By Neil Beldock
Before there was Julius “Dr. J” Erving performing unparalleled high wire antics and slam dunks, there was Connie “The Hawk” Hawkins.
Connie Hawkins was the first player to perform such feats, feats which had never before been seen on a basketball court.
His style of play, including having huge hands which allowed him to palm the ball while swooping to the basket for rim-shattering, acrobatic dunks was groundbreaking, and made his nickname “The Hawk” most appropriate.
To create a visual perspective of the way Hawkins played, in later years Julius Erving’s game would be a mirror image of what Hawkins was able to do on a basketball court.
Said former ABA player and ABA & NBA coach Doug Moe: “He was the first guy on that Dr. J, Michael Jordan level.”.
Unfortunately however, injustice prevailed as it relates to Connie Hawkins. As a result his high-flying game and enormous talents, for the most part, are limited to the memories of those who saw him play at Boys High School in Brooklyn, New York and at Rucker Park in Harlem, New York. He is considered a New York City playground legend and one of the best ever.
The Connie Hawkins story begins in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York where Hawkins grew up immersed in poverty, crime and the street life.
But stories of his unique basketball talents and abilities began to emerge and spread early in his life.
Legend has it that by the age of 11 he was able to dunk a basketball. It was said that Hawkins “defied the laws of gravity”. To this Hawkins told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Someone said if I didn’t break them, I was slow to obey them.”.
Hawkins emerged as a star in 1959 as a junior at Boys High School in Brooklyn when he led the team to an undefeated season and the PSAL City Championship. He was also recognized as a First Team All-City Selection.
(Playing for Boys High, Brooklyn, NY)
The following season, his senior season at Boys High, he averaged 25.5 points per game and once again led the team to an undefeated season and a second consecutive PSAL City Championship. He then accepted a scholarship to the University of Iowa.
It was as a freshman at the University of Iowa when and where injustice handcuffed Hawkins.
Hawkins was accused of introducing other college players to former NBA player Jack Molinas who was the central figure and considered the mastermind of a point shaving scandal being investigated in New York City.
Hawkins was extradited from Iowa back to New York City where New York City police denied him legal counsel, grilled him and pressured him until he ultimately provided police with what they considered a confession.
Hawkins has always denied involvement.
Although all the principals being investigated testified that Hawkins had no knowledge of, and was not involved in any of the point shaving activities, and in spite of the fact that Hawkins was never indicted, arrested or directly implicated in any point shaving scandals, he was dismissed from the University of Iowa and the NBA banned him from playing in the league.
Thus, the world of basketball was denied the chance to see a player who was considered and said to be the most dynamic and creative player of his time.
Hawkins was now a basketball orphan being disallowed from playing college basketball and disallowed from playing in the NBA. For the next 7 years he became a basketball nomad playing wherever he could find a game and a paycheck.
He played in numerous east coast semi-pro leagues before settling in with the Pittsburgh Rens of the American Basketball League in 1961, and remained a member of the team until 1963.
(Connie Hawkins – Pittsburgh Rens)
In 1963 Hawkins left the Rens to join the Harlem Globetrotters. The Globetrotters were owned by Abe Saperstein who had been the original owner of the Rens.
During his years with the Globetrotters he filed a $6 million lawsuit against the NBA claiming he was unfairly banned from the league, and that there existed no evidence which connected him to the point shaving scandal.
(A Harlem Globetrotter)
Hawkins remained a member of the Globetrotters until a reprieve from his professional basketball exile occurred with the formation of the American Basketball Association (ABA) in 1967. Hawkins signed to play for the Pittsburgh Pipers of the new league for the ABA’s inaugural season of 1967-68.
Although he was now a bit older, with if not declining talents, talents which had been developmentally handicapped due to not playing highly competitive basketball during his 4 years touring with the Globetrotters, he still led the Pipers to the ABA Championship, led the league in scoring averaging 26.8 points per game and averaged 13.5 rebounds per game as well.
In addition he was named as both the regular season and playoff Most Valuable Player (MVP).
There existed no drop off in Hawkins’ second season in the ABA (1968-69). The Pittsburgh franchise moved to Minnesota which enabled a new group of basketball fans to experience and witness his greatness.
During that second season Hawkins averaged 30.2 points and 11.4 rebounds per game before his season was shortened due to knee surgery after 47 games.
But much more important, during the 1968-69 season the NBA settled with Hawkins, awarding him $1.3 million and assigned his rights to the Phoenix Suns for the 1969-70 season.
Finally, Connie Hawkins, at the age of 27, would be permitted to play and show-off his unique skill set on the NBA stage.
Having received redemption for the injustices bestowed upon him by the NBA, Hawkins set out to prove that the legend of his abilities were in fact true.
And prove his legend he did.
In his first season in the NBA Hawkins averaged 24.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game.
In the first round of the playoffs against a Los Angeles Laker team which would advance to the NBA Finals, Hawkins was spectacular. The Lakers prevailed in an epic 7 game series in which Hawkins, competing against Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, posted numbers of 25 points, 14 rebounds and 7 assists per game.
(Against Wilt Chamberlain & The Lakers)
At the conclusion of the 1969-70 season, Hawkins was selected First Team All-NBA.
Two things were now apparent; The legend of Connie Hawkins’ greatness was unquestionable, and sadly, the basketball universe had been robbed of the chance to see a great and unique talent perform for years, years when he was perhaps at his peak physically and athletically.
Hawkins would follow-up his initial season in the NBA with two more solid seasons averaging over 20 points and over 8 rebounds in each of those seasons.
His NBA career would last through the 1975-76 season before age and injury led him to retire. But thankfully, all got to witness and understand how unique a performer Connie Hawkins was.
Hawkins retired with career numbers of 18.7 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. He was an NBA All-Star Game selection in each of his first 4 season in the NBA.
(Connie & Oscar Robertson)
In 1992 Hawkins was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall-of-Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. The Phoenix Suns also retired his jersey #42.
Connie Hawkins was unfairly victimized and suffered a tremendous injustice when in fact he was guilty of nothing. Was it racism? Was it incompetence? Hard to say or know. But fortunately, we did get a glimpse of the greatness he possessed.