Connie Hawkins’ First Spin Around the NBA, 1969

[In the 1972 book Stand Up for Something: The Spencer Haywood story, author Bill Libby spoke with Sam Schulman, owner of the Seattle Supersonics, about the latter’s frustration with the NBA’s status quo. Schulman’s frustration had hit a high simmer in mid-1969 when the NBA Board of Governors awarded the NBA rights to then-ABA star Connie Hawkins to the expansion Phoenix Suns. This came after “The Hawk” settled his $6 million lawsuit against the league for banning him based on hearsay allegations of his consorting with gamblers. Part of the settlement required that the NBA immediately lift its lifetime ban on Hawkins. 

Schulman, an extremely aggressive businessman, believed that his Supersonics deserved first crack at Hawkins. Why? Hawkins’ NBA rights had never previously been assigned to a team, and, as Schulman explained, “I had been a prime negotiator in settling with Hawkins and luring him from the ABA.” In short, the NBA owed him Hawkins. When Schulman didn’t get his way, he let his frustration boil over into signing ABA star Spencer Haywood and sabotaging the NBA’s four-year rule.  

Schulman’s frustration was Phoenix’s presumed profound good fortune. Hawkins’ legend preceded him to the Valley of the Sun as another Elgin Baylor—only three inches taller. As time would tell, Phoenix’s good fortune turned out to be a little more bust than boom. As Phoenix sportswriter Joe Gilmartin commented a few years later:

“By the time the owners finally let him into the National Basketball Association, Connie Hawkins was 27 years old, and his right knee had been scarred by surgery. Through no fault of his own, his formative professional years had been spent honing his showmanship, not his competitive edge. Eight years away from the mainstream of basketball had taken their toll. The Hawk found himself haunted by the ghost of Hawkins past. All these circumstances combined to put more pressure on him than any other player who ever entered the NBA.”

Gilmartin’s points are overstated here and there. (After all, Lew Alcindor made his NBA debut the same season that Hawkins made his. Plus, Cazzie Russell and Bill Bradley didn’t have it too easy previously in New York.) This article, plucked from The Sporting News, offers a snapshot of Hawkins’ first weeks in the NBA and the unfair judgments and tough love that awaited. Frank Gianelli, a highly regarded sportswriter for the Arizona Republic, penned the story, which ran on November 22, 1969 under the headline, “Trace of Trotter Remains In Hawkins, Sniff Critics.”]

Hawkins making his first visit to Madison Square Garden

Connie Hawkins, it’s turning out, is a lot of things to a lot of people. To Phoenix fans—Sensational: “He could bank a shot off a piece of Kleenex.”

To owners—Box-office draw: There are a lot more people at Phoenix Suns’ games this year. 

To teammates—A welcome relief: It’s nice to have a big guy at the basket. His moves are sensational. 

To San Diego’s Elvin Hayes—A clown: “He has still got a lot of Globetrotter in him. In the NBA, there are only two things to do with the ball—go to the hoop or pass it to a teammate.”

And Connie Hawkins, himself . . . ?

The 6-feet-8, 220-pounder, who’s instilled new brilliance into the Suns, shrugs off chatter. “Opinions are like rear ends—everybody’s got one,” Connie scoffed. “Those comments don’t affect me. There is more to basketball than going to the hoop or passing to a teammate. There are a lot of situations when a player can use something to his advantage. I watch Wilt Chamberlain holding the ball over his head with one hand, or passing behind his back and I don’t hear any criticism of him.”

The Hawk picked up some bad habits during his four-year stint with the Globetrotters and he admits it. “The Trotters were a great influence,” he said. “But I try to weigh the bad against the good and give up some of the stuff.”

Connie’s “stuff” is catching opponents and teammates unawares. “It’s a problem for the team,” admitted Coach John Kerr. “It still is taking the rest of the Suns time to get on to his passes.”

Overall, there’s been a tendency for the rest of the guys to stand around when Connie has the ball and goes into his “thing.” Thus, the team suddenly finds itself in a one-man offense. Yet, Connie is unselfish to a fault and probably would get off eight to 10 more shots per game than he does if he didn’t feed so much. 

Actually, his total game is hard to judge until he’s faced all the league’s forwards. But after the first eight games, Hawk was shooting 48-for-114 in the field goal department and had 81 rebounds. That put him third in scoring and second in rebounding. He had 44 assists, to rank second on the Suns’ list. All of which should be answer to Hayes’ critique that Hawkins doesn’t go to the basket or stands around waving the ball too much. 

Not that the Hawk is all perfection and the solution to what’s ailing the Suns. He went to the NBA from Pittsburgh of the ABA on a spectacular deal involving a five-year $50,00 no-cut contract. [Note: The numbers are badly off here. Hawkins got $85,00 per season for five years.] There was also an agreement calling for $25,000 a year lifetime after he’s 45 as a condition releasing the league from his $6 million suit [Another note: The league paid Hawkins $25,000 annually, beginning in 1987 for 24 years]. There also was conjecture whether his knee surgery would restore him to 100 percent efficiency. 

Everybody but Connie is convinced it has. But the Hawk still goes gimpy on the underpinning every once in a while, and there is some suspicion Connie might be a hypochondriac. Some days his teeth hurt or he “doesn’t feel like playing.”

And there was the set-to about his tonsils. Connie thought they should come out. “They’ll come out when WE think they should come out,” retorted General Manager Jerry Colangelo. “Everything right now is a little unfair for Connie. 

“He’s under a great deal of pressure to perform as a superstar right away. “But consider the circumstances,” said Colangelo. “Just coming into the league was an experience in itself. Every other place he played, he was able to dominate. Now he faces the adjustment of playing against bigger and stronger players. The big concern is the status of his knee. 

“Physically, it’s 100 percent okay. But Connie just hasn’t gained complete confidence. Once he’s made a complete circuit of the league and become familiar with its personnel, he’ll begin to unravel.”

If there is a chink in the Hawkins armor, it may be Connie’s tendency to hold the ball a little too long. But it’s his style. He has tremendous handspan, palming the basketball like an ordinary man would a grapefruit. 

“If I get the ball in one hand and swing it—that makes the defensive player more concerned about what I might do than if I hold it in two hands, which minimizes my mobility. And if I see a man open, I want to get the ball to him no matter where I’m holding it, because he is only open for a split second,” Hawkins said. 

Despite his bulk, Hawkins does things you don’t expect from a man his size. He has moves toward the basket that are unbelievable. If opponents double-team him, he dumps the ball off—and he does all this with showmanship as though he still were playing with the Trotters. 

Along with being exciting and dramatic, the Hawk has turned a Phoenix tailender into a potential contender. 

2 thoughts on “Connie Hawkins’ First Spin Around the NBA, 1969

  1. Phoenix and Seattle had a coin flip over the rights to Hawkins at the NBA Board of Governors meeting in Detroit that year. Phoenix was included because they had lost the flip for Lew Alcindor, and I guess this explains why Seattle was included.

    Schulman was a bit of a loose cannon, not only signing Haywood, but also signing Jim McDaniels and John Brisker away from the ABA (Philadelphia owned Brisker’s rights and the battle over his rights delayed the1973 NBA draft by a few days, but that’s another story).

    Keep up the good work Bob, your Archie Clark book is at the top of my “to read” pile!


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