Before #FearTheDeer, What Was Pro Basketball Like in Milwaukee?

Apr 27, 2018

When you think of the NBA in Milwaukee - of course, the Milwaukee Bucks come to mind. We’ve got Giannis, Jabari, and a new arena in the works. But what was pro basketball like here before the Bucks?

That question is what lead Gary to reach out to Bubbler Talk. He wanted to know: "Who played on Milwaukee’s first professional basketball team? What happened to it? And what years were they in town?"

Well Gary, Milwaukee's first professional sports team was it's professional basketball team - the Milwaukee Hawks.  The NBA team was in Milwaukee for only four seasons, from 1951 to 1955, and... they weren't very good.

"During their time in Milwaukee, they won less than one-third of their games, and they finished last in their division every year," Milwaukee County Historical Society's Ben Barbera explains.

The 1953 Milwaukee Hawks autographed team photo.
Credit MillerCoors Milwaukee Archives

As to why the Hawks were in town for such a short amount of time, Barbera helps tell the story:  “In 1953, the Braves (Milwaukee's first Major League baseball team) came to town, and now there was a team here that was diverting people’s attention.”

He says that the owner Ben Kerner was looking for bigger opportunities, so the team was moved to St. Louis and eventually Atlanta, where they continue to play today.

So, what was it like to attend a Milwaukee Hawks game?

Basketball fan Joel Been knows, he went to a game at what was then the Milwaukee Arena on 4th and Kilbourn. (It is now the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena.) He was 12 years old, and it was his first ever basketball game.

“The memory of the place was dingy and smoky," Been recalls. "I don’t know if that was because of the hot dogs they were preparing or not. But it wouldn’t have shocked me that people could have been puffing during the game to add to that kind of ambiance that I recall.”

Milwaukee Auditorium and Milwaukee Arena on N. 6th St. and W. Kilbourn Ave. in the early 1950s.
Credit Milwaukee County Historical Society

Barbera says Been's memories are spot on about games in that era. "The crowds were smaller, the arenas were smaller. [The arenas] were usually smoke-filled because people could smoke as the games were going on. It was a grittier -  in some ways tougher - game."

He adds that aside from the cigarette smoke, watching a game was different back then for a number of reasons. "One, we didn't have the phenomenal athletes that we see today. The players today are huge and fast and can do amazing things with their bodies. The players in the '50s tended to be big, but not as agile, as quick."

"The rules were different too, there wasn't the 24-second shot clock, there wasn't the eight-second clock to get the ball to mid-court." And there was no three-point shot. 

Barbera continues, "And the style of play was different. Slam dunks were not common. In fact they were often considered rude, for lack of a better term. And even jump shots weren’t common. They were considered to be avant garde and weird. So it was a set shot, a lot of passing. And so scores tended to be lower, not always, but scores were often in the 60s or 70s, which you would never see in the NBA today.” 

Despite the team's losing record, one Milwaukee Hawks player was a real stand-out. 11-time NBA All-Star Bob Pettit played for the Hawks his rookie season, the team's last in Milwaukee. He won Rookie of the Year that season.

Pettit reminisced in an interview with student-run Tiger TV at his alma-mater Louisiana State University about how basketball has changed over the years: “I like the way the game was played. I think there was a great dedication to defense, to playing together, to passing the ball, moving it around.”

He ended up leading the St. Louis Hawks to an NBA championship in 1958 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame. “The [Milwaukee Hawks'] year with Pettit was their best year, and they still lost 20 more games than they won," Barbera shares.

Some other notable Milwaukee Hawks players include Mel Hutchins, Don Otten, and Bill Calhoun.

Chuck Cooper played two seasons for the Hawks, with one of those taking place in Milwaukee.
Credit Chuck Cooper Foundation

And it’s important to note that the make-up of the team, and the NBA as a whole, was different than today - mostly white. But Milwaukee had a few black players. “In fact in 1954, they traded for Chuck Cooper who was the first black player drafted to the NBA," Barbera says.

He says that his impression is that Milwaukee was a relatively welcoming place during that time, but he doesn't know for sure. Barbera says, "[The NBA as a whole during that period] was a was a tough place. [Black players] faced a lot of racism from crowds as well as racism from players and coaches.” 

Though its been over 60 years since the Hawks last called Milwaukee home, the team does hold an important spot in Milwaukee's basketball history. Barbera says the former owner lobbied for the Bucks when the NBA was considering Milwaukee for the franchise in 1967 - saying that in the 1950s, Milwaukee wasn't ready for a professional basketball team, but in 1967, it was.

So in a small way, we can thank the Milwaukee Hawks for the Milwaukee Bucks that we have today.

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