By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Oct. 11, 2017) — Basketball royalty passed away a few days ago. And maybe now, finally, Connie Hawkins will get his proper respect. Maybe.
Hawkins’ death at age 75 brought back a flood of memories throughout the basketball world about The Hawk’s before-his-time game, his aerial antics, his difficult life story, his greatness as a player long before he reached the NBA with the Phoenix Suns.
Peter Vecsey penned an epic 4,000-word remembrance of the hoop legend, diligently chronicling Hawkins’ life and times. (https://petervecseyreport.com/2017/10/09/hawks-complex-tale-leaves-us-wondering-what-might-have-been/). Other columns about Hawkins circulated widely on the internet and have received heavy traffic on social media. (Vecsey also appeared on NPR’s “All Things Considered” with Robert Siegel for a thoughtful interview about The Hawk. Check it out here: http://www.npr.org/2017/10/09/556701118/remembering-basketball-hall-of-famer-connie-hawkins)
Those that have followed the game for decades and understand the evolution of the sport know that the legendary exploits of Elgin Baylor and The Hawk paved the way for the gravity-defying moves of Julius Erving, Michael Jordan and LeBron James, and many more.
“The Hawk flew before anyone else had wings,” the poet and former NBA forward Tom Meschery declared.
But that was only one aspect of a life that began in 1942, the same year Muhammad Ali was born.
David Wolf’s landmark 1972 book, “Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story,” is a remarkable project, explaining the New York City native’s life and the obstacles (and grave injustice) he overcome that prevented him from rising to NBA stardom at a much younger age.
The tome was summed up this way on Amazon.com: “This book is about a professional basketball player, Connie Hawkins, but it is also about American athletics. The hope and despair of the ghetto schoolyard, the cutthroat college recruiting, the camaraderie and dissension in the locker room, the gambling scandals, the blacklists, the legal battles – Hawkins has been through them all. For eight years, the graceful, 6’8″ Hawkins was an outcast, playing in tainted obscurity, blacklisted by the NBA. As a frightened teenager, he had made false confessions – under police pressure – and was wrongfully implicated in a fixing scandal. David Wolf’s magazine article dramatically cleared Hawkins in 1969. Foul! is Connie Hawkins’ story, a meticulously documented, remarkably candid biography of one of our greatest athletes. A compelling portrait of a unique and perceptive black man, it is also a behind-the-scenes look at basketball.”
The unheralded Remember The ABA website captures the essence of Hawkins in a few key passages from Jim O’Brien’s 1972-73 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball.
From Jim O’Brien’s 1972-73 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball:
“His move to the basket is unstoppable, his hands are so big and he has such control of the ball . . . Connie isn’t consistent, but when he’s hot, he’s hot, he’s hot . . . ‘He handles the ball like a guard,’ says Billy Cunningham of the 76ers, once a schoolboy opponent in Brooklyn . . . ‘He has the biggest hands I’ve ever seen,’ said Dave DeBusschere. ‘He handles a basketball as though it was a baseball. He doesn’t run, he floats. Inside, he’s one of the best scorers in the game.”
“…Hawkins was a man caught in a dilemma not of his own making when the last college scandal broke during his freshman year at Iowa . . . It ended his college career and sent him to the ABL, the Harlem Globetrotters, and the ABA before he brought suit successfully against the NBA and played for the Phoenix Suns. . . Subject of engrossing book by David Wolf called ‘Foul!’ … Read it. May be best book on basketball ever written, and there’s too much to Hawkins’ history to capsulize here . . . When Bill Russell picked all-time all-pro team, The Hawk was on his second-five selection. ‘If he hadn’t got such a bad deal,’ Russell remarked, ‘you would mention Hawkins with Baylor and (Bob) Pettit.’ ”
Before he ever stepped onto the court as an NBA player, The Hawk was a streetball legend, a Harlem Globetrotter and a brilliant all-around player in both the American Basketball League and American Basketball Association in the 1960s (he was the first MVP in both circuits).
In interviews over the past week, former ABA players reflected on Hawkins’ legacy and his career.
“I did not have much personal time with The Hawk like so many others did unfortunately,” Willie Wise told me. “However, I did have to guard him a few times and what I remember most was he was a quiet gentleman on the court.
“It was, if you can believe this next statement, a privilege and honor to guard him.
“If you did not bother him, in other words, challenge him, he would not do much; however, the minute you tried to show him up, or excite him, he would go to ‘work’ and you were in trouble.
“Then, before you knew it, he had a bunch of points and had embarrassed you.”
Original Indiana Pacer Bob Netolicky, whose forthcoming book, “We Changed The Game,” was written with ABC Sports reporter Robin Miller and Pacers founder Richard Tinkham and is scheduled to be released this winter, marveled at The Hawk’s amazing ability to play the game.
“I grew up in Iowa and first saw Connie play in a preseason freshman-varsity scrimmage. I was amazed at his talent and skill level at that age,” Netolicky said. “In the ABA we played against each other many times. I learned more skills playing against him the first year than I had learned in four years of college competition.”
The previous sentence is a remarkable statement, and it’s worth repeating.
“I learned more skills playing against him the first year than I had learned in four years of college competition.”
-Bob Netolicky on Connie Hawkins
Netolicky went on: “He and (the late Pacers legend) Roger Brown were two of the best to ever play the game. It’s just a shame they were robbed of their prime playing years for something (point shaving) they did not do.”
La Salle legend and ex-ABA player Larry Cannon said, “Unfortunately I never got to meet Connie Hawkins. We had a couple of mutual acquaintances and certainly I admired his game and the fact that he was able to overcome so many obstacles. Despite the hardships he dealt with those first couple of years in the league, he always spoke fondly of the ABA.”
Steve Bitker, a longtime San Francisco Bay area sports broadcaster, also weighed in on The Hawk’s legendary career, expressing genuine admiration for him.
“I will never forget seeing Connie play for the first time, in the old ABA, on TV, for the Pittsburgh/Minnesota Pipers,” Bitker recalled. “So athletic, so graceful, as though he were playing on a different plane than everyone else. I subsequently read his biography, ‘Foul,’ which detailed the game-fixing scandal he unknowingly got caught up in, in college at Iowa, which barred him from the NBA, until many years later. Sad and yet inspiring story. Sweet, gentle man.”