His final game was on April 19, 1970. It was the fourth game of Atlanta’s playoff series with the Los Angeles Lakers. With the Lakers up 3-games-to-0, the Hawks were in dire straits. It was with this urgency that Guerin suited up for the last time for the Atlanta Hawks.
The game turned out to be a turn-back-the-clock performance for Guerin. The 37-year old guard scored an admirable 31 points, but the Lakers throttled the Hawks in the fourth quarter to pull out a 133-114 victory. What’s more amazing about Guerin’s performance is that it was just his second game of that postseason and just his tenth all season.
Richie Guerin’s official duties for the Hawks was as their coach, but the semi-retired guard wasn’t about to watch his time go down without a fight. Such an attitude was typical of Guerin during his lengthy playing career.
Drafted by the New York Knicks back in 1954, Guerin didn’t arrive in the NBA until 1956 thanks to a two-year stint with the Marines. The USMC suited Guerin well since the 6’4″ point guard was a fiery ball of hell on the court.
If only the same could be said of the Knicks, at least in positive terms, during this period. The team was once an NBA powerhouse, but by the time Guerin arrived, they were certifiably the NBA’s worst team aside from the comically bad Chicago Packers. From the 1957-58 season through the 1962-63 season, Guerin averaged 21.8 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 5.7 assists per game, but the Knicks averaged 32 wins.
Guerin during this period was basically a diamond in the rough. He was an All-Star for six straight seasons. He was selected to the All-NBA 2nd Team three times. He set Knicks records for points (57) and assists (21) in a game. But there’s only so much one man can do. Besides, Kenny Sears and Willie Naulls, the Knicks were stacked with mediocre players. Especially since the every single Knicks draft pick in this period was practically thrown down the drain.
(Johnny Green in 1959 was the exception)
Finally conceding defeat, the Knicks were ready to throw in the towel and start anew. The 31-year old Guerin was traded to the St. Louis Hawks two games into the 1962-63 season.
Richie brought his helter skelter style of play to a Hawks team that was the opposite of the Knicks. Perennially a great squad, Guerin became just another great player in their midst. No longer would he need to constantly drive, drive, drive to the basket for buckets and fouls to give his team the least bit of hope for success.
In fact, Guerin was near his end as a player. He was anointed coaching duties for the Hawks in the 1964-65 season. He would be a full-time player-coach that year and in the 1966 and 1967 seasons. Leaving the majority of the point guard duties to Lenny Wilkens, Guerin averaged 14 points and 4.5 assists during this time as player-coach. He finally set aside his playing role in 1967.
Yet, he had a hard time staying away from the court. After winning Coach of the Year in 1968, Guerin returned for 27 games in the 1969 campaign and for his brief cameo appearances of 1970 after guard Walt Hazzard fractured his wrist.
As I’ve written about before, Guerin’s career was a case-study in how playing for horrifically bad teams can produce some astronomically astounding seasons for gifted players. Guerin’s 29 points per game in 1962 for the 29-win Knicks exemplifies that. He also shows that a gifted player can coolly assess a situation and dial back his approach for team benefit, which is such an odd trait for a man so hot-headed.
Years Played: 1956 – 1970
3x All-NBA 2nd Team (1959-’60, 1962)
6x All-Star (1958-’63)
NBA – 848 Games
17.3 PPG, 5.0 APG, 5.0 RPG, 41.6% FG, 78.0% FT
Contemporary NBA Ranks (1956-57 through 1966-67 season)
6th Points, 21st PPG
12th FGs Made
5th FTs Made, 30th FT%
3rd Assists, 6th APG
1st Games Played, 3rd Minutes Played