Feb 17 2009 10:52AM
By Jeramie McPeek
“I’m cancer free, thank God.”
Connie Hawkins hasn’t spoken publicly about his fight with colon cancer until now. In fact, prior to our hour-long interview in mid-December, he had only granted one other request since being diagnosed back in the fall of 2007—and that was with a small Indiana newspaper to talk about his grandson, who is playing in the NBA Development League.
With NBA All-Star returning to Phoenix, however, the Hawk is ready to spread his wings once again. Although he’s been in relative seclusion for much of the past 16 months, recently completing chemotherapy and radiation, he says he’s planning to have his “butt in a seat” at US Airways Center on February 15 to catch all the All-Star action in person. But first he has asked for a moment—or a paragraph—to thank you.
“I want to thank everyone across the country and across the world; my girlfriend Barbara, who took care of me while I was sick, my friends in Phoenix and my coworkers,” says the 66-year-old, before pausing for several moments to wrestle back tears. “It’s been overwhelming, the support and prayers that I’ve gotten. It helped immensely.”
Hawkins says he remained positive throughout the ordeal, but admits the experience has changed his outlook on life; a life that began in Brooklyn, NY, on July 17, 1942, and is far from over.
If you know your hoops history, you know that the legend of Connie Hawkins was born in the schoolyards of New York City and grew at Boys High, where he led his school to back-to-back undefeated seasons and a pair of PSAL Championships from 1958-60.
His spectacular play, which included a 60-point game his senior season, earned him a scholarship to the University of Iowa, but his college career would be cut short when his name surfaced in the investigation of a point-shaving scandal. Although no evidence ever linked Hawkins to the scandal—not to mention that as a freshman he was not even eligible for varsity athletics—the 18-year-old was expelled from the school and found himself outside of the NBA, looking in.
“It was totally devastating,” Hawkins recalls. “I was innocent, but no one would listen to me. Plus, coming from a poor family, no one even thought about trying to get a lawyer to fight it. We just weren’t that sophisticated.”
Hawkins took his ball to the upstart American Basketball League, where he averaged better than 27 points a game and was named MVP at just 19 years old. The league folded the following year, so he hit the road with the Harlem Globetrotters. Although more comedic than competitive, he learned new tricks and treats to go with his already unique, high-flying game, and learned about the rest of the world in the process.
“I’ve been to every nation, every continent,” he says appreciatively. “It was unbelievable how they treated us. We were treated like kings and princes. In Argentina, there was a war going on, and they actually stopped the fighting so we could play our game.
“It was just a great experience. I met [Nikita] Khrushchev while I was over in Russia. I met the Pope while I was in Rome. I met a lot of important people while I was with the Globetrotters.”
Perhaps the most important people he ever met, though, were Dave and Roz Littman, married attorneys from Pittsburgh, where Hawkins spent the 1967-68 season playing for the Pipers of the new American Basketball Association. Upon befriending the Hawk and hearing his story, the couple filed an antitrust lawsuit to get him an opportunity to make his NBA debut.
The then-25-year-old had immediately become the marquee star of the ABA, which offered a flashier version of basketball, but no one was as flashy as the Hawk, who averaged 26.8 points and 13.5 caroms a game. He once again claimed MVP honors, along with the first-ever ABA Championship, leading Pittsburgh over the New Orleans Buccaneers in a dramatic seven-game series. But still he dreamed of playing in the NBA that he’d grown up watching.
He got his wish in 1969. After a reporter for LIFE magazine wrote an in-depth exposé on the exiled basketball star that absolved him of any wrong doing in the scandal nearly a decade earlier, the Hawkins’ lawsuit was working toward a resolution. The league lifted the ban after settling the antitrust lawsuit.
“We all hugged and cried, and stayed up all night,” he says with a laugh, recalling the end of the week-long negotiations at the Beverly Hills Hilton. “I was talking trash about being the first black millionaire in the world. I got a little over the top celebrating.
“I was the happiest guy in the world. Once I became an NBA player, I never looked back. People still to this day ask me if I was bitter about that, and I still tell them the same thing. Hell no. I’m just glad I was able to play.”
