With the enthusiastic support given to the Steelers and Penguins, Pittsburgh is often described as a football and hockey town. Judging from the crowds that flock to PNC Park when the Pirates have flirted with success during the past couple of seasons, it might even still be considered a baseball town. Rarely, though, is it described as a basketball town. True, the city does support its collegiate teams, but a stable, professional franchise has been elusive.
In 1946, the Pittsburgh Ironmen played hoops for just one season at the Duquesne Gardens in the Basketball Association of America, the precursor to NBA. And in the early 1960s, the Pittsburgh Renaissance, quite possibly the only sports franchise named after a large scale urban renewal project, played ball at the Civic Arena (appropriately enough) in the short-lived American Basketball League.
The most successful pro basketball team to call Pittsburgh home was the Pittsburgh Pipers, who won the championship in the inaugural season of the American Basketball Association. Connie Hawkins, the team’s star player, led the league in scoring and captured the MVP award. Good enough to play in the NBA, Hawkins had been relegated to the ABA after being blacklisted by the more established league for suspected involvement in a point-shaving scandal.
Though the team drew considerable crowds to its games at the Civic Arena, the franchise relocated to Minnesota following the 1967-1968 season. After failing to catch on in the Twin Cities, the team returned to Pittsburgh for the 1969-1970 season. Fresh from being spurned by the team after their first season, Pittsburghers greeted the returning squad with lukewarm support. It didn’t help that, by this time, Hawkins had disproved the allegations against him and was playing for the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, on his way to a Hall-of-Fame career.
After rebranding themselves the Pittsburgh Condors, the team hung around for a couple of more seasons before the ABA folded the franchise in 1973. Despite the name change, the team failed to catch on as they had in 1968.
To learn more about what was happening in Pittsburgh and beyond during 1968, head to the Heinz History Center’s new exhibit, 1968: The Year that Rocked America.