40 Years On
Remembering when The Hawk was set free
“Sometimes, sittin’ on the bus, lookin’ out the window at the farms and houses and the highway, I’d think about playin’ in the NBA, about the years goin’ by. A couple of times I fell asleep and I dreamed about playin’ against Wilt and Oscar.”
Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story
Of everything I’ve ever read about Connie Hawkins, one anecdote stands above all others as most chilling: Sitting in his Pittsburgh home, circa 1967, Hawkins was in his living room taking in the nationally televised NBA All-Star Game. By halftime he had seen enough. He got up, switched his television off, slowly crawled up the stairs and buried himself in his bedroom. He was gutted.
Nothing more than a 25-year-old man loaded with ‘should be’ scenarios: Should be in the NBA, should be playing in that All-Star Game (Lord knows he was good enough), should be a household name like Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West.
Chances are you missed it. Not that the occasion is remembered by a specific date or moment, but this off-season represents the 40th anniversary of Connie Hawkins’ groundbreaking win against the NBA in 1969, when his name was removed from a compilation of blacklisted players—a list Hawk never should have been on. The NBA denied Hawkins a chance of competing at the highest level due to a gross misunderstanding.
The word ‘denied’ perhaps should be underlined and in bold, even capitalized, because that’s simply the reality of what happened. For eight years, splitting time between inferior minor leagues, the strictly-for-show Globetrotters, and the infant ABA, Hawkins floated through the prime of his career with a tainted name and a truly untested game.
You and I know Hawkins as a Hall of Famer, a playground legend, and the artistic genius that took the baton from Elgin Baylor and handed it to Julius Erving as part of a line of players who helped transform the game from walk-it-up to walk-on-air. Hawkins was special, with Baylor’s freakish athleticism and Erving’s massive hands—the perfect recipe for a great forward. He could dunk on the break, rebound like a center, pass like a guard. Had he been granted half the chance, he would’ve re-routed both the way the game was played and the League itself. But when he finally joined the NBA at age 27, with the asphalt-worn knees of someone twice that age, it should have been slap-bang in the middle of his glorious prime.
And that’s the deeper theme with Hawkins—he was robbed of that opportunity. In a way, we the fans were too. Heck, even the game missed out.
Those precious few fortunate enough to witness a pre-NBA Julius Erving, during his early-career ABA years, when the chains were off and the ‘fro was blowing in the wind, talk about viewing his talents like it were a religious experience. Well spare a thought for Hawkins, who in the period after he finished with the Globetrotters and just before he joined the ABA, could only be seen playing in a rec league at the Y in Pittsburgh on weekends before a crowd of seventeen.
And this was all because of $200 bucks. That’s all. Two crisp $50s and a $100 sitting cozily in an envelope, hand-delivered by a well dressed, charming, good looking man with a motive. It was an almost fictional scenario: Former NBA player turned successful lawyer with a never-ending thirst for odds (Jack Molinas) befriending an up and coming basketball star (Hawkins) with aspirations as big as New York City, where he made his name.
Can you even put a price on your love for playing? Better yet, playing the game that was to be your ticket from a rotten upbringing in the nastiest corner of NYC, one that would bring you fame and fortune and happiness? A $200 loan may have rescued a naïve 19-year-old from a small education fee at the University of Iowa, where Hawkins was a freshman in 1961, but it imprisoned him from his own destiny of becoming one of the world’s greatest basketball players in the world’s greatest league.
When Molinas and his intricate ring of duplicitous point-shavers were taken down mid-winter 1962, a legion of promising college players—some guilty, some innocent—were wrapped up in the investigation. Hawkins included. Frightened, scared, and just a kid, Hawkins fretted under the harsh lights of police attention and blurted out things he thought they wanted to hear, things he didn’t actually do. He didn’t even know what fixing meant, apparently; he just needed $200 for a school fee, which his brother ended up paying back. No harm there, right? But being named in the investigation had nasty and lasting repercussions. Tarred, feathered, and never to be looked at the same again, Hawkins was kicked out of school, his dreams dashed. It would be eight years before any kind of justice was met. Those eight years out were brutal.
