Foul!: An Appreciation
Revisiting the classic basketball book on its 40th anniversary.
I’m pleased to present a guest post from one of my oldest friends and earliest hoops buddies, Professor Rodger Citron, king of the leaning left-handed corner jumper.—Alan Paul
by Rodger Citron
August can be a cruel month for pro basketball fans. The NBA Finals concluded more than a month ago; the most interesting question raised by this year’s Olympic basketball team is what the point spread should be when it squares off against the 1992 Dream Team in computer simulations; and the free-agent news features—yet again—musings by Dwight “Hamlet” Howard on his future.
To fill the void, may I suggest that you read one of the greatest basketball books ever written: Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story by David Wolf.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Foul. No doubt I picked the book up more than three decades ago. The blurbs on the back came from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dave DeBusschere—players I learned about from other sports books.
Foul was much more than your average sports book, though. It told an epic story, in great detail and with narrative flair, about sports and society. I was mesmerized from the first page by Wolf’s account of Hawkins’s odyssey from exile to superstar.
Hawkins played in three different pro basketball leagues from 1961-1976 and may have been the first NBA player to fully incorporate schoolyard style—acrobatic drives, high-flying dunks, fancy passes—in his game. The consensus about Hawkins is that he was “Dr. J” before Julius Erving.
That comparison is technically accurate but obscures the convoluted journey Hawkins was forced to take from playing on the New York City playgrounds to the NBA, where he became an All-Star forward for the Phoenix Suns in his first season at the age of 27.
As Wolf recounts, Hawkins’ arrival in the NBA was delayed because he had erroneously implicated himself in a criminal investigation of a college basketball betting scandal. Hawkins did nothing wrong and never was accused of any criminal conduct. But, under intense pressure from New York City police detectives, he made a number of false incriminating statements before the grand jury, which led the NBA to blacklist Hawkins until he and his attorneys sued the League.
Wolf’s book began as investigative article for Life magazine. Published in May 1969, the article dispersed the cloud hanging over Hawkins from the scandal and added to the pressure on the NBA to settle the lawsuit.
Foul tracks Hawkins from the poverty of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood where he grew up through his development into one of the best high school basketball players ever to lace up a pair of sneakers in New York City. Hawkins was tall and thin—he stood 6-8, but barely weighed 200 pounds, even as a pro—and gifted with great vision and large hands that enabled his twisting drives to the basket.
Through his high school graduation in 1960, the story is familiar: Hawkins was the star player, his coaches and teachers were supportive but overlooked his shortcomings in the classroom, and college recruiters swarmed around Hawkins, pressing cash into his hands and offering to pay him to play basketball.
Today the recruiting stories seem quaint. Hawkins decided to attend Iowa, which arranged to pay him and his family $150 a month in addition to tuition, room and board and transportation expenses. (Another offer characteristic of the era: When Hawkins graduated high school, the NBA still had a territorial Draft rule, which allowed a team to draft out of order to select a player in the team’s immediate vicinity. Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtics offered to pay Hawkins a salary under the table if he attended a nearby college such as Providence, according to Wolf.)
The investigation into the betting scandal that shattered Hawkins’s life at Iowa occurred in the spring of 1961, during the second semester of his freshman year. He was forced to leave college and embarked on a tortuous journey that would take him to the short-lived American Basketball League, the Harlem Globetrotters, and the American Basketball Association.
His first stop was Pittsburgh, where he played for the Rens (short for “Renaissance,” referring to Pittsburgh’s celebrated urban renewal project). As Wolf recounts, between comic books and ice cream cones, the 19-year-old Hawkins led the ABL in scoring, single-handedly kept the Rens in contention for the playoffs, and was named MVP after the season.
After the ABL folded, Hawkins became a Globetrotter. “Tomming for Abe,” is the title of Wolf’s chapter on this period of Hawkins’s life, and it refers to the negative stereotypes of African Americans—lazy and sly but neither intelligent nor serious; in short, clowns—perpetuated by the Globetrotters at the time. Ultimately Hawkins came to appreciate the broader horizons afforded by his travels to other countries and around the United States playing for the Globetrotters.
But the more immediate consequence to his four years with the Globetrotters was to sharpen Hawkins’s sense of personal dignity and racial pride. It took some time before Hawkins participated in gags because he didn’t want to be laughed at, though eventually he gave in when he seemed destined to remain a Globetrotter. In Europe, Hawkins noted the absence of overt racial prejudice still common in the United States in the early 1960s, an experience that made him more perceptive with respect to race relations at home.
After four years, Hawkins had enough of playing the clown and quit the Globetrotters. He was unemployed for about a year but resumed his pro career in 1967, when the American Basketball Association was formed. He signed with the Pittsburgh franchise, known as the Pipers. During his two years in the ABA, Hawkins’ story of personal development—what English professors call a bildungsroman—intersected with another literary genre, the picaresque. His teammates certainly qualified as rogues and rascals familiar from such stories; in fact, it may be more accurate to describe them as castoffs from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Forward Art Heyman was a “superflake” in a league of his own. Before being traded to the Pipers, Heyman impressed the team’s coach by asking him, after diving for a loose ball near the bench, “[Do] you think this game will have any effect on the [Vietnam] war?” Power forward Tom Washington bolstered his defense by doing WC Fields imitations while staying close to his man. Guard Chico Vaughn drank a great deal but, Wolf noted, was “so dedicated he didn’t miss a single game because of drunkenness or hangovers.”
Hawkins dominated the ABA’s first season, leading the misfit Pipers to the championship and winning the MVP. The Pipers then left Pittsburgh for Minnesota, where Hawkins played the best basketball of his career until injuring his knee during the regular season. Near the end of the season, Wolf’s article appeared in Life, giving momentum to Hawkins’s lawsuit against the NBA.
The principal actors in the lawsuit were his Pittsburgh attorneys, led by David and Roslyn Litman. Yet another station along the way for Hawkins was his pretrial deposition, in which he was questioned under oath extensively by the NBA’s high-powered attorneys, George Gallantz and a young fellow by the name of David Stern. As Wolf recounts, Gallantz became so frustrated by his inability to shake Hawkins’s story that he was chastised more than once for his overbearing manner by Ms. Litman. Hawkins’ testimony confirmed his innocence and convinced the NBA to let him play.
Hawkins joined the Phoenix Suns in 1969, where he became an All-Star in his first season and led his team to the Playoffs. The Suns took a 3-1 lead against the more talented and experienced Los Angeles Lakers before succumbing to the combined talents of Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. Wolf takes the reader through the season, charting the ups and downs of the erratic young team.
Foul is Hawkins’s story and author David Wolf’s accomplishment. As is evident from this detailed summary, Wolf brought an eye for detail and a passion for justice to the book. Published in 1972, Foul has much to say about race, sports and society as the book shows players, owners and coaches wrestling with these issues.
Ultimately, though, Foul’s claim to greatness is as an urban coming-of-age story. I first read Foul when I was in eighth grade and reread it several times during high school. When I became demoralized by the inevitable adolescent frustrations—getting cut from the freshman football team, girls who rendered me speechless at dances and parties, long stints on the bench of the junior varsity basketball team—I turned to Foul for inspiration. I still reread the book every other year or so. Even in middle age, I find the story of Hawkins’ journey compelling.
Rodger Citron is a law professor and a writer in New York City.