It’s a hard enough task to write an intro paragraph that will interest a casual sports fan, much less a hardcore guru. While the most famous teams in the NBA—the Warriors, Cavs, Celtics, Celtics, Heat, Spurs, Rockets, and Warriors—get the most attention at this time of year, the Atlanta Hawks are often a forgotten team in the first Celtics-Lakers era and were the only squad to beat Bill Russell’s Boston dynasty in the NBA Finals.

The New York Knicks are a perennial NBA title contender, but in the early 1960s the Atlanta Hawks were a more than capable challenger to the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. In the 1961-62 NBA season, the Hawks finished with a record of 58-24, just one game behind the Celtics.

The Celtics and Lakers dominated the NBA in the 1970s, with the Celtics winning 11 of the 14 NBA titles in that decade. But the other two teams, the Hawks and Pistons, could come through with the occasional upset and when they did, they did it in a big way. The Hawks were the only team to ever beat Bill Russell’s Celtics in the NBA Finals, and they did it three times in the decade. The Hawks and Pistons met in the first three NBA Finals of the decade, with the Hawks taking two of those series and the Pistons winning a single game.

Since moving to the Eastern Conference in 1970, the Atlanta Hawks haven’t had many realistic chances to win an NBA championship. Yes, there’s the current team of Trey Young and Co. and the underrated 2014-15 team that won 60 games and two playoff series before facing LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. But those are the only two times the Hawks have come close to the NBA Finals since moving to ATL in 1968.

When the franchise was part of the Western Conference as St. Louis, however, it wasn’t the only one. The St. Louis Hawks (and Atlanta for the first two years), the team was a perennial NBA title contender in the 1950s and 1960s. But this is often forgotten, as the two teams from that era that get the most attention today are the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics, who met seven times in the NBA Finals during those two decades.

What many people don’t remember is that the Hawks used to play the Celtics in the NBA Finals four times in five seasons. And in three of those seasons, the Hawks beat the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals and reached the title game. And of course, it’s impossible not to mention that the Hawks accomplished something the Lakers never did: They became the only team to beat 11-time champion Bill Russell in the NBA Finals.

Of course, we must remember that the Russell/Celtics matchup would not have taken place if the Hawks had not traded him to Boston on the day of the 1956 draw. But the focus today is not on a hypothetical scenario, but on an alternative scenario in which Russell has played his entire career with the Hawks. No, it’s just a reminder that there used to be more than two teams competing for the NBA championship, and the Hawks were in the middle of it for 15 years.

The Hawks have played the Celtics in the NBA Finals four times in five years and have beaten the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals in three of those seasons


Prior to the 1954-55 season, Milwaukee’s last, the Hawks used the second pick in the NBA draft to select All-American forward/center Bob Pettitte, who became Rookie of the Year and later the best player in franchise history (sorry, Dominik, right).

Pettitte won the first of his two NBA MVP awards in his second season (the team’s first season in St. Louis). He averaged 25.7 points per game and 16.2 rebounds while leading the Hawks to their first playoff appearance in six years. After beating the Lakers in the conference semifinals, St. John’s will be the only team to win the tournament. St. Louis lost to the Detroit Pistons in the Conference Finals. But despite the loss, the Hawks have proven that they will be a force to be reckoned with in the near future, and that’s exactly what they’ve become.

The Hawks reached the Western Conference Finals every year for the next five seasons, losing only once, to the Lakers in 1959. On three other occasions, however, when the Hawks and Lakers met to determine the western representative in the NBA Finals (1957, 1960, 1961), St. Louis was the only team to win. St. Louis came out on top, winning the first game in three games. The other two games went in seven games each. In their fifth appearance, in 1958, the Hawks defeated the Pistons in five games and advanced to the Finals.

As for the four meetings with the Celtics in the NBA Finals: Yeah, Boston won three. But you can’t say the Hawks weren’t competitive in at least two defeats. In their first meeting in 1957, the series ended in a tie, and in Game 7, Boston won in double overtime by two points. In 1960, the series again lasted seven games, although the seventh game was not as close: The Celtics won by 19 points thanks to Russell’s performance (22 points, 35 rebounds). The 1961 final was not as competitive, as Boston easily won the series in five games.

But let’s move on to the series the Hawks won.

Hawks were the only team to beat Bill Russell’s Celtics in the NBA Finals


After a dramatic seven-game loss to Russell and the Celtics in the 1957 NBA Finals, the Hawks returned the following season and, as mentioned, defeated the Pistons in five games in the Western Conference Finals to get revenge on Boston.

While Pettitte remained the team’s leader, minor league attacker Cliff Hagan, acquired by the Hawks from Boston in the Russell trade, became a star in his own right and became the first of five consecutive All-Star selections in 1958, averaging 19.9 points and 10.1 rebounds in the regular season. And he proved his worth in Game 1 of the 1958 Finals, scoring 33 points in the Hawks’ 104-102 Game 1 series win at Boston Garden. However, Boston evened the series with a 24-point win in Game 2 before the series moved to St. Louis. Louis.

Game 3 proved to be the most decisive game of the series, as the Celtics not only lost 111-108, but they also lost Russell with a severely sprained ankle that limited his participation for the rest of the series. And the Hawks took full advantage.

Boston evened the series at 2-2 with a win in Game 4, but Pettitte took control of the game after that. In Game 5 in Boston, he scored 33 points and grabbed 21 rebounds, leading the Hawks to a 102-100 victory. In Game 6, which ended the series, he scored 50 points and grabbed 19 rebounds in a one-point win.

Many still think the Celtics would have won the series had Russell not been injured, and that is certainly a valid argument. But you can’t say the Hawks haven’t proven in two seasons that they can beat Boston with Russell on the floor, so that’s also something to consider.

Russell and the Celtics won the next eight NBA titles and 10 of the next 11. Their only series loss in this period came against the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1967 Eastern Conference Finals. The Hawks are the only team to beat Boston in the NBA Finals during their historic run of 11 championships in 13 seasons.

The team never returned to the title round, but reached the Western Conference Finals six more times in the next decade.

The St. Louis superstar Louis Hawks, Bob Pettit | Getty Images

Although the Hawks didn’t make the NBA Finals after losing to the Celtics in 1961, you can’t say they just disappeared.

Yes, they had a terrible 1961-62 season, with a 29-51 record, and missed the postseason for the first time since moving to St. Louis. But in the past eight seasons in the Western Conference (six in St. Louis, two in Atlanta), the Hawks have made the playoffs every year and made the Western Conference Finals six times, including four against the Lakers, all of which were lost. But then again, the Lakers could never beat Russell and the Celtics in the NBA Finals. They lost seven times in seven tries from 1959 to 1969, perhaps because they had to expend so much energy to beat the Hawks in the West.

So the next time you talk about the rivalry between the Celtics and the Lakers in the 1950s and 1960s, remember that the Hawks played an important role in the NBA’s golden age.

Statistics provided by Basketball Reference

COMPARED TO: Tra Young joined LeBron James to make his playoff debut with the Hawksgave the club some exclusivesThe Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers are widely considered to be the two greatest teams in basketball history. The Celtics have been the dominant franchise in the NBA for decades, winning a record seventeen championships in the modern era. The Lakers, however, have only won four titles—and that was in the 1960s; with the exception of the 2010 season, they have yet to win a title since the 2000s. The two franchises have been close in recent years, with the Celtics winning four out of the last five NBA Finals.. Read more about lakers championships and let us know what you think.

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