SLAM: Harder than the NBA?
HAWK: Probably. See, because if you go to the playground to play on a Saturday at nine o’clock in the morning, and you lose the first game you play, you may not play again until five or six the next evening. So you had to be out there and play hard and try to win. The kids today don’t play as much in the schoolyard as we did. We lived in the schoolyard. I mean, now you go by the playgrounds in Chicago and Philly, and you don’t see as many kids out there playing.
SLAM: Do you think it has affected the game?
HAWK: No, because there are still some phenomenal players in the NBA today.
SLAM: New York City has its own style of play. Has that New York playground style of ball always been a part of your game—even in the NBA? Or did you kinda lose some of it once you got large?
HAWK: Everything I have, everything I’ve ever established, was from New York. From Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, where I grew up, the learning process of playing in New York was special. See, when I came u, if you were a certain size you couldn’t do certain things with the basketball. Or at least you weren’t supposed to. My coach in the Police Athletic League made sure I knew how to do everything—dribble the ball, pass, the fundamentals. And I learned this at such an early age, I didn’t have to make an adjustment when I got into the NBA. You know, at 6-9, I had skills with the basketball.
SLAM: But all of your skills couldn’t have just come from there, learning the fundamentals.
HAWK: Yeah, see that’s what’s missing in today’s game. That’s what I don’t see anymore. 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.
SLAM: Now, you started this revolution of “above the rim” b-ball. A lot of players adopted your style and got famous. Whose game do you think you were a part of influencing?
HAWK: 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.
SLAM: Even though the levels have changed from when you played, can you still watch the game and still have love for the game?
HAWK: I still enjoy it, even though it is a different style. When I was playing, the game was dominated by centers: Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Chamberlain, Bob Lanier, Nate Thurmond. Now the game is dominated by forwards or guards. I enjoy watching it, but there are only to or three players playing I’d pay to see.
HAWK: Michael Jordan, for sure. I love to see Charles Barkley. And now that he’s back, Magic Johnson.
SLAM: Do you think the dunk is overemphasized in today’s game?
HAWK: Man, Magic said it the other day, which was beautiful: “If you can get up there and throw it down, throw it down!” When I was doin’ it, there were only a handful of players that were doin’ it. Now, with so many people dunkin’, it just looks overemphasized. I mean, everybody. Your guards, your forwards, your centers… even the trainers [laugh]. The players now are bigger, stronger and faster, but they’ll never be smarter than we were. That’s what I always look at. Right now, with my skills eroding away as they have, if I had legs, I’d get out there and out-play some of those players today just by using my head and the knowledge I have of the game. That’s what’s different between now and then. That’s what’s missing.
SLAM: Talk to me about Foul.
HAWK: Foul was basically an autobiography. David Wolf had written a book about me, and my first thought was, “Nobody wants to read about me.” But I found out that once the book came out, it was a best-seller and basically became mandatory at a lot of high schools.
SLAM: You know that was one of the most important books in my life. When I was in grammar school, my Pops came home and made me read it.
HAWK: Good [laughs]. Now, 20 years later, I still get kids running up to me, telling me what the book meant to them and how it helped them out.
SLAM: Your career seems to be a little obscure. The NBA video vault only replays that one over-the-shoulder dunk you did when you were with the Suns, and the history books give you a paragraph instead of a chapter. What don’t we know?
HAWK: Well, first off, not too many people know that 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.” [Laughing] 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.
SLAM: You talk about Wilt a lot—was he that good?
SLAM: Both of you are in the Hall of Fame, both of you were Harlem Globetrotters..you and Wilt got history, uh?
HAWK: One of the best things I ever did on the court was against Wilt. It was in the playoffs, Lakers against the Suns, and we were in L.A. I was on this side of the basket going up for a shot, and Wilt came over to block it. Now (in the air) I ducked underneath the rim and went to the other side of the basket and layed it up off the back of the glass. Everybody still talks about that. As a matter of fact, Wilt talks about that shot. He had been playing about 23 years, and someone recently asked him what the toughest shot someone ever had against him, and he always talks about that one.
SLAM: So that was the sweetest thing you’ve ever done on the court?
HAWK: I’d have to say so.
SLAM: What about the sweetest thing somebody did on you?
HAWK: Wilt! [Big laugh.] Right after that play, he dunked on me about 11 times in a row. He did some dunks I had never seen in my life. Me against Wilt, and then Wilt against me.
SLAM: Eleven times in a row?!
HAWK: Classic, uh?
SLAM: Ice said that you and Wilt were the two best basketball players that ever played.
HAWK: Yeah, but I told Ice after he did those commercials for Nike, talkin’ abot the finger roll, I told him, I said, “Hey man, that was my thing! You not in basketball anymore so let me take credit.”
SLAM: An old school argument?
HAWK: New [laughing], just the truth.
SLAM: What do you reflect on, in terms of the path your career has taken?
HAWK: 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.