When I think about basketball and the players I have played with and against over the years there are many that jump up to the fore for many reasons. One of those players is the Suns’ first Hall of Fame inductee of which there are sure to be quite a few more. His name is Connie Hawkins, more widely known simply as “Hawk.”
I had heard of Connie about the time I was a sophomore in college and basketball was becoming more to me than a scholarship and an after-classes hobby. It was getting serious and consequently I was looking at all the hoops magazines and pollsters and stories of those who preceded me.
And there were some great stories to hear. At this time in my hoops life I was spending summers in the Catskill Mountains of New York playing pick-up ball with other collegians from around the country who came to work in the summer at camps and resorts. Everyone had a story to tell.
Connie was one of those stories and to hear about him made him large than life. He was to have been able to pick a quarter off the top of the backboard, hold the rock like it was just that, a small rock, in his talon-like hand. Ok, maybe not a talon, but quite a large hand.
Hawkins was a schoolyard legend hailing from the mean streets of Bedford Stuyvesant. A rundown and poor section of Brooklyn, Connie went to the renowned high school, Boys High. There must have been 4,000 students, all boys and so the competition was great. He was a high school phenom and had many offers to go to college. But he was implicated in a betting and fixing scandal (later to be exonerated) that led to his not going to college and joining the pro ranks.
Because of the scandal the NBA did not allow Connie to play, he had essentially been blackballed and had to fight many years before finally winning a lawsuit which allowed to come to the NBA and the Suns in 1969. Prior to that, he had played in the ABL, ABA and a stint with the Globetrotters. He is the only player I know of that was an All-Star and All-Pro in each of the leagues that ever existed. And that time with the Globies helped him further develop the singular style and flair he played with when Hawkins came to the Suns in 1969 after being cleared by the NBA and his suit settled, he had an “I will show them” kind of attitude.
In those days of professional sports, year-round application was not something everyone was into and honestly, Connie was among that group. Training methods were almost nil and what one did, one did on their own. I was amazed by Hawk’s play although he virtually just showed up and stepped on the floor. No rigorous training regime, no weight lifting, or cross-training and still he had serious game.
That first year, wherever we played and against all who checked him, Hawk had something to prove. One night it was Wilt Chamberlain, next Lew Alcindor and then to be followed by a Nate Thurmond. Hawkins tuned them all up. He had a vast array of moves and shots to draw from and when he was feeling it, it was a sight to behold. Along with Paul Silas, myself and Hawkins, we were three new players to the Suns and we finished with a 23 game improvement. Not too bad.
Among the memorable moments on the floor were swooping roundhouse dunks, and those we called “sidecar.” It was where his body went away from the rim and passed it before he reached out and behind to throw it down. Not many could do that, but of course Hawkins was special. He had leaping ability, body control, extra large hands, a nice touch and pretty good range. So when he “decided” he was going to play, it was a show for all fans and players alike.
Connie was also one of the best passers I had ever seen and he played quite selflessly. When you were open he got you the ball. I always trusted that if I cut and was open he would get it there and if not there was something else going on. That first season he averaged about 25 points and 10 boards with almost five assists. He was an All-Star each of the four seasons here.
It was near the end of our first season and the playoffs were a possibility and it all came down to one game with the then-San Diego Rockets, who featured the great Elvin Hayes, the Big E. You know you are all that when your handle is “The Big E” or “The Big O” for Oscar Robertson.
Well, we started out poorly and had a terrible half and that included Hawkins. Now, we needed to win this game and the one following in San Diego. During the halftime break, Paul Silas, whose locker was next to Hawk’s, came in looking mighty angry.
He eased on over to Hawkins, me watching from across the floor, and took him by the jersey and said, “Hawk, you are messing with my playoff money, now get you blankety blank blank into the game.”
That frightened me pretty well and must have struck a nerve with Connie because in the second half, he went off and finished with 44 points and 21 rebounds as we killed San Diego and finished it two nights later in San Diego to clinch the first Suns playoff spot. Hawkins used “The Big E” and made him look like “Little Elvin From the Schoolyard.”
Fade-aways on the baseline, soaring dunks on the break, one-handed rebounds and outlets, blocked shots. He was dealing. One wondered what he could do if he really got into shape and took care of himself. But there were times, as Joe Gilmartin once wrote, that sometimes “Hawk was poetry in motion and other times he was still life.” That about says it all.
One other playing memory I have is one of the funniest, but it illustrates the showman that Connie Hawkins was, as well as an All-Star and All-Pro. We had the Sonics down here for a fracas one night and we were beating them fairly well and they were putting in the reserves and a guy named Barry Clemens came in to guard the Hawk. Most everyone remembers how Connie would handle the ball in one hand and extend it away from the defender.
In this sequence, Hawk baited Clemens and suckered him in close trying to deflect the ball. Well, Barry went for it and tried to reach around Hawkins for the ball and Connie just kept turning and eventually he had Clemens make a full circle around him. It was right out of a Globetrotter scene and it was hilarious…except for Clemens who looked, to put it gently, foolish. But, then again, he made many a guy over the years look foolish. The great ones can do that.
I played with Hawk for four seasons-plus during my time in Italy. Connie lived with me in the quite large apartamento provided by the club. He was to have had a deal with a squad in Bologna but it fell through and I invited him to hang with me in Venezia. During this time I realized a lot more about Hawkins. It should be noted that as great as he was a player, he is a guy liked by everyone because he combines a good sense of humor and a generosity that many lack.
An example of this; on a trip we were on he asked me to grab a suitcase off the carousel that was empty. Confused, I asked what was up and he told me that he kept programs and other stuff from the road trip to give to kids when we returned home. It was full when we returned, as I checked it in upon arrival. Hawkins would also pick up the check frequently when there were a few of us dining. In Venezia, he was so well-liked that the team gave him a medallion of gold with the Lion of Venice on it and an inscription to Il Falco. He traveled with us and ate with us and came to practice. Everything but play. I gave them 20 pts and 10 boards and got a pat on the back.
I could continue with these memories of Connie, but if I kept it up it would be a short book or pamphlet at least. What I will conclude with is that my former teammate and current friend Connie Hawkins is one rare fellow. An extraordinary athlete, with a gift in dealing with adults and children alike, that has touched many hearts and thrilled many basketball fans… including this one blogger.