently, with no huge gaps from the postseason. This is a testament to the camaraderie of the team and the quality of the coaching staff.

Who Founded the Hawks?

Bison

In Buffalo, New York, there is a club for veterans known as the Erie County American Legion. Interestingly, back in 1946, this local American Legion outpost decided it wanted to found a professional basketball team.

The Erie County American Legion then created the Buffalo Bisons, winning membership in the National Basketball League and playing at the local Memorial Auditorium.

Leo Ferris was the Bisons’ first GM, and he had high hopes for success in Buffalo. However, after that first month, it became clear the team could not break even in that location, hence the several subsequent moves.

Thus, it can be said the team was founded by the Erie County American Legion and Leo Ferris.

When Did the Atlanta Hawks Join the NBA?

As noted above, the Hawks—or Bisons, rather—became part of the National Basketball League (NBL) in their infancy. The NBL later became the NBA. Thus, the team was always a part of the league we currently know as the NBA.

It’s hard to believe that the NBA had several early competitors, and many thought the NBA wasn’t as organized or successful as the American Basketball Association, the ABA.

Nonetheless, it is the NBA that survived, although it took many of the ABA’s rules (such as the three-pointer) to help the game evolve into the exciting, non-stop action we know today.

Hawks Playoff History

Few teams have been more consistent visitors into the professional postseason than the Hawks. Where other teams have their good decades and bad, the Hawks always seem to ease their transition from the regular season to the postseason such that their fans can buy playoff tickets with a fair degree of certainty that their boys will be there.

Season Result
1949 – 1950 Lost to Packers in conference semi-finals, 2 – 1
1955 – 1956 Lost to Pistons in conference finals, 3 – 2
1956 – 1957 Lost to Celtics in NBA finals, 4 – 3
1957 – 1958 Defeated Celtics in NBA finals, 4 – 2
1958 – 1959 Lost to Lakers in conference finals, 4 – 2
1959 – 1960 Lost to Celtics in NBA finals, 4 – 3
1960 – 1961 Lost to Celtics in NBA finals, 4 – 1
1962 – 1963 Lost to Lakers in conference finals, 4 – 3
1963 – 1964 Lost to Warriors in conference finals, 4 – 3
1964 – 1965 Lost to Bullets in conference semi-finals, 3 – 1
1965 – 1966 Lost to Lakers in conference finals, 4 – 3
1966 – 1967 Lost to Warriors in conference finals, 4 – 2
1967 – 1968 Lost to Warriors in conference semi-finals, 4 – 2
1968 – 1969 Lost to Lakers in conference finals, 4 – 1
1969 – 1970 Lost to Lakers in conference finals, 4 – 0
1970 – 1971 Lost to Knicks in conference semi-finals, 4 – 1
1971 – 1972 Lost to Celtics in conference semi-finals, 4 – 2
1972 – 1973 Lost to Celtics in conference semi-finals, 4 – 2
1977 – 1978 Lost to Bullets in opening round, 2 – 0
1978 – 1979 Lost to Bullets in conference semi-finals, 4 – 3
1979 – 1980 Lost to Sixers in conference semi-finals, 4 – 1
1981 – 1982 Lost to Sixers in opening round, 2 – 0
1982 – 1983 Lost to Celtics in opening round, 2 – 1
1983 – 1984 Lost to Bucks in opening, 3 – 2
1985 – 1986 Lost to Celtics in conference semi-finals, 4 – 1
1986 – 1987 Lost to Pistons in conference semi-finals, 4 – 1
1987 – 1988 Lost to Celtics in conference semi-finals, 4 – 3
1988 – 1989 Lost to Bucks in opening round, 3 – 2
1990 – 1991 Lost to Pistons in opening round, 3 – 2
1992 – 1993 Lost to Bulls in opening round, 3 – 0
1993 – 1994 Lost to Pacers in conference semi-finals, 4 – 2
1994 – 1995 Lost to Pacers in opening round, 3 – 0
1995 – 1996 Lost to Magic in conference semi-finals, 4 – 1
1996 – 1997 Lost to Bulls in conference semi-finals, 4 – 1
1997 – 1998 Lost to Hornets in opening round, 3 – 1
1998 – 1999 Lost to Knicks in conference semi-finals, 4 – 0
2007 – 2008 Lost to Celtics in opening round, 4 – 3
2008 – 2009 Lost to Cavaliers in conference semi-finals, 4 – 0
2009 – 2010 Lost to Magic in conference semi-finals, 4 – 0
2010 – 2011 Lost to Bulls in conference semi-finals, 4 – 2
2011 – 2012 Lost to Celtics in opening round, 4 – 2
2012 – 2013 Lost to Pacers in opening round, 4 – 2
2013 – 2014 Lost to Celtics in opening round, 4 – 3
2014 – 2015 Lost to Cavaliers in conference finals, 4 – 0
2015 – 2016 Lost to Cavaliers in conference semi-finals, 4 – 0
2016 – 2017 Lost to Wizards in opening round, 4 – 2

