Bill Sharman, who played 10 seasons for the Boston Celtics and has coached three pro teams, thinks Connie Hawkins is one of the world's seven best basketball players. Yet unless you hang around Brooklyn's Nostrand Avenue or are among the few who watch the pros at the 11 outposts of the American Basketball Association, you probably have never even heard of him.
Now a 6'8" center with the ABA champion Minnesota Pipers, Hawkins inflicted obscurity on himself when he figured in the college basketball scandals of the early '60s. He was not convicted of anything—he was not even brought to trial—but he has had to labor ever since to restore luster to his reputation. Because of a legal precedent—of which he was not a part—he may never convince the older National Basketball Association that he deserves a chance to play in the league. Yet because of the pinch of money, which was the root of the trouble in the first place, he may end up playing in the NBA anyway—which shows how mixed up things can become with Hawkins. The confusion, though, ends at the sidelines. On the court Hawkins takes his place right up there with Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and the other stars of the game.
Sharman, presently the coach of the ABA's Los Angeles Stars, says, "Connie plays between Robertson and Chamberlain. He's almost as good as Oscar at passing, and he has that same ease on the court. Some superstars let you know they're doing super things by being flashy, but Connie and Oscar don't. They make great moves look so easy you think they really are."
Hawkins appears as relaxed as Robertson, the bland expression on his face masking some marvelously crafty moves, and he can shoot the way Oscar does, too. He launches his deadly fall-away jumper from behind his head—an unintentional copy of Robertson's unstoppable shot—and when he decides it is time to take charge of a game he plays all over the floor just as Robertson does. Last week against Los Angeles, the Pipers, who are running away with the ABA's Eastern Division race, led easily until the middle of the fourth period, when the Stars edged within two points. Then Hawkins took over. He leaped across the court to block what would have been the tying layup, grabbed a pass from his teammates bringing the ball upcourt, scored, was fouled and made the free throw. Clearing the next defensive rebound, he drove upcourt and hit teammate Chico Vaughn with a 40-foot, one-handed, blind-side pass to set up the goal that put the Pipers ahead by seven points and out of harm's way.
While Hawkins' all-court versatility is exceptional, he is at his best under the basket. Sharman says Hawkins and Chamberlain are the only men in the pros who can really palm the ball effectively. "They can do so much more than anyone else around the basket because they handle the ball so easily with one hand and always have an arm free to protect themselves," says Sharman.
Hawkins, who weighs only 210 pounds and looks about as sturdy as a daddy longlegs, needs protection. With the ball cradled in either of his two huge hands, he can spring inordinately high, look around to pass or dunk the ball through the basket with a great crash, all the while fending off heavier players. After spearing defensive rebounds he is almost a parody of himself—one hand held out in front to discourage would-be meddlers, the other, with the ball, waving far out behind him as he sets to pass.
The ABA's only famous player, Oakland's Rick Barry, and Hawkins have not met in a regular-season game yet, but their race for Most Valuable Player could become more interesting than the one for the team championship. Hawkins is the defending MVP. He and Barry are running even in everything from free throws to floor percentage. Oakland's former NBA All-Star has a slight lead in scoring (35.9 points to 34.3), Hawkins the edge in rebounding.
Connie Hawkins has had an edge in basketball since his high school days in Brooklyn. Thanks to gamblers, he had a sort of double edge in 1961 when he was a freshman at Iowa, and it was almost fatal. Although a freshman cannot fix anything, the gamblers gave him $200 and performed numerous personal favors; the assumption is that they wanted Hawkins on their side when he moved up to the varsity. The investments never paid off. New York District Attorney Frank Hogan exposed the fixers, who were involved in bigger things than the attempted corruption of a freshman, and Hawkins was on his way out of Iowa.
To Howie Jones, coach at Brooklyn's Boys High, who had followed Hawkins from his days as a gang member and junior high truant to stardom and one of the biggest recruiting scrambles ever, the expulsion of the boy was at once understandable and sad. "I don't excuse what Connie did," he says. "A lot of other players have made it from here and resisted the temptation of taking money illegally. But this school is in the heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Connie was from the bottom of the barrel economically even here. His mother was blind and on welfare, and when all of a sudden recruiters started pouring in and offering Connie the world he realized how valuable he was in terms of money. I don't feel that what a lot of the recruiters did was much less dishonest than what the gamblers did."
Although he was never prosecuted, Hawkins' failure to resist temptation resulted not only in his loss of a college education, but also in a ban from ever playing in the NBA. Hawkins has a $6 million suit pending against the NBA, but he is not likely to have his situation reversed by the courts. What seems most damaging to his case is a precedent set following a suit brought against the NBA in 1954 by the Pistons' Jack Molinas, who had been barred for gambling. That case was dismissed—apparently with prescience. The next time Molinas was heard from he was a kingpin in the 1957-61 fixes. He was sentenced to prison but is now out on parole.
Fortunately for Hawkins, in the seven years since he left Iowa two talent-hungry pro leagues were formed that chose to overlook his and others' roles in the scandals. As a 20-year-old he played in the short-lived American Basketball League, where he was the high scorer and most valuable player. After that folded, in its second season, he went with the Globetrotters for four years before joining the ABA last season.
Bill Erickson, a prime mover in founding the ABA who now heads the Minnesota franchise, says the decision to allow tarnished talent to play was based on thorough investigations. "We demanded that the players had never been convicted, and they had to have top references on their behavior since the fixes," says Erickson. "So far it has been beautiful. We have about a dozen of these players and four of them are All-Stars. Connie is my team leader and the best thing I've got going for me."
Playing in the ABA hardly satisfies Hawkins. "It killed me not to be able to play in the NBA—that's all I thought of as a kid," he says. Ironically, because of a financial squeeze, he may still get his chance. The time is not far off when the economic facts of life may prove too much for NBA owners, particularly if Lew Alcindor chooses the ABA. Already one NBA coach has begun lobbying for the league to negotiate a settlement with the ABA before the high rookie bonuses and lower pay of veterans ruin the morale of his team.
For his part, Hawkins has been clearing the way for possible NBA acceptance by coming on someplace between apple pie and the American Legion. Married, with two small children, he has conducted ghetto basketball climes and not only signs autographs willingly, but sits and chats with the towheaded Minnesota kids after Pipers' games.
Before a home game last week the Marine color guard marched onto the floor, and Joe Tomaszewski and his Northeasterners struck up the national anthem. On the floor the players stood fidgeting, itching to start the game. All of them but Connie Hawkins, the outlaw superstar. He was singing The Star-Spangled Banner.