Three large banners high above the Nassau Coliseum floor seemed to symbolize the ups and downs of the New York Nets. Two of them, hanging from the ceiling, were ABA championship banners honoring the Nets for winning titles in the old league in 1974 and again last year. The third, a homemade effort held up by fans in the balcony, read: WITHOUT BUBBLES THE NETS WOULD HAVE WORSE TROUBLES.
"Bubbles" is Robert (Bubbles) Hawkins, a left-handed scoring machine from the Earl Monroe school of herky-jerky moves, who was signed by the Nets as a free agent a third of the way into the season and who has become their newest—in fact, their only—star. After an under-publicized career at Illinois State and a year of inactivity on the Golden State Warriors' bench, the 6'4" guard with the 42-inch sleeve is scoring nearly 20 points a game while averaging 26 minutes of playing time, mainly in the second and fourth quarters. Hawkins has had a 44-point night, and during a recent hot streak scored 152 points in 163 minutes. In an otherwise disastrous season, which as short a time as five months ago offered them at least the promise of an NBA championship, Hawkins is the Nets' only bright spot.
When Julius Erving took them to the ABA title last year, the Nets were, arguably, the best team in either league. Their playoff victims, the Denver Nuggets, had the finest regular-season record in pro basketball—as they do now. Thus, when Dr. J stopped David Thompson & Co. it seemed that, following the merger, the Nets were in for a pleasant future.
Instead, Erving is gone and New York has a 19-42 record, the worst in the NBA. These days the championship banners hang like funeral shrouds in memory of a sparkling young team scattered to the winds after Nets owner Roy Boe decided not to pay an extraordinary amount of money to the game's most extraordinary player. The sequence of events that toppled the Nets—and gave Bubbles Hawkins a second chance—began last summer with a well-intentioned move.
The Nets would be nearly impossible to beat, reasoned the front office, if high-scoring Guard Tiny Archibald were acquired from Kansas City to run with Dr. J. So they swapped Guard Brian Taylor, a veteran of both championship teams and a fine defensive player, along with backup Center Jim Eakins and two first-round draft choices, for Archibald. A broken foot has kept Archibald out of the Nets lineup since Jan. 2, which is bad luck. But the decision to bring him and his $450,000 salary to New York produced negative side effects that might have been foreseen. The arrival of Archibald, who was making far more money than Erving's $275,000, heightened an already serious salary dispute between Boe and Erving's agent, Irwin Weiner. On Oct. 21 Erving was sold to Philadelphia for $3 million, which helped pay the Nets' way into the NBA.
With Dr. J in Philly and Long Island in mourning, most of the Nets' scoring burden fell upon their guards, who numbered only three when training camp ended—John Williamson, Al Skinner and Archibald. When serious play began, opponents started ganging up on them and taking their chances with New York's weak-shooting front line of Kim Hughes, Jan van Breda Kolff and either Rich Jones or Tim Bassett. On Dec. 15 Assistant General Manager Bill Melchionni opened his free-agent file, a beat-up manila envelope filled with scraps of paper, and dialed Bubbles Hawkins' number in Detroit.
Hawkins had been cut by Golden State the day before the season began. Once an All-America at Detroit's Pershing High and a teammate of the 76ers' Doug Collins at Illinois State, he consequently had a lot of explaining to do to his friends in the Midwest. When he ran out of excuses for not making it in the NBA, he decided to take a job that would have had him serving summonses out of the Detroit city courthouse—only Melchionni's phone call came first.
"Officially, I got to play 153 minutes with the Warriors last year," says Hawkins, "but even that was stretching it. They were the defending NBA champs, so I'd get in for maybe the last 1:32 and they'd call it two minutes in the scorebook."
At least with the now deprived Nets he would get an opportunity to play. From Dec. 22 to Jan. 22 New York lost 13 straight, setting league season lows for fewest points in a game (73) and fewest points in a half (28). On two occasions they scored just 11 points in a quarter—and the zinger is that all four of these notable achievements occurred in different games.
