…Sweet Lou, sweet as in cool jazz put down by a lightly plucked bass and the hushed swirling of brushes around a drum head. His skin is the color of light coffee, his features regular and smooth, his temperament equable. His game is heavy on the sugar: there is a gentle rhythm to his constant motion on offense and a classic softness in his jump shot, of which there is none prettier.
Cool Jazz: Lou Hudson was indeed a cool character on the court. His seeming lack of flair is probably to blame for his footnote status in NBA history. To boot, he spent the bulk of his playing days in the cold outer reaches of the basketball universe. First was his collegiate stint at the University of Minnesota under coach John Kundla, who won several titles as coach of the Minneapolis Lakers in the NBL, BAA, and NBA, but achieved little with the Golden Gophers. Second, Hudson was drafted a lofty #4 by the St. Louis Hawks in 1966 after averaging a 20-and-8 with a broken wrist during his senior year at Minnesota.
As you may know, the Hawks are no longer in St. Louis, so any potential myth/narrative/memory of Hudson carrying on the torch lit by Bob Pettit, Ed Macauley & co. was squashed. Third, those Hawks moved to Atlanta in 1968, a city notorious – fair or not – for its fair-weather attitude toward professional sports. However, like a cool, swinging jazz bass, you may not consciously notice Hudson was expertly plying his craft, but just like that bass once you are awakened to Lou’s presence, you deeply dig the groove.
Regular, Smooth, Equable: “Super Lou” spent 13 seasons in the NBA, 11 of which came with the Hawks. Along with Pettit and Dominique Wilkins, he forms the troika of legendary Hawks. Indeed, they are the only ones to have their jerseys retired by the franchise and they all hold the franchise record for points in a single game (57). Hudson also scored the first points in Atlanta Hawks history, truly a harbinger of his stay in Georgia. For seven consecutive seasons, Hudson averaged at least 22 points a game including five in a row of 25-plus. Add on to that a robust side production of 5.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 49.6% FG and 80.3% FT. Lastly, Hudson was a maniacal thief of the basketball. In the first season of recorded steals (1973-74), Hudson averaged 2.5 steals a game.
The only blips in his steady play came from Uncle Sam drafting him into the army during the 1967-68 season. Hudson only appeared in 48 games that season, which produced a unwarranted sophomore slump after he’d made the All-Rookie Team. More serious was an elbow injury suffered in 1974-75 limiting him to 11 games. That injury unfortunately undermined Hudson’s late career effectiveness.
Heavy on the Sugar: Prior to the elbow injury, “Sweet Lou” unleashed his prodigious scoring numbers by relying on a jump shot as saccharine as any before or since. He was not a high-flyer, a wizard with the ball, or a bruiser down low. He would just kill you softly with that jumper while his frontcourt cohorts Walt Bellamy, Paul Silas and Bill Bridges would punish you down low. The first phase of Hudson’s Hawkdom culminated in 1970 when he averaged a healthy 25 points on a blistering 53% shooting. He was named an All-Star starter and to the All-NBA 2nd Team that season. The Hawks as a team also reached its apex, winning 48 games and losing to the Lakers in the Western Division Finals. Although the series was a sweep, two of the contests were decided by a combined five points and the Hawks lost their starting point guard, Mahdi Abdul-Rahman, to injury midway through the series.
That season and series loss was the true death of the Hawks’ St. Louis character. The roster would be overhauled, coaches changed, and conferences switched during the next two seasons. All the while, Sweet Lou was swingin’ along.
Constant Motion: In 1971, on board came Pete Maravich and in 1972 coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. The Hawks made the playoffs both years with a mediocre 36 wins each time, but Cotton was on to an offensive scheme from heaven. “Pistol Pete” was given free reign to wheel and deal, so long as he sought out “Super Lou” who was to ceaselessly move without the ball: cutting to the hoop, dashing around screens, being Reggie Miller before there was Reggie Miller. Their synchronicity was ridiculously productive. They reached their apogee in 1973 and 1974 where they combined for 53 points a game both years. In 1973, they became only the second pair of teammates to score 2,000 points a piece for a season. That ’73 season, with Walt Bellamy the only interior holdover, the Hawks put together a strong season of 46 wins and were finally legit playoff participants. Such was their luck that they faced off with the Boston Celtics (the most forgotten about 68-win team ever) that postseason.
Despite the bad draw, Hudson played his heart out averaging 30 points and 8 rebounds but Boston triumphed in 6 games. This proved to be the highlight of the Hawks sudden resurgence. The team regressed to 35 wins in 1974, Maravich was traded in ’75, and Lou went down with his elbow injury that same year. As the Hawks sank ever deeper, Sweet Lou at the age of 32 was traded to the Lakers for the 1977-78 season. Two relatively productive seasons – 12 PPG on 51% FG – as a reserve were followed by retirement in 1979. Maybe hanging around for one more season and getting a ring with the 1980 Lakers would have salvaged a bit more of a popular legacy for Hudson, but really, what else was left for Sweet Lou to prove?
An L.A. championship probably would have added a sweet memory to Lou Hudson’s own mind. But for the rest of us, it shouldn’t add to or diminish from his greatness as a player. Truly one of the game’s best scorers, and absolutely one of the greatest Hawks.
All-NBA 2nd Team (1970)
6x All-Star (1969-’74)
All-Rookie Team (1967)
Regular Season Career Averages (890 games):
Playoff Career Averages (61 games):