Hawkins was precursor to Dr. J, Jordan
"He was Julius before Julius. He was Elgin before Elgin. He was Michael before Michael. He was simply the greatest individual player I have ever seen," says Philadelphia 76ers coach Larry Brown on ESPN Classic's SportCentury profile of Connie Hawkins.
He was Jordan before Jordan, Dr. J before Dr. J. But despite his prodigious talent, basketball showman Connie Hawkins was not allowed to grow into his prime on the sport's greatest stage.While he eventually got there, it was long after he had been forced to pay unnecessary dues outside the NBA. That's because the league blackballed him for years though he was guilty of nothing more than knowing a master fixer. The 6-foot-8, 215-pound Hawk had to display his skills off Broadway, on the playgrounds of New York, as a Harlem Globetrotter, and in the fledgling American Basketball Association. There were the uncommonly large hands, the explosive strides, the way he could handle the ball. "He was the first guy on that Dr. J-Michael Jordan level," said Doug Moe, a contemporary. "Nobody could match him." An extraordinary leaper, Hawkins said, "Someone said if I didn't break the laws of gravity, I was slow to obey them." But who knew? The specter of gambling and whispers of point shaving forced Hawkins out of college ball and kept him from the NBA until he was 27. Hawkins was guilty by association with fixer Jack Molinas, and that was enough to have the NBA hierarchy conspire to bar him. Already a Brooklyn blacktop legend, Hawkins became MVP of the short-lived American Basketball League when he was 19. He added the ABA MVP five years later, leading the Pittsburgh Pipers to the league's inaugural championship and becoming a poster child for the ABA's flashy style. When he finally was allowed to join the NBA in 1969, he quickly made his mark by earning a spot on the All-NBA first team with the likes of Willis Reed and Jerry West. He played in four straight NBA All-Star Games, but because he played for the Phoenix Suns, the Hawk flew in shadows cast by the more glamorous Knicks and Lakers. With his career on the wane, Hawkins retired after only seven years in the NBA, but he refused to rub the league's collective noses in any bitterness. "I was so happy to play," he said. "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." Despite his late arrival in the spotlight, Hawkins still made enough of an impact to earn a spot in the Basketball Hall of Fame. "That was one of those things where I had finally realized I had arrived, and I was at the top of my profession," he said. "There is no way to describe the feeling of fulfillment this honor gives me." Cornelius Hawkins was born on July 17, 1942, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. At 11, Hawkins' high-flying reputation took form at PS 3 when he dunked for the first time. Attending Boys High School, he culminated his prep days as a Parade first-team All-American in 1960. Hawkins' Madison Square Garden playoff showdown with Roger Brown of Wingate became an aerial act that remains a New York basketball classic. Hawkins was held to 18 points and 13 rebounds, fouling out in the third quarter. Brown scored 39, but Hawkins' teammates held off Wingate, 62-59, in that semifinal en route to its second consecutive Public Schools Athletic League championship. That was the last time the Hawk would fly without heavy baggage for a long, long time. Hawkins had become acquainted with Molinas, who had been suspended from the NBA's Fort Wayne Pistons in 1954 for gambling and would wind up in prison a decade later. When Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan sought to nail Molinas in 1961 for fixing games, he had Hawkins, a freshman at the University of Iowa, brought to New York for questioning and threatened him with prison. No gambler involved in the point-shaving scandal ever said Hawkins was involved, and Hawkins was never arrested. But Hogan claimed Hawkins was an intermediary in the recruitment of prospects for bribe offers. That charge - which eventually would be shown to be false - was enough for Iowa to cut its ties with Hawkins. While Hawkins wouldn't be eligible to play in the NBA until his college class graduated in 1964, Commissioner Walter Kennedy made the league's stance known: Hawkins was persona non grata. Cast adrift, Hawkins returned to Bedford-Stuyvesant, where he was a pariah. Fortunately for him, Harlem Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein launched the American Basketball League in the fall of 1961. Playing for the Pittsburgh Rens, Hawkins led the ABL in scoring, averaging 27.5 points, and was named MVP for the 1961-62 season. Twenty-two games into Hawkins' second season in Pittsburgh, on New Year's Eve, the ABL folded. Saying "there was a chance that I couldn't have gotten a job at all," Hawkins felt fortunate to join Saperstein's Globetrotters in February 1963 and stayed with them until 1967. With the NBA still locking its doors, Hawkins was lured to yet another start-up basketball venture - the ABA. He quickly became the brightest star in a flashy league. He finished first in scoring (26.8 per game) and second in rebounding (13.5), earning the 1967-68 MVP award. He also led the Pipers to a seven-game triumph over the New Orleans Buccaneers for the first ABA championship. Hawkins followed the franchise to Minnesota for the 1968-69 season, but he was not eager to continue being a nomadic slave to the ABA's financial flakiness. In 1966, while Hawkins was a Globetrotter, Pittsburgh attorneys David and Roz Littman, friends of Hawkins, had filed a $6 million anti-trust lawsuit against the NBA. But it would not be until the spring of 1969, after a Life magazine story all but exonerated the Hawk of any direct connection with the decade-old gambling scandal, did the NBA cave in. Kennedy agreed to lift the ban on Hawkins and pay a $1.295 million settlement of the lawsuit, including a five-year, no-cut contract with the Suns worth $410,000. After finishing 16-66 in its first year in the NBA (1968-69), Phoenix had won a secret coin toss with Seattle to determine which team would acquire Hawkins, who had averaged 30.2 points and 11.4 rebounds with Minnesota. Exhibiting the same high-flying, blow-past-an-opponent style that was always his trademark, the Hawk showed he belonged in the NBA. Finishing sixth in the league in scoring with a 24.6 average, he led the Suns to a 23-game improvement over the previous season and into the 1970 playoffs. That was as good as it would get for Hawkins, though he would average 21 points in each of the next two seasons. But he was slowing down and early in the 1973-74 season he was traded to the Lakers. Almost two years in Los Angeles and one in Atlanta were spent coming off the bench. After a forgettable 1975-76 season, in which Hawkins averaged only 8.2 points for the Hawks, he retired at 33, having averaged 16.5 points and eight rebounds for his career. Without basketball, Hawkins went through tough times. It wasn't until 1992 that he began bouncing back, when the Suns hired him as a community relations representative (a job he still holds). That same year, he also was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Besides the NBA, his résumé included the lore of his school days, the sizzle of his game on New York playgrounds and the dazzle he displayed in wannabe big leagues. Even though he could have written that résumé with a poison quill, Hawkins counted blessings made less bountiful through no fault of his own. "Basketball has taken me virtually everywhere in the world," Hawkins said. "A poet once said that 'I am part of all that I leave.' Just think what that means to a kid from Bed-Stuy."