The Hawks, a National Basketball Association (NBA) franchise and part of the Eastern Conference’s Southeast Division, have called Atlanta home since 1968. Playing at State Farm Arena in the heart of downtown Atlanta, the Hawks are among the state’s premier professional sports teams, a group that also includes the Braves, the Falcons, and Atlanta United FC. Former Hawks stars include Dominique Wilkins, Pete “Pistol Pete” Maravich, and legendary head coach Lenny Wilkens.
The story of the Atlanta Hawks begins in 1946, when the franchise known as the Tri-Cities Blackhawks was shared by three cities along the Mississippi River: Moline, Illinois; Rock Island, Illinois; and Davenport, Iowa. The team moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, then to St. Louis, Missouri, where the St. Louis Hawks won the franchise’s only championship in 1958.
In 1968 new owners Thomas Cousins, a Georgia real estate developer, and former Georgia governor Carl Sanders moved the Hawks to Atlanta. The team shared Alexander Memorial Hall with the Georgia Tech basketball team. Richie Guerin, a guard acquired from the Knicks in 1963, was made head coach in 1967 after retiring from play. The Atlanta Hawks posted a 48-34 record, and in 1969-70 the Hawks won the Western Division but quickly fell to the Lakers in four straight games.
In 1970 the Atlanta Hawks selected Pete Maravich third overall in the NBA draft. In his rookie season he averaged 23.2 points per game, second only to Lou Hudson’s 26.8 points per game. Despite the contributions of Maravich and Hudson, the Hawks fell below .500 for the first time since moving to Atlanta.
The 1972-73 season included two significant developments. The Hawks moved from Alexander Memorial Hall to the Omni, a new 16,500-seat arena, and hired Lowell “Cotton” Fitzsimmons as the new head coach. Richie Guerin retired after 7 1/2 seasons with a 327-291 career record. Fitzsimmons guided the Hawks to a 46-36 record in his inaugural season but lost in the first round of the play-offs. The Hawks were led by high scorers Hudson (27.1 points per game) and Maravich (26.1 points per game).
After four years in Atlanta, Maravich was sent to the New Orleans Jazz in exchange for two first-round draft picks, Dean Meminger and Bob Kauffman, and two second-round draft choices. Atlanta struggled, winning just thirty-one games in the 1974-75 season. In 1975-76 the Hawks fell to a 29-53 record, and Fitzsimmons was released with eight games left to play. Hubie Brown took over as head coach for the 1976-77 campaign but was unable to turn the team around and finished with a 31-51 record.
In 1977 Ted Turner, who also owned the Atlanta Braves, purchased the Hawks and promised fans that the team would stay in Atlanta. Head coach Hubie Brown led the Hawks to a 41-41 record in the 1977-78 season and won the NBA coach of the year award. The success was due in part to new acquisitions Wayne “Tree” Rollins, Eddie Johnson, and rookie Charlie Criss. In 1978 Dan Roundfield joined the Hawks after three years in Indiana. The much-improved squad placed third in the Central Division, went on to beat the Houston Rockets, but lost to Washington in game seven of the Eastern Conference semifinals. In 1979-80 the Hawks won fifty games and the Central Division title. During the 1980-81 season, the Hawks fell to fourth place in the division, and in 1981 Kevin Loughery replaced Brown as head coach.
The acquisition of Dominique Wilkins in 1982 sent the Hawks in a new direction. The University of Georgia standout and “human highlight film” won a spot on the 1982-83 All-Rookie team, one of many achievements in his tenure with the Hawks. He was the all-time leading scorer in franchise history, named to seven All-NBA teams and nine All-Star squads, and was a two-time winner of the NBA Slam Dunk competition.
