Connie Hawkins’ ‘interrupted’ career will always be remembered

NBA.com Global on Oct 11, 2017 07:32 AM
Hawkins’ ‘interrupted’ career will always be remembered
FILE - In this Feb. 16, 1971, file photo, Connie Hawkins of the Phoenix Suns goes to the basket against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden in New York. Basketball great Connie Hawkins has died at 75. The Hall of Famer's death was announced in a statement Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, by the Phoenix Suns, the team with which he spent his most productive NBA seasons. (AP Photo/Robert Kradin, File)

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

Men die but myths live on, which is why Connie Hawkins will stick around a lot longer than most of us.

Hawkins, who passed away at age 75 Friday, was more mythic than so many of his peers precisely for the hurdles and obstacles he had to navigate, seriously unfair challenges that marred his basketball career and almost torpedoed it.

A slender 6'8" forward most remembered for his styling ‘70s facial hair, a glide like Clyde’s and hands big enough to wave the ball around like a grapefruit, Hawkins left us forever wanting more not at the back end of his career but at the front. He arrived late, held off by allegations that proved to be unfounded and a ban from the NBA – first unofficial, then more formal – that kept him knocking around the professional game’s netherworld for eight long years.

Hawkins played seven seasons in the league. He had his best year as a 27-year-old rookie in 1969-70, averaging 24.6 points and 9.1 rebounds as the Phoenix Suns’ first superstar. He was an All-Star in each of his first four seasons, and his court exploits were known widely enough – more word of mouth than video in those days – that he made it into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame anyway.

But the feeling nags, days after his ultimate departure, that he and we were cheated by his delayed arrival.

“As a man, he went through all of the stuff he had to, to get to the NBA,” said Spencer Haywood, a fellow Hall of Famer and near-contemporary of Hawkins. “Getting slammed out of the University of Iowa for what, $200? And I don’t even know if that was the case. Then he had to play for the Pittsburgh Rens to keep his game going. Then the Trotters. And then lo and behold, the ABA.”

That’s a paragraph in need of serious unpacking. Hawkins already was a playground legend in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn where he grew up and a budding star in leading Boys High to consecutive city titles. His mother was blind and on welfare when the college recruiting rush began, with Hawkins choosing the University of Iowa. But after his freshman year, he was snared in a 1961 NCAA investigation into gambling and point-shaving.

Hawkins’ alleged transgressions? Accepting $200 from a shadowy figure named Jack Molinas and introducing other players to the lawyer and his associates.

Hawkins’ brother Fred said he repaid the loan before the scandal broke. Hawkins, still a teenager, was questioned by the FBI without legal representation. But none of it mattered: Iowa pulled his scholarship. The NBA wouldn’t draft a player until his college class graduated – and in Hawkins’ case, would never draft him at all – so he had to find another path.

Here’s what he found: A spot with the Rens in the start-up American Basketball League that folded beneath him in less than two seasons. A job with the Harlem Globetrotters, traveling the world, winning nightly, never playing a home game, for the next four years. And then “lo and behold” in 1967, a deal with the Pittsburgh Pipers in the inaugural season of the American Basketball Association. Hawkins already was married with children and a brother-in-law who was mentally impaired, so he jumped at a two-year deal worth $45,000.

It was George Mikan, the NBA’s first marquee player and the ABA’s first commissioner, who cleared Hawkins and several other scandal-tainted players such as Roger Brown, Tony Jackson and Charlie Williams to sign in the renegade league.

“Hey, anybody can make a mistake, and look what happened after we gave those guys a second chance,” Mikan later told author Terry Pluto for his oral history of the ABA, “Loose Balls.”

The NBA didn’t share that view under commissioner Walter Kennedy. Hawkins, finally eligible for entry in 1964, mysteriously went undrafted that spring. And in 1965. And again in 1966, by which time he officially was banned.

By then, the Hawk was in full flight. He led Pittsburgh to the red-white-and-blue league’s first championship and was named MVP after averaging 26.8 points, 13.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists. In 1968-69, he upped his scoring to 30.2 with 11.4 boards, but the ABA’s fatal financial woes already had begun; the Pittsburgh team was moved to Minnesota that season, only to be moved back to Pittsburgh a year later. The franchise died in 1972, four years before the ABA itself suspended operations in a semi-disbanding, semi-merger into the NBA.

Hawkins already had flown by then. Attorneys Roz and David Litman had met the player years earlier and had taken an interest in his plight. Fueled by reporter David Wolf’s investigation and article in LIFE magazine (and subsequent biography “Foul!”) about Hawkins’ blacklisting, they helped him become the first athlete to sue a major sports league and gain both a contract and damages.

Their $6 million antitrust lawsuit against the NBA was settled for $1.3 million and a five-year, guaranteed contract reportedly worth $410,000. It helped that the NBA still was looking over its shoulder at the ABA, a competitive threat to drain talent.

“You have to remember, we were in an NBA/ABA war,” said Haywood, who followed Hawkins in the courtroom with his lawsuit as the game’s first “hardship” case, then followed him for a year into the ABA.

“Rick Barry had jumped to the ABA. You had Joe Caldwell, Zelmo Beaty. You have players jumping back and forth. So the war was on,” Haywood said. “And the NBA was saying, ‘I want some young guys. I want some fancy-playing guys. I want some guys who have a little bit of street ball in ‘em.’ ”

Haywood, 68, had felt a kinship with Hawkins despite the difference in their ages. It was Hawkins who had warned him – through a mutual friend, Pistons forward Sonny Dove – about Jim Harding, a martinet who had been fired as Pipers coach but was about to take over at Haywood’s school, Detroit Mercy. That’s what drove Haywood out of college.