Hawkins was less concerned with the Nets' futility than with reestablishing his reputation. In his first appearance, against Milwaukee, he got in for four minutes and hit four baskets. In his first five games he scored 66 points in 70 minutes, and his stints on the floor were often the only occasions when angry Nets fans, who cannot forget the sale of the Doctor, felt like clapping. Bubbles' first big night included an 18-point second-quarter foray that led to a 95-86 victory over Chicago and an end to the 13-game losing streak. He played an almost perfect 12 minutes, hitting all seven of his shots and scoring the Nets' last 10 points of the half.
But the Nets quickly lost three more in a row, and the front office reacted by getting rid of the team's co-captains, Williamson and Jones, within a 24-hour period. That reduced to four the number of Nets left from the championship team and left Hughes as the only survivor from last year's starting five.
"A lot of times I wonder where all this is going to lead," says Hughes, a curious holdover. He is averaging only 4.4 points a game, has no shot, is shooting .218 from the foul line—worst by far in the league—and is unmercifully ridden by Nets fans even when he does something good—like winning a game with a free throw banged in off the glass. "It makes you wonder if we're all going to be traded or cut," Hughes says. "And are we ever going to win?"
Again Hawkins to the rescue. In a five-day span last month he helped defeat the Celtics 99-89 with 18 points in the final 16 minutes; he helped the Nets get back at Dr. J and the 76ers by contributing 24 points in a 113-112 upset in Philadelphia; and at Cleveland, New York's third straight playoff opponent from last year, Bubbles was well nigh unstoppable. He played 32 minutes and scored 37 points on 15-of-20 shooting. Final score: Nets 94, Cavaliers 90.
Hawkins had the reputation of being a game breaker at Illinois State, and the people in Normal still talk about the time he is said to have reached out and stolen the ball from teammate Doug Collins as the two crisscrossed on a fast break. Collins scored 57 points that night, but Hawkins broke that record the next year with 58, after betting a friend $10 before the game that he would.
The ingredient Hawkins adds to the Nets' otherwise stolid offense is unpredictability. He excels on the fast break, and he can take the ball into the lane and adapt his shot to score over or around almost any defender he has had to face so far. Moreover, for the first time since Erving left and Archibald got hurt, the Nets have some reason to feel they have a man on their side whom opponents cannot stop. Not starting agrees with Hawkins and seems to catch the other team off guard or a half-step tired. Now when he gets up off the bench, the Coliseum comes alive with chants of "Bubbles! Bubbles!" It is even getting difficult for him to find his blue Volvo with the California plates after games, what with a parking lot full of Long Island teenagers begging for autographs.
Take the recent Denver game, for example, when the banner in his behalf was unfurled. It might as well have been Bubbles Hawkins' Night. A TV crew was there to film him. Bob Cousy, the color commentator on the Nets' Home Box Office broadcasts, was at courtside being asked about Bubbles. Nuggets Coach Larry Brown was being asked about Bubbles and, mostly, Bubbles was being asked about Bubbles.
Several fans wanted to know how he got his nickname—he says he doesn't know. In any event, it describes him more accurately on the court than off, where he is a relatively quiet soul. There were also the usual hero-type requests: "Hey, Bubbles, my name's Danny Allesandro. Score 40 points for me tonight."
On this particular occasion Bubbles didn't come close to 40, but with the score tied at 84-all, he came flying up behind Jim Price, who had seemed safely ahead of the field on a fast break, reached out with one long arm and made a game-saving block.
From there the Nets ran out a 91-88 victory over the Midwest leaders, and in the winning dressing room Bassett announced, "Hey, everybody, it was a year ago that we beat Denver on the Doc's birthday and then went out to celebrate with him."
Bubbles Hawkins hadn't been around to remember, but he smiled at the thought. "I've shown I belong here now," he said. "People are starting to ask me about my defense. It's O.K. What would you say about the defense of the guys guarding me?"
For once, at least, someone else was even more bubbly than Bubbles. Net Coach Kevin Loughery said, "He's got something...who knows what you should call it...charisma, I guess. The Doc had unbelievable charisma because he was so great. But here's a kid who is out of the league, comes back and scores a point a minute some nights. I guess our fans were ready for a new name, for a guy with a fresh face who smiles the way he does out there. All I know is that Bubbles Hawkins has become a hero just when we needed one."