L.A.'s Hall of Fame basketball coach who faded from memory

Hannum_Alexander_Alex.jpgThe Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame has inducted 81 men and women in its coaches category. Many of them have local connections ranging from the very famous, such as John Wooden and Phil Jackson, to the ones only slightly associated with the area, like Lute Olson (who briefly coached at Cal State Long Beach), to some whom most would struggle to remember, such as Sam Barry (USC's coach in the 1930s and 1940s).

One coach enshrined, would, if you look at his resume, should be fairly famous. This man coached two different teams to NBA Championships, a feat that only Phil Jackson and Pat Riley have accomplished. He even added an ABA championship. He was an L.A. City high school player of the year at Hamilton High, and then a star at USC. He went on to play in the NBA for eight seasons. He later would coach in the NBA and ABA for 16 seasons. A street in Culver City is named for his father. And it is likely that only a basketball junkie would remember the name of Alex Hannum.

Hannum coached the St. Louis Hawks to an NBA championship in 1958 at the age of 33. He later would coach the Philadelphia 76ers to a 68-13 record and a championship in 1967. And, in 1969, he coached the Oakland Oaks to an ABA championship. And after coaching the Denver Rockets (now the Nuggets) of the ABA in the 1973-74 season, Hannum left pro basketball forever at the age of 50 to become a building contractor in Santa Maria. He passed away 10 years ago on this day (January 18) in San Diego.

When Hannum passed away, it was noted almost entirely in passing. The first notice of his death was a posting on the Philadelphia 76ers website. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times reported the death from that source. And there were no more details. Obituary writers scrambled to come up with stories from former players to provide background, but there wasn't much.

How did someone who grew up in Los Angeles and lived in Torrance and Palos Verdes during his coaching career just fade out of everyone's memory? There are a few reasons. They serve to show just how the NBA has changed so much from the time that Hannum first joined the league until today.

Alex Hannum's NBA playing career was not stellar. He was a 6'7" bruiser, who kept a job in the NBA because of his willingness to dish out and take punishment in the very rough game that basketball was in the 1950s.* He played for teams in Syracuse, Baltimore, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Rochester, and Fort Wayne.

*Some of this was due to rules for a few years that awarded just one free throw for any off the ball foul. It was easier to just trade one free throw for a chance to get the ball back and score two points on a field goal.

Hannum got his first chance to coach at the age of 32 when he took over the St. Louis Hawks as player-coach in the 1956-57 season. The Hawks lost in the Finals to Boston (led by rookie center Bill Russell). Hannum's Hawks would beat the Celtics in the Finals the next year. The Celtics would win the next eight championships in a row until Hannum's 76ers beat them in the Eastern Finals in 1967. Hannum narrated a short video recap of that team.

The NBA of Hannum's era was not particularly prestigious or glamorous. For most of the time, the NBA had just 10 teams in it. And even with teams called Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, games were often moved to neutral sites, like Hershey, Pennsylvania, where Wilt Chamberlain had his 100-point game.

Hannum rarely stayed in one job very long. After winning the championship in St. Louis, he had a contract dispute with the Hawks owner and moved back to Torrance and started a construction business. Hannum knew that NBA coaching was not particularly lucrative and felt he needed a second income.

Once Hannum got back into coaching, he bounced around. Three years with Syracuse, three with San Francisco (including a Finals appearance), two with Philadelphia (including a championship), one with Oakland of the ABA (and a championship), two with the San Diego (now Houston) Rockets (where he frequently clashed with Elvin Hayes whom Hannum felt was a quitter and unwilling to practice hard) and, finally, three seasons with the Denver Rockets (now the Nuggets).

After the 1974 season ended, Hannum knew his coaching days were over. He moved to Santa Maria and threw himself into a contracting business. He would rarely turn up in the local press. He would write letters to the L.A. Times sports section on his construction company's letterhead about basketball, but never would identify himself as a former coach.

In 1979, the Times sent reporter Alan Greenberg up to Santa Maria to interview Hannum, who lived in a house that had no TV or telephone. Hannum claimed to have only seen one NBA game in person since he had left coaching, yet he seemed to know current players very well.

Hannum came off in the interview as a quintessentially grouchy old man. He disliked the stars of the 1970s. He still hated Elvin Hayes. He could not believe Bill Walton took time from his team to be with his wife when she gave birth. He did not believe the NBA should draft players who had left college early, let alone not even played college ball.

He saw his principal rival during his coaching days, Red Auerbach of the Celtics, still enjoying success in the Celtics front office as Boston kept winning championships in the 1970s and 1980s. His USC teammate, Bill Sharman, led the Lakers to an NBA title in 1971-72.

The Basketball Hall of Fame always seemed to pass him by when it came to choose new members. In 1998, Hannum finally was chosen for induction in Springfield, the same year that Larry Bird was elected. Four years later, Hannum passed away in San Diego.

And with Hannum's passing, his low profile became almost nonexistent. The USC basketball media guide makes very mentions of one of its most prominent alums. The last local story I could find about Hannum was written by Karen Crouse of the Daily News back in 1998 after Hannum was chosen for the Hall of Fame. He seemed to have mellowed some, but still disliked Elvin Hayes. (Hayes beat Hannum to Springfield by eight years.)

Despite his accomplishments, Hannum will always remain something of an enigma to basketball fans all over the country. He was always an out-of-towner wherever he coached, as Southern California was his home. But he never coached a Southern California team. Los Angeles basketball was the domain of the likes of John Wooden and the Lakers' parade of stars.

Alex Hannum played and coached the NBA in an era that is long gone. To his credit, Hannum recognized that his time had passed. He was able to move on to something new in his life. If Hannum isn't as well-remembered now as other coaches and players of his era, I somehow don't think he would be all that surprised.

Photo: Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame


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