Dave Cowens was the last player-coach in the NBA. The practice of making a player run your team was a popular one, especially during the 50s. You had guys like Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, and Lenny Wilkens serving in a dual role of player and coach. The practice can’t be performed in today’s NBA, as the league suspended it, making sure players wouldn’t get paid more than their agreed-upon salary.
One of the most fascinating player-coach stories happened in 1957. Here’s a little context: the St. Louis Hawks fired coach Red Holzman, and tried to make Slater Martin a player-coach. Martin served in a dual role, but only for eight games, winning five games in the process. Martin insisted his teammate Alex Hannum would replace him as team’s player-coach, as he got fed up with his new role.
He took up the challenge of coaching while playing, as he led the Hawks to a 15-16 record and the top of Eastern Division. Hannum still wore his jersey, as he would play himself sporadically throughout the regular season. The Hawks were able to reach the NBA Finals, where they would clash with the Celtics. The series went to game 7, with the win-or-go-home game being the one where the story took place.
The game went to double-overtime, and Celtics had a two-point lead with two seconds left on the clock. The Hawks were inbounding the ball under their basket, with a slim chance of winning or even tying the game. Hannum called a timeout, after putting himself into the game a minute earlier. The Hawks gathered around their teammate/coach, waiting to hear a gameplan for the final possession.
“Alex said, ‘All right, I’m going to take the ball out-of-bounds. Pettit, I want you to stand at the opposite foul line. I’m going to throw the ball the length of the court, and it’s going to hit the backboard. Then, Pettit, you’ll get the rebound and tip it in.’ There were nine guys around Hannum, and we all were nodding like we knew what he was talking about. But I was like everyone else. I was thinking that Alex had a hard time hitting the backboard from 15 feet, so how was he going to do it from 94 feet?”
Believe it or not, Hannum’s plan worked. The ball bounced off the backboard and the rim, and Pettit crashed the board and got the shot off. “I caught the ball in midair and shot it before I came down,” said Pettit. “The ball rolled around the rim and came out. Really, as crazy as it sounds, I should have made the shot. Alex’s pass was perfect.”
The C’s celebrated their title in the locker room, drinking beer and shaving Russell’s beard, while player-coach Hannum became a full-time coach the next year, and led his team to the championship in ’58.