The Trophy Case: The Worst Trade in NBA History
Asst. Sports Director
This past week, two major events took place for the National Basketball Association (NBA): The 2020 NBA Draft and the start of free agency for the league. The draft was a night filled with excitement, as always, seeing the top prospects in the world be drafted to organizations that either needed that star player or that one addition to make them a championship contender. Free agency has only been ongoing for a day but we have already seen major moves such as The Oklahoma City Thunder’s longtime center Steven Adams being traded to the New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Laker center Dwight Howard signing with the Philadelphia 76ers. The draft and free agency alike are unpredictable, surprising, and keep people guessing all at once. The worst trade in NBA history occurred in 1956 as a result of ongoing racism throughout the nation that changed the landscape of sports forever.
Entering the 1956 NBA Draft, the top prospect was center Bill Russell out of the University of San Francisco. Russell averaged 20.7 points and 20.3 rebounds throughout his three seasons while in college. Russell also had led San Francisco to two NCAA Championships and would end up winning both. NBA personnel at the time knew he was going to change a franchise and bring them a championship no matter where he went. The Boston Celtics needed a big guy who could contribute to both sides of the ball, and Celtics owner Red Auerbach knew Bill Russell was that man.
The Celtics had previously finished second overall the previous season which meant they had a low draft pick and needed to trade to get Russell. The Rochester Royals (now the Sacramento Kings) had the first pick in the draft but already had a strong rebounder in Maurice Strokes, and wanted a shooting guard who could shoot from the outside. The second pick in the NBA Draft belonged to the St. Louis Hawks (now the Atlanta Hawks) and would end up drafting Russell. However, the team was looking to get rid of Russell and trade for Celtics big man Ed Macauley, who was a six-time all star who was from St. Louis which would make him a fan favorite. Macaulay had already asked to be traded to St. Louis so he could be close to home and tend to his sick son who had an illness. Boston contacted St. Louis and initially agreed on a deal that would see Russell go to the Celtics and Macauley go to St. Louis. The Hawks however later called Auerbach and demanded more in the trade. They wanted forward Cliff Hagan, who was drafted three years previously by Boston, but was drafted into the military and was overseas at the time serving. In fact, he had not even played one minute of professional basketball since being drafted a few years earlier and was serving our country for three years already. Auerbach agreed to trade both players for Russell and the rest as they say is history.
This trade has been regarded as one of the worst decisions and draft trades in NBA history. Russell would end up winning 11 NBA titles with Boston, win five Most Valuable Player awards, be selected as a 12 time All-Star, and be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall-of-Fame in 1975. The Hawks however had little revenge on Boston winning their first and only NBA Championship to date against the Celtics in 1958. This 1958 Hawks team would actually be the last NBA team to win the Championship without a black player on their roster. This would not be the only discussion of race throughout this whole story,
Years later, rumors started to swirl around the basketball world that the Hawks did not want Russell at all due to the racial climate present at the time in St. Louis. The 1958 championship team being filled with all white players was suggested as evidence for this theory. In 2013, Boston sports journalist Bill Smmons asked Russell about this controversy and he had confirmed this to be the truth of the matter. The Celtic legend stated “St. Louis was overwhelmingly racist. If I would have gotten drafted (and played) in St. Louis I wouldn’t have been in the NBA.”
Not to mention, the Celtics used their territorial pick (picks where each team got to select a local prospect of their choosing) to draft Celtics legend and basketball hall-of-famer Tommy Heinsohn out of the University of Holy Cross located in Worcester, Massachusetts, who passed away earlier this month. In the second round, the Celtics would also select another hall-of-famer with guard K.C. Jones out of the University of San Francisco where he was Bill Russell’s teammate.
The 1956 NBA Draft is remembered for the worst trade, deal, and decision in North American sports history. The landscape of sports would have changed if Bill Russell did not go to Boston
and went somewhere else. So many what-if scenarios could have occurred if the draft did not go the way it did. The Celtics arguably became the legendary and historic franchise they are as a result of this draft bringing a new culture to Boston sports. Unfortunately this occurred due to racism being an ongoing problem within the United States. It is over 50 years later and the same problems are occurring, not as prominent, but still. We shall never forget this draft due to it’s notorious deals and also the multiple hall-of-fame players drafted that year.