Growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, basketball was a winter staple. For me, I loved basketball as a young kid. Growing up in Northern Illinois, the winters were rough and the Nerf hoop in the basement was the perfect antidote to a boring winter day. My early idols were Jerry West and Gail Goodrich. I was a huge Lakers fan through the late 1960s. But then someone caught my eye. At 27 years of age, he was a NBA rookie and he was unlike anything I had seen at that point. His name was Connie Hawkins and he played for the Phoenix Suns. At 6’8″, Hawkins did things with a basketball that would reshape the game, influence Julius Erving, George Gervin, Magic Johnson, and through them, Michael Jordan. He would palm a basketball and hold it away from his body and use it to lull the defender into not paying attention to the rest of his body. He would then swoop into the lane dunk, finger roll, or whatever was needed to put the ball in the basket. For that rookie season in 1969-1970, the “Hawk,” as he was affectionately known, averaged 24 ppg and 10 boards a game. But to get to that rookie season, Hawkins lead a life of myth, magic, wonderment, and woe unlike any player of his generation.
Born in 1942, Hawkins grew up in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn. By the age of 11, he was dunking the basketball. He became a playground legend defying gravity and word spread of his talent. Hawkins said of his physical gifts to break the laws of science and gravity, “Someone said if I didn’t break them, I was slow to obey them.”
He spoke of his influences in Slam Magazine,
I was so young when I started. But I’ll have to say that going down to Madison Square Garden, I used to watch Elgin Baylor. I watched him play, and I think he was the first guy I’d ever seen who had that certainflair for the game. I adapted my game after his. See, once you learn to play in the schoolyard, you can almost adapt your game to anything. So naturally, with Elgin having that type of skills, I adapted my game to what he was doing on the court.
Connie Hawkins attended Boys & Girls High School in New York City and was an All-City player his junior year averaging in double figures while leading the team to a Public School Athletic championship. His senior year saw Hawkins at 6’6″ average over 25 points a game and the team captured a second Public School Athletic championship. At the time he was hailed as the finest basketball prospect to come out of the city. Connie was also named a Parade magazine High School All-American, the only national honor for high school players at that time.
Hawkins parlayed his fame and talents into a basketball scholarship to the University of Iowa. At the time, freshman were not allowed to play varsity basketball in the NCAA. At practice, Hawkins legend grew as he continually outplayed future NBA legend Don Nelson. It was there as a freshman that Connie’s world began to fall apart. A point shaving scandal broke out back in New York City. Connie was implicated by name.
Connie always claimed his innocence. He was not arrested nor indicted. He did acknowledge borrowing $200 from a man, Jack Molinas, implicated of fixing games, but it was also acknowledge his brother had paid Molinas back well before the scandal broke. The resulting backlash saw Hawkins dismissed from the University of Iowa. After he became of age to be drafted in the NBA, Hawkins went undrafted in 1964, 65, and 66. He would later be barred from the National Basketball Association – all despite never even being charged in a court room with any crime.
At the age of 19, Hawkins began what best could be described as a barnstorming lifestyle. He played for semi-pro teams including one in Hawaii just to live there. He spent four years as a Harlem Globetrotter traveling the world. It was with the Globetrotters that Hawkins claims his game was transformed. He states,
If I didn’t have the basic skills to handle the basketball, I never would have been able to adjust to playing four years with the Globetrotters. That’s what turned me and my game around. I was able to incorporate their skills into my game because we played eight days a week, twice on Sunday. Because of that, I was really able to familiarize myself with the basketball. I’m not talking about shooting the ball with a string or anything. I’m talking about having total confidence with the ball and being able to do anything with it. At 6-9, there weren’t too many people able to do that. But because I’d learned the basics, and gaining the confidence of not being afraid to dribble between my legs, or dribble behind my back, you perfect another level of play. Like you and the ball become one.
He added the finger roll during this time,
I started out as a Harlem Globetrotter, playing for Abe Sapirstein in 1964, when I came out of college. Meadowlark Lemon, Curly Neal, Geese Ausby. We toured all over the world. And I’m also an ex-ABAer. But what people don’t know is that me and Wilt started the finger roll. We just didn’t call it that. Wilt used to call it the “dipper.” Now I look on TV, at these commercials, and I see George [Gervin] talkin’ about [imitates Iceman’s voice] “the finger roll.” I love George, but he got that from me. I need to start seeing some of his checks. I should be getting some of that money.
In 1967, the big break for Connie Hawkins came. It was a new league called the American Basketball Association. At 25, Hawkins took the league by storm. He averaged 26 points and over 13 rebounds a game. That year, he lead the Pittsburgh Pipers to an ABA championship over the New Orleans Buccaneers. He was named the leagues Most Valuable Player. The next year, the team moved to Minneapolis. Connie averaged 30 ppg and 11 boards in 47 games. Hawkins became such a draw that his warmup jersey was an advertiser who’s who in a league short on cash.
In those two years, Connie’s future was changed thanks to a Life magazine article by author David Wolf. The article turned into a book called Foul. It changed everything for Connie Hawkins. Hawkins filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the NBA and won! Thanks in part to the book, but more so, the facts spoke for themselves including an affidavit from Molinas stating Hawkins’ innocence. In addition, Hawkins received a $1 million cash settlement to begin paying at age 45.
The 1969-1970 saw Hawkins drafted second by the Phoenix Suns, a one year old franchise. The signing of Hawkins instantly legitimized the team. Hawkins said, “I was so happy to play, I didn’t have any problems with animosity or bitterness at all. As soon as I got that Phoenix Suns uniform, I just wanted to play.” At 27, Hawkins had a great season for the Suns. The team went from 16-66 before Hawkins to 39-43 only to lose in the Western Conference semifinals.
Hawkins would have three more good seasons for the Suns, but the wear and tear on his legs began to show. His rebound totals began to drop as did his points. At 31, he could not jump as he once did. He would play for three more years for the Lakers, and, fittingly, the Atlanta Hawks.
For Hawkins, his imprint on the game is clear. He said,
I’d have to say Doc and Jordan just took my game to another level. Elgin pioneered it, I came after him, and then after me, Doc. Man, Doc took it to a different level. I mean, I used to dunk and do all types of fancy things, but Doc came in and started doing 360 dunks and taking off from the foul line, and all those types of things. Then Michael Jordan just took it to another level. He’s just a phenomenal ballplayer.
Despite his brief NBA career and his ups and downs, Hawkins is not bitter knowing he did reshape the game. Because of this, the Hawk has no regrets.
People always say that they never saw how good I was, really was, because they stole my best years and all that. That bothers me because I look at it like, my first year I made the NBA All-Star team, I made the All-Pro team too. So what did they steal? I showed my capabilities, what I could do, but all most people think about is what was taken from me. Look, I’m in the Hall of Fame. That’s the pinnacle. They saw the best of me. I was fortunate enough to play against the top players in the world. And I know what I did against them.
Sources and Additional Reading
Foul by David Wolf
Connie Hawkins Quotes by Scoop Jackson available online at: http://www.slamonline.com/online/nba/2010/06/original-old-school-new-york-undercover/2/
Chicago Tribune newspaper articles