Several months after leaving Iowa, the ABL was created (by Abe Saperstein, out of spite, mind you—never a good reason to start a league) and Hawkins joined the Pittsburgh franchise. At just 19, Hawk led the league in scoring, was named league MVP, and raked in the modest sum of $6,500 for the season. Frankly, the league was awful. It was hemorrhaging money, schedules changed as often as the weather, and teams often took late flights just so they didn’t have to fork out lunch money for their players. Yeah, it was that bad.
When the ABL unceremoniously folded early in its second season, Hawkins accepted an offer to play/perform for the Harlem Globetrotters. For the better part of three years Hawkins traveled the world, dazzling people with his vast array of skills—those trademark big hands waving the ball around, dunking and passing and displaying skills so unusual in a forward. But he was left empty, there was something missing: competition. All the great ones crave it. Sure, you can put on a never-ending parade of performances for the world’s most famous basketball act, but it doesn’t mean much when the opposition is, for lack of a better term, part of the show. Something had to change.
For years, Hawkins’ attorneys reached out to the NBA letting teams know Hawk was available. J. Walter Kennedy, the NBA’s commissioner at the time, repeatedly informed his attorneys that “individual teams and not the NBA” drafted players, and that Hawkins was simply being overlooked. What Kennedy failed to tell Hawkins’ people was that the Hawks, Knicks and Lakers all tried to obtain Hawkins, only to have their attempts rejected by the League. It was an act that was equal parts ignorant and arrogant, and left nothing to interpretation: Hawkins was to never be allowed play in the NBA.
The American Basketball Association was born in 1967, hoping to attract stars and force a merger with the NBA. In that first year, Connie Hawkins was the league. In a way, the ABA needed Hawkins, and he needed them back. Desperate for credibility, the league threw Hawkins a lifeline; desperate to show he was a quality person and still one of the best players in the world, Hawkins gave his all in return. It’s well known that Rick Barry was the first star to jump from the NBA, that the ABA is where Doc and David Thompson and George Gervin and Moses Malone all broke in, and they played with that crazy multicolored rock and used the three-ball, but it’s oft-forgotten that for that first year, Connie Hawkins owned the ABA.
Once again leading a Pittsburgh franchise, Hawkins uncorked a forgotten masterpiece that doubled as one of the greatest individual seasons in pro hoops history: He was first in the league in scoring, second in rebounding, third in assists, pulled the regular season and playoff MVP double, and led his Pipers to the title. The guy hadn’t tasted competitive basketball in years, and probably should have had a broken soul, but some four decades on, it remains in many ways the essence of Hawkins—player and person.
While injuries ruined a decent portion of his second ABA season, slowly but surely attorneys acting on behalf of Hawkins felt there was a tiny—call it minute—chance they could do the unthinkable: get Hawk into the NBA. To lend some perspective, no athlete had ever received damages from a professional sports league for prohibiting them. It was uncharted territory. But that didn’t make it not worth trying.
Ironically, Jack Molinas had been released from prison for his role in this mess, yet Hawkins was still paying a price for something he didn’t actually do. What made things even more perplexing was that the NBA had done little-to-no investigating into the allegations. Hawkins was basically a name from the newspaper, ditto for Doug Moe and Roger Brown, both NBA-level players whose faces were pressed up to the glass, looking in. Basically, the NBA presumed Hawk was guilty, and so they wanted no part of him. Why let the truth get in the way of a good accusation? The NBA’s embarrassingly low knowledge of what had transpired—who was involved, who wasn’t, who tarnished the game, who didn’t—was evident in court. The powerful league buckled, reaching a settlement with Hawkins and allowing him to sign with Phoenix. After eight long years, Hawk flew free.
Why it all happened is confusing; it remains a frustrating footnote in the League’s history, not to mention the life of someone who, while he gave us the gift of his game, it’s as if we only partially received it.
Hawkins’ NBA career became almost incidental as he lasted only seven seasons. He was named First Team All-NBA in his debut season, averaging 24, 10 and 5 while leading the Suns to the Playoffs, putting one helluva fright into the West-Baylor-Wilt Lakers in the process. He played in four All-Star games and left a legacy as a showman.
But even 40 years on, with retribution long served, you can be forgiven for fantasizing about how Connie Hawkins’ life and career could have been drastically different. If persistence really is the twin sister to excellence, then few have exhibited it better than Hawkins. One can only hope his daydreams don’t reflect a man who went without, but a man who overcame.