Expelled by his college, blackballed by the NBA, an innocent Connie Hawkins leaves behind basketball skills that others inherited and will be remembered as one of the best to play the game
“The Hawk” passed away Friday at age 75 after starring in both the ABA and NBA
Commentary By Arnie Leshin, Santa Fe Today
Connie Hawkins went through it all, the camaraderie and dissension in the locker room, the gambling scandal, the blacklists, legal battles, and still was recognized by those who saw him play as the greatest basketball player ever.
If not, he still set the standard for what was to follow in the world of hoops.
He was Julius before Julius. He was Michael before Michael. He was LeBron before LeBron. He soared through the air with the greatest of ease. Nobody could match his long strides, where he would hold the ball in one hand, wheel it around, and slam it into the basket.
His grace and athleticism was well ahead of his time. His signature style of play is now a hall mark of the modern game.
He had large hands. At 6-foot-8, he could dribble like a guard, could post up, could toss in a hook shot, could run the floor like a sprinter, bat away shots, and so unselfish, he would lead his teams in assists. Oh, and he could dunk the ball at age 11.
Sadly, he passed away Friday at the age of 75. Sadly, his career was cut short by being accused, but never arrested or indicted, at the time of the point shaving, gambling scandal in 1961. A freshman at the University of Iowa, he was expelled from the school and banned by the NBA, although blackballed was a better word.
It was said that he took money and gifts from recruiters, one being Fred (the spook) Stegman, who beat out numerous recruiters to bring Hawkins to Iowa. But he had no part in the point-shaving, the gambling, his only fault was knowing sly characters like Stegman, NYC attorney Jack Molinas, Mike Tynberg and others, so he was suspected of being involved.
He was born in Brooklyn, something I had in common with him. I would take the A train to the Bedford-Stuyvesant station and walk over to the schoolyard where he was playing with friends from his neighborhood and ones who came from other parts of New York City.
He was a junior at the time at Boys High School, one of the better athletic program in the city, and that was when he first came out for the team. It was when he was discovered in 1959 by scoring 24.6 points per game, taking down 15 rebounds a game, blocking shots, passing the ball, and leading the undefeated Kangaroos to the public school city championship.
It was much the same his senior season. He averaged 25.7, scoring 60 in one game, brought down 17 a game off the backboards, and once again Boys High went undefeated and was not only the best in the city, but in the nation.
Hawkins was named to the All-America team, he was selected for the East-West All-Star game played at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City.
It was graduation night when the game was played, so he arrived at halftime but forgot his basketball sneakers and borrowed a pair that didn’t fit all that well from a player who played in the New York-New Jersey preliminary game. No problem, he scored 27 points, scrubbed the boards for 13 rebounds, his East team won and he was named MVP. All in one half.
But it didn’t surprise me, for I had seen him play schoolyard ball, when if you picked him, the other team was given two picks. I had also seen him and other elites perform at Rucker Park in lower Manhattan. To get there, I brought along some of my friends and they were awed by how good Hawkins was.
His senior year with the Kangaroos is when he was given the tag of “The Hawk.” It stuck for when he played three years with the Harlem Globetrotters, two years with the Pittsburgh Rens of the American Basketball League, and some time with the Harlem Wizards.
These were his stops due to being banned by the NBA and the NCAA and NAIA colleges. But the new ABA welcomed him and he signed the inaugural year with the Pittsburgh Pipers. He led the Pipers to the league championship two years in a row, moved with them to Minnesota, and was the MVP then and in four other seasons in the red, white and blue ball league.
At age 27, he decided to sue the NBA and was awarded $2 million and allowed to play in it. Due to knee injuries, he wasn’t what he was in his prime, but he was happy to finally get a chance. He signed with the Phoenix
Suns and led them to the NBA final where they lost in seven games against a Los Angeles Lakers lineup that included future Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.
Hawkins was dazzling. He was stellar in each game. But the Suns went down in game seven when Chamberlain tossed in 33 points, took down 17 rebounds and got “The Hawk” into foul trouble.
He later played for the Lakers and finished up with the Atlanta Hawks. The Suns than gave him a job in their front office. He was named to the all-time ABA team and was named to the Hall of Fame in 1992.
It should be said that he battled colon cancer and was ill his second season with the Lakers. After seven years in the Suns’ front office, he retired, but remained in Phoenix.
One more thing, he wasn’t alone when these troubled times began at Iowa. His buddy from Wingate High in Brooklyn, Roger Brown, was also an All-America and decided at the same time on attending Dayton University over many other schools.
He, too, suffered the same fate as Hawkins, accused but never arrested or indicted. He played seven splendid years with the ABA Indiana Pacers, and was then accepted by the NBA when the ABA folded and the Pacers joined the NBA. Brown passed away in 2014.
Both were kept from seeking legal council while being grilled by New York City detectives. Both were unfairly blackballed. Both were too young and had no knowledge of the scandal racket, but will still be remembered for what they brought to the game.