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The Atlanta Hawks, peaking at exactly the right moment, have suddenly established themselves as very real contenders for the NBA championship. Their confidence is genuine, to the point that defeat would bring disillusion, not merely disappointment. Surely, it would hardly be smart for one to assume that the New York-Milwaukee winner in the East is home free. In fact, the way the Hawks have gone for the last month, Pete Maravich should have demanded a no-cut contract.
"I've always felt," says Bill Bridges, the Hawks' captain, "that the team that enters the playoffs with the fewest problems is going to win. Considering the problems we have had in the past, it is no surprise, in retrospect, that we didn't win." Considering this, too, it is no surprise that Los Angeles, forced into an entirely different kind of offense and defense to accommodate the return of Wilt Chamberlain, was struggling to survive in the first round against a second-year expansion team. The Phoenix Suns, led off the boards by Paul Silas and Connie Hawkins, surrounded Wilt. On offense the Lakers seemed almost befuddled by his presence. In contrast, the other real big man, Lew Alcindor, led his Bucks with dispatch past Philadelphia, four games to one. Wilt can take some solace from the fact that, just as NBA referees have always exercised a double standard where he was involved—permitting opponents to do everything but set dynamite charges to his ankles—so too are they trying to even things up by letting Alcindor's opponents assault him with impunity. "An Unseld or a Reed is going to beat Lew up worse than we did," 76er Center Darrall Imhoff said after the series. "If he thinks this was physical, wait till he gets to one of them."
Willis Reed, of course, is the one Alcindor now gets to. The league MVP, fortified with cortisone shots, brought New York home again over Baltimore, but this time it took seven games and everything the Knicks had. Reed had 36 points and 36 rebounds in the third New York victory but, overall, he and Wes Unseld fought to a standoff. The losers' Earl Monroe was the outstanding performer of the series, with shooting displays—against Walt Frazier—that were as remarkable as any playoff crowd ever witnessed. In the end, though, the Knick defense provided the margin of victory.
Atlanta, on the other hand, cut easily through Chicago in five games. The Hawks' one loss to Chicago was their only defeat in 11 games, going back to March 8, and their confidence is all the more impressive since it is fresh and can hardly be based on tradition. This is a team that has not yet won a playoff series from anything but expansion fodder since 1964. Besides, the Hawks are almost all somebody else's rejects, and they seldom receive individual acclaim. They tend to blur in the public mind since none was a fantabulous super-duper in college. Coincidentally, there is not a white hope among them.
In point of fact, the Hawks really were a dull team to watch for many years, being a clutch of burly plodders. "Those were your bodybuilding teams," says Joe Caldwell, his mandarin face split by a luminous smile. The Hawks obtained Caldwell in a trade with Detroit on Dec. 28, 1965 and, with hindsight, one can say that was the day the character of the team began to change.
If the Hawks have become fast and flashy, their record this year still was nothing special. Aside from a nine-game winning streak right after the start of the season, and the last six at the end, Atlanta was an aimless, losing club. The Hawks finished first in a division that had only one other team, Jerry West, over .500.
Atlanta's ineffectiveness was the result of Zelmo Beaty's jumping to the rival ABA. Jimmy Davis fell heir to Z's role, but, playing 35 minutes a game, he lost 12 pounds by February. More and more he had to yield the rebounding tasks to Bill Bridges, who, though only 6'6", finished as the fourth leading rebounder in the league.
Near the end of January the team had a meeting. There was nothing exceptional about this; the Hawks are forever having meetings. It could drive a player crazy if he didn't enjoy them—like the old joke about the wino who said he'd rather be a drunk than an alcoholic since alcoholics had to attend meetings. The Hawks will get together for almost any reason. They rely on a search for communal catharsis. "We believe in talking things over," Lou Hudson says. "We get rid of a lot of things that way."
Anyway, at this particular meeting, Caldwell and Walt Hazzard started pushing similar lines of thought—that the Hawks were falling back into their old deliberate ways. When they missed the break they were getting too involved in setting up everything just so for a particular play. Guerin agreed, and the Hawks turned to free-lancing.
Shortly thereafter, as the Feb. 1 trading deadline drew near, Guerin ran up a large phone bill in a Los Angeles motel. By the time he finished he had traded the rights to Beaty to San Francisco for what turned out to be Maravich and had acquired Center Walt Bellamy from Detroit for cash and an extra first-round pick the Hawks had that was originally Milwaukee's, via Phoenix. (That's correct.) In the draft this pick turned out to be somebody named Gary Freeman of Oregon State. Guerin's coup means that the Atlanta front line of Bellamy, Bridges and Caldwell was obtained by the surrender of John Barnhill, Shellie McMillon, Al Ferrari and Gary Freeman.