Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, no rivalry in the NBA was hotter or better than the Boston Celtics versus the St. Louis Hawks.
The Celtics trotted out stars like Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, Bill Sharman, Frank Ramsey and K.C. Jones. The Hawks countered with Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagan, Slater Martin, Ed Macauley and Clyde Lovellette. Every one of those players is in the Hall of Fame, by the way.
Between 1957 and 1961, the clubs battled in four NBA Finals, with two of the series going the full seven games. Boston won three of these titles, St. Louis one. The on-court battles surely were amazing, but the most bloodthirsty aspect of these contests didn't concern any of the players.
Hawks owner Ben Kerner and Celtics coach Red Auerbach absolutely despised each other long before their teams battled in the playoffs for the first time in 1957.
Back in 1950, Kerner's Hawks franchise was located in the Tri-Cities of Iowa and Illinois and called the Blackhawks. That season, Kerner had hired Red Auerbach as his coach. Although just 32, Auerbach had already demonstrated success as a pro coach.
With the Washington Capitals in the old BAA, Auerbach had a .684 win percentage and got his team to the 1947 BAA Finals. In the 1950 season, the first of the NBA's existence, Auerbach achieved a respectable 28-29 record with the Blackhawks.
Kerner, however, was dissatisfied with the team's early postseason exit. He canned Auerbach after the season. Furthermore, Auerbach was displeased that the meddlesome owner hadn't kept his pledge to leave Auerbach in charge of personnel.
Years later, in 1957, Auerbach and Kerner met in the Finals and none of the bad blood had dissipated over time. The two men exchanged verbal jabs over the course of the whole Finals series.
Words turned to action prior to Game 5. In pregame warm-ups at the Hawks' arena, Bob Cousy noted to Auerbach that the baskets didn't seem to be at regulation height. Auerbach brought in the game officials to inspect the basket height.
Seeing the scene unfold, Kerner hopped onto the court and began to berate what he saw as Auerbach's bush-league tactics. We'll let Cousy recall the rest of the scene...
Kerner took Arnold’s questioning the basket as a personal affront. He was screaming obscenities at Arnold, questioning his integrity. Arnold had his back turned to Kerner. As Kerner came closer, Arnold just turned around and leveled him. He really cold-cocked Kerner, put him right down at midcourt with a sold-out crowd waiting for the game to begin.
Yes, the coach of one NBA finalist decked the owner of the other team in front of a sold-out arena. The two enemies continued their feud over the years, but Kerner hitting the floor by the fist of Auerbach was their highwater mark and emblematic of the biggest feud in NBA history.