Their origins can be traced to the establishment of the Buffalo Bisons in 1946, a member of the National Basketball League. After 13 games of their inaugural season, the team moved to Moline, Illinois and became the Tri-City Blackhawks. In 1949, they joined the National Basketball Association (NBA) as part of the National Basketball League and the Basketball Association of America merger. In 1951, The team moved to Milwaukee, where they changed their name to the Hawks. The team moved again in 1955 to St. Louis, where they won their only NBA Championship in 1958. The Hawks moved to Atlanta in 1968, where they have been ever since.
The Hawks currently own the second-longest run (behind the Sacramento Kings) of not winning an NBA title (54 years). All of the franchise's NBA Finals appearances and lone NBA championship took place when the team resided in St. Louis. Meanwhile, they have not advanced beyond the second round in any playoff format since the elimination of first-round byes in 1967—including their entire 44-year stay in Atlanta. Much of the failure they've experienced in the post-season can be traced back to their poor history in the NBA Draft. Since 1980, the Hawks have drafted three players who have ever been chosen to play in an All-Star game (Doc Rivers, Kevin Willis, and Al Horford; Dominique Wilkins was actually selected by the Utah Jazz and traded to the Hawks a few months after the draft). Horford is the only All-Star Hawk to have been drafted since Willis was selected in 1984, and is also the only first-rounder the Hawks selected in their nine-year playoff drought to play in an NBA All-Star Game.
1946-1953: Early years(now the Quad Cities). Kerner renamed the team the Tri-Cities Blackhawks in reference to the Black Hawk War that was mostly fought in Illinois. The Blackhawks became one of the National Basketball Association's 17 original teams after a merger in 1949 of the 12-year-old NBL and the three-year-old Basketball Association of America. The Blackhawks reached the playoffs in the NBA's inaugural year, under the leadership of coach Red Auerbach, playing in Moline, IL's Wharton Fieldhouse. However, the following season, the team drafted three-time All-American Bob Cousy, but they were unable to reach a deal with him. The Blackhawks traded him to the Chicago Stags, who would later surrender him in a dispersal draft to the Boston Celtics after they folded. The Blackhawks finished last in the Western Division and missed the playoffs. By then, it was obvious that the Tri-Cities was too small to support an NBA team. After the season, the franchise relocated to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and became the Milwaukee Hawks.
1953-1965: The Bob Pettit eraIn 1953, the Hawks drafted Bob Pettit, a future NBA MVP. Despite this, the Hawks were one of the league's worst teams, and in 1955 the Hawks moved yet again, this time to St. Louis, Missouri, Milwaukee's rival in the beer industry, and became the St. Louis Hawks.
In 1957, the team advanced to the Finals, losing to the Boston Celtics in a double-overtime thriller in game seven. In 1958, the Hawks again advanced to the 1958 NBA Finals where they avenged their previous year's defeat against the Boston Celtics, winning the series 4–2. Bob Pettit scored 50 points in Game 6 in front of a crowd of 10,218 in St. Louis. The victory gave the Hawks their first and only NBA Championship.
The Hawks remained one of the NBA's premier teams for the next decade. In 1960, under coach Ed Macauley, the team advanced to the Finals, but lost to the Celtics in another game seven thriller. The following year, with the acquisition of rookie Lenny Wilkens, the Hawks repeated their success, but met the Celtics in the Finals again and lost in five games. They would remain contenders for most of the 1960s, advancing deep into the playoffs and also capturing several division titles.
1965-1975: Relocation to AtlantaDespite the success, Kerner became wary of the Hawks' longtime home, Kiel Auditorium. The 33-year-old arena seated only 10,000 people and was starting to show its age. The Hawks occasionally played at the larger St. Louis Arena (mostly against popular opponents), but Kerner was not willing to move the team there full-time because it had not been well-maintained since the 1940s. Kerner wanted a new arena to increase revenue. However, he was rebuffed by the city on several occasions.
The years after the move showcased a talented Hawks team, including Pete Maravich, and Lou Hudson. However, after this period of success, the Hawks experienced years of rebuilding. The rebuilding process appeared to be the right direction when they ended up with the 1st and 3rd picks overall in the 1975 NBA Draft. However, it took a turn for the worse when the players drafted with those two picks, David Thompson of North Carolina State and Marvin Webster of Morgan State, both signed on with the Denver Nuggets of the American Basketball Association and never played for the Hawks.