Haywood had gotten the news of Hawkins’ death from former ABA/NBA star Charlie Scott that night, after playing in a charity golf tournament in Puerto Vallarta to benefit survivors of last month’s earthquake in central Mexico. And as he recalled it, he wound up starting his NBA career in Seattle because Hawkins had gone to Phoenix in an under-the-radar coin flip after the lawsuit was settled.

The Suns, more famous for the coin flip they lost with Milwaukee in 1969 for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, got Hawkins and the Sonics and owner Sam Schulman got dibs on the ABA’s next star refugee, which ended up being Haywood after his lone season with Denver (30.0 points, 19.5 rebounds).

How good was Hawkins at age 27?

“Go look at the stats. Go look at the records. ... Hawk was a mother—,” Haywood said. “Because he had tricks from the Globetrotters. He had experience from the Rens and the ABA. So he could trick you a little bit, but he was an outstanding ballplayer.”

Both men became known for their ability to palm and manipulate the ball. “That was our thing, the big hands. The ball was small in our hands. I used to watch the Hawk because I was a little bit younger and I’d be like, ‘Yeah, that’s who I want to play like.’ I wanted to rebound like Bill Russell and move the ball around in my hand and show it like the Hawk.”

Hawkins, in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, once said of his style: “If I didn’t break the laws of gravity, I was slow to obey them.”

Said Barry, another Hall of Famer who did his own jumping from the NBA to the ABA and back: “As you look at basketball and the small forward position, there was a progression. You had Elgin, who was doing things that nobody had done before. And then really, the next guy was Connie, who took it to another level. Then Julius came along to take it to yet another level with the air in his game. And then Michael, though he was more of a 2 than a 3, and now you’ve got LeBron.”

Their iconic status is evident in that all of them – Baylor, Hawkins, Erving, Jordan and James – can get by on first names alone.

“He was one of those guys who was a real showman, able to do things most players couldn’t do. He was a fancy passer, with the crazy one-hand stuff, and then going up for those tomahawk dunks,” Barry said. “Very fun guy, an interesting guy to be around. Unfortunately he got deprived of being able to show his skills in the NBA for a long time, which really hurt.”

Hawkins’ deal with Phoenix brought him into orbit with Jerry Colangelo, the Suns’ general manager, interim coach and eventual owner. And as Haywood recalled from his own close relationship with Schulman, “With all the things going on with Connie at that time, God placed him with the perfect human being not only for that team but for his life.”

Colangelo was only 30 when Hawkins joined the Suns, and the two hit it off as friends beyond their work relationships. His instant success in the NBA, Colangelo’s work on the sideline before hiring Cotton Fitzsimmons and Hawkins’ impact on Phoenix’s record – from 16-66 as an expansion team to 39-43 and the playoffs, in what then was the league’s biggest one-year improvement ever – bonded the two.

“The Hawk, more importantly, put us on the map,” Colangelo said. “He gave us credibility immediately. That’s something you can’t ever forget.”

Hawkins’ numbers dropped off, though he kept making All-Star teams through 1973. Then Phoenix traded him to the Lakers, a team craving star power as Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West, in order, called it quits. But Hawkins, due to knee surgery and drug and drinking habits, “had some mileage on him” by age 31, Colangelo said.

He averaged 11 points and 6.3 rebounds in two seasons with L.A., then finished 1975-76 in Atlanta (during which he appeared in the second episode ever of “Saturday Night Live,” in a hilarious 1-on-1 matchup against 5-foot-3 singer/songwriter Paul Simon).

It was during his time with the Hawks, in an anecdote related by Peter Vecsey in a 2009 New York Post piece, that Hawkins one night missed an uncontested dunk. Looking over to the bench, he said, “Either they gotta lower the basket or raise the floor, ‘cuz the Hawk can’t soar no more.”

Hawkins’ infirmities and issues accelerated after his playing career, so much so that when word filtered back to Colangelo, the Suns boss grew alarmed. He contacted his former player in the early 1990s, gifted him with a plane ticket from the East Coast and brought him back into the franchise.

“I told him, ‘I’m going to take care of you physically’ – because he needed some work – ‘and then I want you to go to work for me.’ He spent the next 25 years doing that,” Colangelo said.

“He was special to me. He had a charisma to him. He was quiet, he was humble, he was funny. He had an ability to articulate, and he was good with relationships in a quiet way, so he was very effective in doing community service work for the Suns. And just his presence – being at games, being around – I think that goes a long way for a franchise to have some history.”

In all their years together, Colangelo never pressed Hawkins about the controversy that delayed and nearly derailed his career. Had there been any merit whatsoever to the allegations?

“I choose to believe what he represented. The worst thing he could be accused of is introducing some guy,” said Colangelo, chairman of the Hall of Fame, executive director of USA Basketball and special adviser to the Philadelphia 76ers. “When you’re on the playgrounds, there are all kinds of guys hanging out. That could happen so easily. And bear in mind that Jack Molinas was a former player. He wasn’t some guy dressed in a zoot suit standing on a corner.

“Because of that, I believe that it was innocuous. There was never intent on Connie’s part to do anything. And the lawsuit proved there wasn’t.”

As badly as Hawkins and NBA fans were cheated out of his early career, as much as it pre-empted any Top 50 or Mt. Rushmore sort of status, Colangelo is inclined to smile over what we all did get of Hawkins.

“It was tragic when Connie wasn’t able to go the normal course and go to school,” he said. “Had he come in as a young player, he would have had an incredible career. But having said that, he leaves this Earth as a legend. He was one of the great players of all-time coming out of a hotbed of basketball in New York. He traveled the world with the Globetrotters. He became recognized as one of the top five players in the league his first year in the NBA.

“You could say that his journey was checkered or it was interrupted. He had to fight, fight, fight. And the fact that he accomplished what he did, we can look back and say, ‘Hawk, you did good.’”

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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