I was never anything more than a journeyman player in the pros. The most I ever averaged was 7.5 points a game and the most I ever made was $9,000 a year. Near the end I just hung on because I was hooked. I loved basketball and I loved the life. I kept telling myself one more year, just one more, and then I'll quit and go back to California and devote myself full-time to the contracting business. Then, all of a sudden in the middle of the 1956-57 season, which was surely really going to be the last one more year, Ben Kerner, the St. Louis owner, ran out of coaches and got stuck with me, just because I was there, sitting on the bench.
The irony is, Kerner didn't want me as his coach, but I was the only coach ever to win him a championship. For my part, I had never even considered becoming a coach until I was one. It had been enough for me just to try to stay in the league.
I had come into the pros out of the University of Southern California in 1948, at a time when, as now, there were two leagues—the National League and the Basketball Association of America. It was chaos. Whole teams jumped leagues. You could obtain a franchise with one phone call to Chicago and $1,000. It was also a players' market, the last time we've had that until today.
The Oshkosh All-Stars of the National League promised me the fantastic salary of $11,000, and I grabbed it. The reason I say I never made over $9,000 is simple. I never got all of the $11,000. I moved after that in what was fairly rapid succession to Anderson ( Ind.), Syracuse, Baltimore, Rochester, Milwaukee, Fort Wayne and St. Louis. At Rochester in 1954, Owner-Coach Lester Harrison suggested I take a $500 cut to $6,500. I held out for a $500 raise but eventually agreed to sign. Fine, said Harrison, and promptly sent me a new contract—for $5,250, the maximum possible 25% cut. Moreover, I was notified in the accompanying letter that I was to be fined $25 for every day I had missed training camp, so it all was to come to less than $5,000, take it or leave it. I decided to take it—what else could you do if you wanted to stay in pro basketball?—but I also sent a letter to President Maurice Podoloff (and the copy to Harrison) pleading for some compassion. I never received so much as an acknowledgement from the league office or from Rochester. I was frozen out. So I just went back to learning more about the construction business.
Then one day, about a third of the way through the season, completely out of the blue I got a call from Kerner of the Milwaukee-soon-to-be- St. Louis Hawks. He couldn't really offer me a normal seasonal contract. Now all he could offer me was a day rate, $40 and change per diem, once I could get to wherever the team was. I took the job and when I walked in and met the team the guy I was replacing came over and handed me a little bag with my uniform in it. Was it clean? I asked. No, he said, I'd have to get it cleaned myself. That was it. I was back in the NBA.
Ben told me later that he had bought the rights to me for $500 down and another $500 if I lasted 30 days. So Milwaukee was definitely my high-water mark as a pro—imagine Ben Kerner paying an extra $500 to keep Alex Hannum!
The nadir was not long in following. We moved to St. Louis the next year, but after that season Ben thanked me for my services and handed me my release. I always appreciated that kind of treatment. I've never cut a player I didn't talk to first.
I caught on next with Fort Wayne and was there a few games in the fall of '56 when I stopped one night for a beer after a movie. "I'm sorry, Alex," the bartender said. He had just learned on television that the Pistons had put me on waivers. The next night, Fred Zollner, the owner and a kind man who deserves an NBA title, went out of his way to see me and console me, but that was a hard task. I was 33 years old, bald before my time, out of a job and stuck in Fort Wayne, Ind. with a wife and two daughters and all sensible hope for regular employment 2,000 miles away in California.
But then, the very next day, I got word that Kerner would pick me up again and bring me back to the Hawks. Of course, it was explained, I could not expect Kerner ever again to be such a mad spendthrift where my talents were concerned. The days of buying me for $500 were gone. Kerner would, however, pick me up for nothing if I lasted out the five-day waiver period. I did.
A few weeks later I was coach of the Hawks. A year later we were champions. Ten years after that Ben Kerner sold the Hawks for $3 million, and I became a substantial owner myself of a new team in a new league. Don't tell me things can't turn around fast in basketball. Don't tell me the Oakland Oaks and the American Basketball Association can't make it.