Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Hawk's Flight Plan


Connie Hawkins’ career arc is unrivalled by any other basketball player. As detailed in David Wolf’s essential biography “Foul,” Hawkins was at turns a New York City schoolyard legend, a prized recruit, a semiliterate college freshman at Iowa, a player wrongly linked to a betting scandal, a nomad in the backwoods of professional basketball, a Globetrotter, an ABA luminary, a successful litigant against the NBA and, finally, a rightful star on equal footing with the best players of his era.

How is it that Hollywood can churn out hoops dreck like “Semi-Pro” and let a compelling story like Hawkins’ go unfilmed?

Fortunately, there is film of Hawkins’ games. A Christmas Day matchup between Hawkins’ Phoenix Suns and the Atlanta Hawks in 1970 provides an interesting parallel to the story of “The Hawk.”

Although listed as the power forward, Hawkins jumped center against the Hawks’ Walt Bellamy instead of Phoenix big man Neal Walk. That was a testament to the physical prowess of Hawkins, who stood 6 feet 8 inches with impossibly long arms. He was a shy and gangly youth in the slums of Bed-Stuy, but grew into his body and became an All-American at Boys High. In the summers, Hawkins would prove his wares on blacktops around New York City, including the early incarnation of the Rucker Tournament that featured the top pros of the day.

Against Atlanta, Hawkins won the tap but little else went right in the first quarter. He picked up three fouls in the first three minutes of the game. Amazingly, Suns coach Cotton Fitzsimmons didn’t give Hawkins the quick hook. He played the whole first quarter but missed all four shots he took, and his already-skeptical defense was reduced to matador-like so he wouldn’t get another foul. Phoenix’s leading scorer was forced to sit the second quarter and watch as another hoops prodigy, Hawks rookie Pete Maravich, keep Atlanta in the game.

Hawkins was used to things unraveling quickly. After he arrived at Iowa in 1960, he was ill-prepared for the rigors of college after being passed through high school strictly on account of his basketball skills. Matters got much worse when Hawkins was implicated in a nationwide gambling probe, mostly on account of a few conversations with Jack Molinas, a nefarious former pro baller-turned-lawyer with deep ties to the underworld. (Again, this isn’t a movie?) Hawkins was scooped up in Iowa by NYPD detectives, warehoused in a fleabag hotel and forced into marathon interrogation sessions.

Under intense pressure, Hawkins admitted to taking a loan from Molinas (true, but the money was paid back in full) and also to introducing players to a key gambler in the point-shaving case (this was not true and stated under coercion). Hawkins, who had to be told by detectives what point shaving was, didn’t face any charges, but the stain would mar his career for eight years. Kicked out of Iowa and blacklisted by the NBA, Hawkins played in the short-lived ABL, then had an unhappy stint with the Harlem Globetrotters. His fortunes started to change when he landed with the Pittsburgh Pipers for the initial season of the ABA in 1967-’68. Hawkins, with the help of some Pittsburgh lawyers, also filed suit against the NBA for blackballing him from the league. Hawkins finally won his case in 1969 and became a 27-year-old rookie with the Phoenix Suns after eight years in exile.

Hawkins finally hit his first shot against the Hawks with eight minutes left in the third quarter to give Phoenix a 69-62 lead. Typically, the late 20s are the prime years of an NBA player, but Hawkins was a hard 28 years old in that second season. Years of abject poverty and malnutrition in his youth, coupled with the pounding of his legs on concrete in street games and the endless barnstorming days with the Globetrotters, had wracked Hawkins’ body. He started having knee problems in the ABA and by common consent was never quite the same player. But he was still crafty with the ball and could score with the best in the game, and he dropped eight points in the third quarter against the Hawks.

Hawkins’ best assets were his abnormally large hands. Wilt Chamberlain said in “Foul” that he and Hawkins were the only players that could completely palm the ball, and indeed the rock looked like a grapefruit in the Hawk’s grasp. That allowed him superior ball control, and on the first possession of the fourth quarter Hawkins swooped in for a three-point play over Bellamy. The rout was on after that, and Hawkins finished with 20 points in the second half of the Suns’ 127-115 victory.

That was the exact average for Hawkins in his second NBA season. He played five more years after that, with dwindling success as his body continued to give up on him. He was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992. Hawkins had made it to the mountaintop, and that tale of perseverance is worthy of Hollywood.

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