From Lenny Wilkens to Dominique Wilkins, and with a Great White Hope and racially inflamed gubernatorial campaign in between, Thomas Aiello explained to a gathering Thursday at Columbus State University how the impact of a professional basketball team in Georgia went beyond the sports world.
In his lecture titled "Leaving the Promised Land: The Atlanta Hawks, Race and the NBA's Move to the Deep South," Aiello, an assistant professor of history and African-American studies at Valdosta State University, told his audience of about 60 in the Schwob Memorial Library that the Hawks' move from St. Louis to Atlanta in 1968 "was an unlikely convergence of time and place."
The Hawks reached the NBA finals during their last season in St. Louis, 1967-68, but the ownership put the team up for sale after the city declined to build a new arena.
The May 3, 1968, announcement that Atlanta real estate developer Tom Cousins and former Georgia Gov. Carl Sanders had bought the team came a month after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., which sparked riots in more than 100 urban areas nationwide.
"The uprisings demonstrated to many across the country that black radicalism was not limited to Harlem and Oakland and Watts," Aiello said. "It scared and confused many white people who had trouble reconciling urban violence with the death of a non-violent leader."
Cousins had a grand vision to make the Hawks the centerpiece of downtown revitalization in Atlanta, where he owned 60 acres. But the city got the team before a new arena, so the Hawks played their home games during their first four Atlanta seasons at Georgia Tech.
"Even though the move was largely spurred by some business imperatives that drove similar changes across the landscape of professional sports, race would matter greatly once the team arrived," Aiello said. "Selling a black team in a black league to a white South in the 1960s was a significant chore."
For example, Hawks guard Lenny Wilkens finished second to Wilt Chamberlain of Philadelphia in the 1968 MVP vote. As a result, Wilkens was featured prominently in Atlanta newspaper articles about the incoming team. Wilkens made $30,000 the previous season, and Chamberlain made $250,000, so Wilkens asked for a raise. He wanted $60,000, but his new owners offered only $40,000. After he refused to report to training camp, the Hawks traded him away.
"The last thing the new black team of the Deep South needed was a militant uppity black man making rights claims to white Southerners," Aiello said.
The Hawks opened their first season in Atlanta with only two white players on their roster. They finished 48-34, second in their division behind the Lakers, and they also lost the division finals to the Lakers.
"Attendance wasn't strong that first season," Aiello said. "The team was obviously competitive, so management responded by further whitening the team at the expense of the squad's talent."
That meant trading another black All-Star, Paul Silas. But based on their on-court success during their debut season in Atlanta, the Hawks had more of their games televised the next season. The team ended up with the same record and again lost to the Lakers in the division finals.
"The erosion of a successful franchise had begun," Aiello said, "calcified at the hands of racial politics."
The Hawks had the third pick in the 1970 NBA Draft.
Over the objections of general manager Marty Blake and coach Richie Guerin, Cousins selected Pete Maravich, a flashy white guard from LSU.
"He was after a white player that performed like a black player," Aiello said. "He wanted the Great White Hope.
The same ownership that refused to pay a black MVP runner-up $60,000 two years prior gave this white rookie a guaranteed contract of $1.5 million for five years.
"The Hawks' new advertising campaign touted the 'new Hawks,' despite the fact that the team was the league's defending Western Conference champion, which was obviously racial code for, 'We have the white guy,' Aiello said. "An all-white band played 'Dixie' during warm-ups at all the 1970 home games."
The Hawks got off to a 7-21 start with Maravich.
"The black veterans resented the highly paid Maravich," Aiello said, "whose flamboyant passing and play only further exacerbated resentment about compensation."
But while the team's performance sagged, its popularity soared. It sold out 13 of its games. Attendance rose by more than 20 percent. Revenue increased by more than 50 percent.
The Hawks rallied late in the season but fell in the first round of the playoffs and finished with a losing record (36-46).
"The Maravich saga would be a very public demonstration of the racial issues surrounding the first NBA team of the Deep South," Aiello said, "but it wouldn't be the most public demonstration."
That came in the 1970 campaign for governor in Georgia. Hawks co-owner Carl Sanders decided to seek the office again. The incumbent, Lester Maddox, couldn't vie for re-election because the state's constitution didn't allow a governor consecutive terms then, so Sanders' main opponent was state senator Jimmy Carter.
Sanders ran as the moderate, Carter the populist. Among the anonymous flyers that were linked to Carter's campaign, Aiello said, was one that "featured Sanders being doused with champagne by two large black men. It was a photo, common of those involved in professional sports, of the Atlanta Hawks celebrating a division championship. Such was the shorthand of pro sports, but Georgians outside the city had yet to learn that language.
"The Hawks celebration picture became known as the champagne shampoo. Campaign officials sent it to rural areas all over the state. It appeared at Ku Klux Klan rallies, at Southern Baptist churches. The picture demonstrated Sanders' wealth, his association with alcohol and, most importantly, his association with blacks."
Carter won the election.
"Two years later, he would oversee the opening of the Hawks' new arena, the Omni," Aiello said. "Four years after that, he would win the presidential election. But the Hawks' appearance in the 1970 gubernatorial race as the race-baiting pawn of a future president with a consistent track record of racial moderation demonstrated the power of the black NBA image in the minds of white Georgians, money of whom were experiencing Sun Belt prosperity against their will."
Aiello noted the irony of the Omni meaning "every" in Latin, "a word of inclusion representing a symbol of gentrification."
The Hawks continued to struggle, however, and finished 20 games under .500. The team had the lowest attendance in the league.
"Its first sustained success since the racial dismantling of the late 1960s wouldn't begin until the 1985-86 season," Aiello said. "That team was led by the University of Georgia's Dominique Wilkins."
His nickname was the Human Highlight Film.
"Wilkins was local, exciting and normalized blackness for Atlanta's white fan base," Aiello said.
By the way, Lenny Wilkens, the All-Star the Hawks traded away, ended up in the Basketball Hall of Fame, and returned to Atlanta to coach the Hawks from 1993-2000.
"Thus the team whose residency in the Deep South began with racial politics surrounding its best player, Lenny Wilkens," Aiello said, "finally found a measure of acceptance 20 years later with the absence of racial politics surrounding its best player, Dominique Wilkins."
And since 2004, Dominique Wilkins, who is also in the Basketball Hall of Fame, has been the Hawks' vice president of basketball.UP NEXT
This was the final event of the semester in Columbus State University's civil rights lecture series. Next semester, CSU will show a film series called "Created Equal: America's Struggle for Civil Rights." A film will be screened every third Tuesday of the month, from January through April. The first one will be "The Abolitionists" at 7 p.m. Jan. 21 in the Liberty Theatre, 813 Eighth Ave. A public discussion will follow each film. The university also is planning to have in March or April a panel of local civil rights activists to discuss the movement in Columbus, said Gary Sprayberry, chairman of the CSU history and geography department, which has organized the series.