Hawkins was assigned to the Phoenix Suns, who won a secret coin flip with Seattle for his rights, shortly after having lost a coin flip with Milwaukee for the right to draft Lew Alcindor of UCLA. Hawk didn’t care where he was going, though, nor did he understand where he was going.
“I had absolutely no clue about Phoenix,” he admits. “I remember when my plane landed in Phoenix for the first time, I was wearing a wool suit and they said it was 117 degrees outside, and I didn’t want to get off the plane because I was afraid I might melt.”
Then-Suns GM Jerry Colangelo was thankful that the Hawk did disembark in Phoenix, as the club had struggled in its first season, both on the court and at the box office.
“After an expansion year where we were 16-66, and were just kind of an outpost as a new team out west, Connie brought us our first real star exposure,” says Colangelo, today the Suns’ chairman. “He gave us instant credibility in only our second year.”
At 27-years-old, the mysterious newcomer with the thick lamb chops gave the Suns a lot more than credibility. He gave them a desperately needed infusion of talent and entertainment. With his explosive, yet fluid moves, and trademark swoops to—and above—the hoop, the lean 6-8, 200-pound forward dunked and dazzled the fans at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum and teammates alike.
“I had heard so much about him, obviously; everybody had,” says Gail Goodrich, the Suns’ assists leader their first two seasons. “But when I first met him and we shook hands, I couldn’t believe the size of his hand. It just dwarfed mine and I said, ‘Wow.’
“He had such control of the basketball with those big strong hands. His gracefulness and ability to go to the hoop and move the ball around with one hand, I’d never seen anybody like that.”
Hawkins averaged 24.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.8 assists a game during his debut season, was named first-team All-NBA, and lifted the Suns into their first postseason in 1970. There, Phoenix met the vaunted Los Angeles Lakers, starring Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain, but the Suns were up for the challenge.
Phoenix actually went up 3-1 in the series, led by Hawkins, who recorded 34 points and 20 boards in an impressive Game 2 victory, but succumbed to the Lakers in seven games. It was a historic series and the birth of a rivalry, but Hawkins doesn’t remember much about it these days.
“It was so long ago,” he says apologetically. “There’s just something about age. Once you start to get old, you start to lose some of that. Sometimes I forget I even played basketball [laughs]. It’s fading pretty fast.”
While the specific memories may get lost through time, the legacy of Connie Hawkins will never fully fade away. Playing seven total NBA seasons, four All-Star years with the Suns, two seasons with the Lakers and one with Atlanta, he eventually retired due to bad knees in 1976 at the age of 33.
Despite a relatively short NBA career, his impact on the game was huge, as acknowledged by his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992.
“I think if Connie had come into the NBA at the appropriate time,” says Colangelo, “and had a normal kind of sequence, from college right into the NBA, he could have been one of the top 10 or 15 players to ever play the game.”
Credited as the inventor of the finger roll and the man who greatly influenced aerial acrobatics to the NBA, Hawkins’ finger prints can be traced back through several generations of All-Stars.
“I was definitely one of the guys following him and emulating his style,” says Dr. J, Julius Erving, who was a high school freshman when he began watching Hawkins in the ABA. “I was kind of like the ‘Next Connie Hawkins.’ You know, there is a lineage there, beginning with Elgin, then Connie and myself, Michael [Jordan], Kobe [Bryant], so on and so forth. So he was a tremendous influence.”
Although no longer in the bright spotlight, Hawkins continued to influence the game long after retirement. He rejoined the Suns’ organization in ’92 as a community relations representative and held frequent basketball clinics for kids in Phoenix, which he always concluded with a dunk, up until his sickness temporarily forced him to the sidelines.
“I thought two-a-day workouts in training camp was the toughest thing I’d ever gone through, but this surpassed it big time,” says Hawkins, whose current goals include seeing the Suns win their first NBA Championship and getting back out on the tennis court. “It was a life or death situation, to be honest. But I’m cancer free now and just trying to keep myself healthy. It’s taken a long time, but I’m starting to put on some pounds and get back to work.”