The mid-1980s was a rebuilding period for the Hawks. Mike Fratello replaced Loughery as head coach in 1983. Several new players, including Kevin Willis, Jon Koncak, and Anthony “Spud” Webb, helped the Hawks to a fifty-win season in 1985-86. Wilkins continued to lead the team in scoring and finished second in the league only to Michael Jordan in the 1986-87 season with 29 points per game. Despite four consecutive seasons (1985-89) with fifty wins, the Hawks were unable to win an NBA title, and head coach Mike Fratello was replaced with Bob Weiss from San Antonio.
Hawks Take Flight
During the 1990s the Hawks began to soar. In 1992-93, Wilkins became the Hawks all-time leading scorer. Head coach Lenny Wilkens replaced Weiss in 1993 and led the Hawks to a Central Division title. He was named NBA coach of the year, and in 1994-95 he became the all-time leader in wins for the NBA. Wilkens stressed defense, and guards Mookie Blaylock and Stacey Augmon delivered. Blaylock was second in the league in steals in 1994-95 and was named to the NBA all-defensive first team. The acquisition of Dikembe Mutombo further solidified the strength of the Hawks defense, as he proved by winning the NBA defensive player of the year award in 1996-97. On the offensive side of the ball, Christian Laettner averaged 18.1 points per game and 8.8 rebounds and won a spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star team.
The Hawks were recognized for several individual achievements. Lenny Wilkens won his 1,100th career game and coached his 2,000th regular season game in the 1997-98 season. Steve Smith made his first appearance in the All-Star game and also won the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award. Mutombo was again named the NBA defensive player of the year, Alan Henderson was awarded the league’s most improved player award, and Blaylock led the league in steals.
The Hawks experienced a transitional period during the late 1990s. The team split time between Georgia Tech and the Georgia Dome while awaiting the opening of its new home at Philips Arena (later State Farm Arena). While playing at the Dome, the Hawks broke the NBA single-game attendance record with 62,046 fans and went on to break the single-season home attendance record as well.
In 1999-2000 the Hawks moved into Philips Arena, with seating for 18,118 fans. That same year the team recorded its worst season in franchise history. Wilkens resigned at the end of the season and was replaced with Lon Kruger. Kruger’s tenure was ruled by injuries and losing seasons. Assistant coach Terry Stotts took over in 2002-3, and the highlight of the season was the All-Star game played at Philips Arena. In 2004 the Hawks were sold to Atlanta Spirit LLC, which also owned the Atlanta Thrashers and the rights to Philips Arena, and Mike Woodson took over as the team’s head coach.
With one of the youngest teams in the NBA, the Hawks showed improvement over the next several seasons, finally making it back into the postseason play-offs in 2008. An attendance record was set on May 2, 2008, when 20,425 fans crowded into Philips Arena to watch the Hawks’ win over the Boston Celtics in game six of the first round series. The following year the team ended the 2008-9 season with a winning record of 47-35 and finished second in the Southeast Division and fourth in the Eastern Conference. The next year brought another winning season; the team advanced to the conference play-offs but lost in the second round.
In 2010 Woodson was replaced by Larry Drew, who had served as the Hawks’ lead assistant coach since 2004. The Hawks finished the 2010-11 season with a 44-38 record and advanced to the conference semifinals but lost the round to the Chicago Bulls.
The 2011-12 season began with an NBA lockout, as owners and players argued over the terms of their collective bargaining agreement. The shortened season began in December, and the Hawks ended the regular season with a 40-26 record. The team lost in the first round of the play-offs to the Boston Celtics.
The 2014-15 season was one of the Hawks’ best. Four players, the most in club history, were named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team; the team captured the division championship for the first time in twenty-one years; and it advanced to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in the team’s Atlanta history. After finishing the month of January with a perfect 17-0 record—the most wins in an undefeated month in NBA history—the Hawks ended the regular season with a 60-22 record, a franchise best. Energized by the Hawks’ performance, fans increased attendance at home games to 93 percent capacity at Philips Arena, up from 76.6 percent the previous season.
Following a publicly-funded $192.5 million renovation, the Hawks’ facility in downtown Atlanta was renamed State Farm Arena. The arena reopened for the team’s fiftieth-anniversary season in October 2018.