In his seat at midcourt, feet stretched out to the raised floor, Ben Kerner watches his St. Louis Hawks. As Lenny Wilkens brings the ball upcourt, Kerner tilts his face to the scoreboard, and his eyebrows seem to pull his eyes up after them. His face is constructed that way, in a delicate balance; when one feature moves, it triggers another. Photographers are fascinated by it. When his mouth curls up and he says something like, "Ya follow me?" his eyes automatically shut. The score confirmed, Ben returns to the action and lights another cigarette in the chain. Off season, he smokes hardly at all.
This is Kerner's 21st year in the game, on a serpentine route from Buffalo to Tri-Cities (now Quad Cities) to Milwaukee to St. Louis. A bachelor, carrying the franchise as salesmen do Samsonite, changing coaches as others do TV repairmen, Kerner's life has been a series of skirmishes, and he has never escaped his early image. A cagey hustler, he was called, a cutrate Sol Hurok who would always be around, promoting, as long as there was another city in the Midwest and the Harlem Globies could be brought in for a prelim. Today the St. Louis franchise is worth something like $3 million—all Ben's—and the Hawks are off on an 11-1 tear, with a commanding lead in the Western Division. And Kerner is still promoting. His latest stunt has been so effective that Advertising Age decided to keep Madison Avenue abreast of developments. What Kerner is doing is giving away every seat in the house for the San Diego game this Sunday. He bought full-page newspaper ads to announce it, and the Hawks were swamped with 45,000 requests for the 10,000 seats. "Distributing free tickets is not an easy problem," says Kerner, in the nasal voice that suggests a poor Jimmy Cagney imitation.
Still, despite the evidence of continuing, hard-earned success, despite the fact that his teams win and that he makes money in the shabbiest arena in the NBA, he is regularly dismissed as an oldtime nickel-dime cigar smoker. He is given credit, grudgingly, only for being a dodo with unusual powers of survival.
In another time, when brash acumen and ambition were prized characteristics, Kerner would stand as a proud symbol, Horatio Alger. But in sports today, with the spiffy municipal arenas and hot TV money, the guy who once scrambled for a buck in the dance halls of an earlier era is held in a kind of sneering tolerance by the new gentleman owners. Kerner is likely the last of his species. Now the owners buy in at the top, and the occupation is a pastime.
The success of Kerner's team is also contrary to modern-day programming. The Hawks do not even have a superstar (last year's leading scorer, Lou Hudson, may someday earn that status, but he is now a soldier). They win with hustle, cunning and brawn and are rewarded with anonymity. The coach is Richie Guerin, who succeeded to that precarious station on Dec. 27, 1964. There had been 10 before him in 12 years but now, amazingly, Guerin is "the dean of NBA coaches." The lesson, perhaps, is that even Henry VIII eventually would have found The Right One if he'd been as choosy as Ben Kerner.
Guerin and the team have prospered despite an unusual number of injuries and a succession of player retirements ( Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagan, Richie Guerin). This year's version of Coach Guerin, the one in winged-tip loafers, is hardly different from last year's sneakered model, when he was still part of the act on the court. He is respected and appropriately tough, not the least bit shy, as the Hawks say, about "hitting you in the hip" with a fine.
There is a change in the team, however, because of Guerin's absence as a player. His departure, after Pettit's and Hagan's, resulted in a complete overhaul of the team's style. Whereas for years St. Louis played pattern ball, setting things up for the reliable but slow front line, it is now a running, pressing team. The Hawks take more shots than ever before. Wilkens, Joe Caldwell and Zelmo Beaty are averaging around 20 points a game and the other three regulars are also in double figures. This has not led to neglect of the traditionally tough defense. Indeed, the press has aided it.
Wilkens, a crafty apparition, is the conductor of the attack. Just turned 30 and recovering from two seasons of foot injuries, he bridles at talk that he has slowed down. Since his two backcourt partners—Dick Snyder and Caldwell—are both converted forwards and not proficient ball-handlers, Wilkens' good health is essential to St. Louis success. Among his massive teammates, Wilkens looks rather like the coxswain of an imposing crew, and he runs things with the same authority, calling plays in an unhurried, conversational voice.
"It was hard to break away from pattern ball after so many years," Wilkens says. "With Richie, we couldn't run, and I also think at times there was a subconscious feeling that we all had to give up the ball to the coach when he was in the game. It wasn't a serious thing, but it was there sometimes. For instance, I'd take the ball out, and while maybe my instinct would be to look quickly upcourt, I'd just naturally turn and give it to Richie."
The voice at the other end of the court is Wilkens' roommate and loyal pinochle partner, Beaty, The Z. He is a constant guide on defense, talking his teammates through picks and screens. At 6'9", Beaty is acknowledged the best center in the league after the big three, Thurmond, Chamberlain and Russell. Small in that company, Beaty must go to the high post a lot, depend more on guile and mobility, and try to lure the giants outside.