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 Atlanta Hawks Head Coach History

Red Auerbach

The Hawks have had some legendary coaches in their time. Their second coach, Red Auerbach, is considered one of the top 10 coaches in the history of basketball.

Red Holzman was also given that same “Top 10” honor by the NBA. This means that two of the first eight Hawks coaches are among the best in history (and, weirdly, both are named “Red”).

Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons was voted Coach of the Year twice. When he was with the Hawks, he had to deal with an astonishing turnover in team GMs and other executives, which made his job—and the players’ morale—stressful and difficult.

Players are loath to remain with a team that is willing to ditch people so quickly, and that can undermine any stability the coach is struggling to create.

But, as you know, the team survived these and other turbulent times.

Tenure Coach Prior Experience
1949 Roger Potter Tri-Cities Blackhawks coach
1949 – 1950 Red Auerbach Washington Capitols coach
1950 Dave MacMillan Univ. of Minnesota coach
1950 John Logan St. Louis Bombers coach
1950 – 1951 Mike Todorovich Sheboygan Red Skins coach
1951 – 1952 Doxie Moore Sheboygan Red Skins coach
1952 – 1954 Andrew Levane Elmira Colonels coach
1954 – 1956 Red Holzman player, Rochester Royals
1957 Slater Martin player, Knicks
1957 – 1958 Alex Hannum player, Pistons
1958 Andy Phillip player, Celtics
1958 – 1960 Ed Macauley player, Celtics
1960 – 1961 Paul Seymour Syracuse Nationals coach
1961 – 1962 Andrew Levane see above
1962 Robert Pettit player, Hawks
1962 – 1964 Harry Gallatin Southern Illinois Univ. coach
1964 – 1972 Richie Guerin player, Knicks
1972 – 1976 Cotton Fitzsimmons Suns coach
1976 E. “Bumper” Tormohlen player, Kansas City Steers
1976 – 1981 Hubie Brown Kentucky Colonels coach
1981 Mike Fratello Knicks asst. coach
1981 – 1984 Kevin Loughery 76ers coach
1984 – 1990 Mike Fratello Knicks coach
1990 – 1993 Bob Weiss Spurs coach
1993 – 2000 Lenny Wilkens Cavaliers coach
2000 – 2002 Lon Kruger Fighting Illini coach
2002 – 2004 Terry Stotts Bucks asst. coach
2004 – 2010 Mike Woodson Pistons coach
2010 – 2013 Larry Drew Nets asst. coach
2013 – 2018 Mike Budenholzer Spurs asst. coach
2018 – present Lloyd Pierce Grizzlies asst. coach

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The Color-Blind Coach

As noted above, Red Auerbach is considered by the NBA to be one of the league’s top 10 coaches ever.

Auerbach believed that sports were a meritocracy—that he would recruit based on talent and talent alone, avoiding much of the nepotism, racism, and elitism that plagued early big-league sports.

That seems reasonable now, but back then, as the 1940s rolled over into the 1950s, his decisions were culturally revolutionary.

Auerbach drafted the NBA’s first black player, Charles “Chuck” Cooper when Auerbach was with the Celtics. But he brought this same open-minded, “Show me what you’ve got” attitude to the Hawks when he was at the helm in Atlanta.

In Closing

Atlantans love their team. The Hawks didn’t look like long-term prospects when they arrived in Georgia, given their earlier penchant for jumping from market to market, but they haven’t budged from Hotlanta since they arrived.

Lately, the team’s playoff fortunes have bounced around a bit, but there is always next season. Let’s see what Lloyd Pierce will do in 2021 and beyond for these local boys.

Check out our NBA guide for more on the Hawks and other franchises.

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