On an April night in San Diego in 1969, Hawks point guard Walt Hazzard stepped to the free throw line late in the fourth quarter against the San Diego Rockets with a chance to give Atlanta its first playoff series victory in a major professional sports league.
He nailed both shots, and the Hawks completed a 19-point comeback to defeat the Rockets, 108-106.
It was the Hawks’ first season in Atlanta, and they had just won the NBA’s Western Division Semifinals, akin to the modern NBA’s Western Conference Semifinals, 4-2.
Both the Braves (Milwaukee) and Falcons (expansion team) had been in Atlanta since 1966, but neither franchise arrived with the recent postseason success of the Hawks, who were coming off six consecutive playoff appearances in St. Louis.
In Game 5 the previous afternoon, the Hawks took a 3-2 series lead with a 112-101 win over the Rockets in front of an Easter Sunday crowd of 4,007 at Alexander Memorial Coliseum.
Former No. 2 overall pick “Pogo” Joe Caldwell — whose grandson Marvin Bagley III would hear his name called second in the NBA draft five decades later — led the way for Atlanta, scoring 26 points to go along with six rebounds and five assists.
Rockets backup power forward John Block, who had been a key contributor in San Diego’s two wins in the series, left the game with a broken wrist and was ruled out for the rest of the playoffs.
Shortly before exiting his postgame press conference that Sunday night, Rockets head coach Jack McMahon guaranteed a Game 6 victory for San Diego, telling reporters, “We’ll beat the Hawks again Monday and we’ll be back Tuesday for Wednesday’s game.”
Hawks power forward Bill Bridges, who notched an 18-point, 17-rebound double-double in the victory, countered with a guarantee of his own.
“Don’t even think about us being back Wednesday,” he told reporters. “We’ll be in Los Angeles [to face the Lakers].”
Both teams were confident, but the Rockets perhaps more so, having won their previous six home contests against Atlanta heading into the elimination game.
San Diego had the best player in the series in rookie center Elvin Hayes, whose 28.4 points and 17.4 rebounds per game ranked first and sixth in the league, respectively.
Not to be overlooked for the Rockets were All-Star forward Don Kojis and rookie playmaker Rick Adelman, who was just the second-best future head coach on a roster that also featured 24-year-old shooting guard and future NBA Godfather, Pat Riley.
The Hawks were no slouches themselves.
Atlanta’s head coach Richie Guerin was the reigning NBA Coach of the Year, and knew his team better than perhaps any coach aside from notable player-coach Bill Russell, having played 27 games in the 1968-1969 season as the Hawks’ third-string shooting guard.
In addition to Caldwell, who made his first of four All-Star teams (two in the NBA, two in the ABA) that season, the Atlanta starting five boasted future Hall of Fame center Zelmo Beaty and All-Star forward “Sweet” Lou Hudson.
Something had to give.
San Diego started Game 6 hot behind Hayes and Kojis, who combined for 19 first-quarter points.
Caldwell kept the Hawks competitive during the first quarter with stingy defense, as Atlanta trailed 29-23 heading into the second period despite shooting 35 percent from the field compared to the Rockets’ 63 percent.
Quarter two was much of the same for Atlanta.
Kojis, who in the offseason worked as stockbroker, scored 13 points in the second quarter as the Rockets’ lead grew to 62-50 by halftime.
San Diego began the second half with an 11-4 run to increase their lead to 73-54, but Atlanta responded with a combined 12 straight points from Hudson and Bridges to bring the game within seven. Atlanta kept Kojis in check throughout the quarter, holding him to just three points.
Down 84-77 to begin the fourth period, the Hawks were primed to steal a win from a Rockets team that held a significant edge in both shooting and rebounding through the game’s first 36 minutes.
While the play-by-play logs of that fateful final period aren’t available, the newspaper archives paint a vivid (although not statistical) picture of how the Hawks completed the best playoff comeback in Atlanta’s then-four-year professional sports history.
Through defensive pressure and attacking the basket, the Hawks were able to pull out a victory despite losing the field-goal battle, 44-41. Atlanta went 26-45 in the game from the foul line compared to the Rockets’ 18-33, and outscored San Diego in the fourth quarter, 31-22.
Hudson led all scorers with 27 points, and playoff standout Bridges backed up his guarantee with a 24-point, 17-rebound outing.
“We simply turned the ball over too many times and lost momentum,” lamented McMahon. “I don’t want to make excuses, but we did miss Block.”
Wednesday’s Game 7 in Atlanta never came to fruition.
Instead, the Hawks would travel 120 miles north to Los Angeles, where they’d face the Lakers’ Big Three of Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor in the first game of a best-of-seven series with an NBA Finals appearance on the line.
Speaking about the impending Western Division Finals matchup, backup Hawks shooting guard Don Ohl summed up his team’s chances in seven rational, yet gloomy words for Atlanta fans.
“It depends on what Wilt Chamberlain does.”
The rest, as they say, is history.