Connie Hawkins’ Revolution in Arizona, 1971

[During his first spin around the NBA in the fall of 1969, Connie Hawkins received mixed reviews as the expensive new “superstar” of the Phoenix Suns. About that time, Phoenix owner Dick Bloch cornered his coach John “Red” Kerr and reportedly said, “John, if this guy can’t play, lie to me.” By this third and fourth times around the NBA, Hawkins, a.k.a., The Hawk, started to elevate his game to the lofty heights that Bloch and others in the organization so desperately needed to sell pro basketball in Phoenix.

Indeed, as this article from Popular Library’s 1971 Basketball All-Pro Annual indicates, Hawkins sparked a “revolution in Arizona” that first season, boosting attendance and popularizing the second-year Suns across the state. The Hawkins era lasted just over four seasons, with the ailing superstar’s production and reputation dwindling with each passing year in Phoenix. “The Hawk is a work of art,” wrote Phoenix sportswriter Joe Gilmartin tongue in cheek. “Some nights, it’s poetry in motion. Other nights, it’s still life.”

Gilmartin writes here of Hawkins when he was still mostly poetry in motion during his first season in Phoenix. Now, 50 years later, as the Suns of Chris Paul, Devin Booker, and Deandre Ayton continue their improbable dream season, just remember The Hawk, Dick Van Arsdale, Neal Walk, Paul Silas, Mel Counts, and the others. They were the ones who started a really good NBA thing in the Valley of the Sun.]

Connie Hawkins seems like the last man in the world to lead a revolution. For one thing, he’s too tall. For another, very few successful revolutionaries get up at 2:00 o’clock in the afternoon. And finally, he is rich. 

Yet, this tall, rich sleepy-head led a bloodless coup that transferred a basketball desert into an opulent Oasis. 

Before Hawkins, there was almost as much interest in basket weaving as in basketball in Arizona. The year before The Hawk came to town, the Phoenix Suns drew only 160,568 people in spite of a torrid six-month winning streak (they won games in October, November, December, January, February, and March). 

With The Hawk last year, the Suns played to 318,887 at home, and could have hit close to half a million if there had been room enough. The year before The Hawk, the Suns sold 750 season tickets. The year after The Hawk, they sold 3,000 season tickets. 

Basketball interest in what was once a wasted vast land has reached a point where 1,200 fans turned out nightly this past spring to watch rookie workouts—in spite of sweltering temperatures and the absence of any “name” prospects. 

Such was The Hawk’s impact that Phoenix is now rated as the most-promising NBA franchise this side of the megalopolises. Which only goes to show just how wrong people can be!

A year ago, they were saying Hawkins was one of the most-expensive players ever. What he is is one of the cheapest franchises ever. 

People in Phoenix went crazy about Hawkins right from the start. After 20 games, he was among the leaders in the National Basketball Association in scoring, rebounding, and playmaking . . . and the fans were asking, “What’s the matter with the The Hawk?”

Now, if that isn’t crazy . . .

Actually, the question made more sense than might be suspected. In the early going, he was more like an extra added attraction than a bona fide contributor to the cause. 

The fans came out anyway, on the theory that it was more fun waiting for The Hawk to do something more than watching others actually do it. 

The ball seemed riveted to his hand when he faked (the only time Hawkins ever uses two hands is when he’s washing them), yet his touch was so soft around the basket, you just knew he could bank in a shot off a sheet of Kleenex. 

He wasn’t getting that many rebounds, but those he did get were collector’s items, and at times, he moved as though he had skates, and everybody else on the ice was wearing tennis shoes. But alas, if his touch was soft on defense, he was an even softer touch on offense, and he seemed strangely reluctant to move toward the basket. 

The pressure, of course, was enormous. 

In view of his status as a Phantom Immortal, there may well have been more pressure on Hawkins than any other rookie ever. Players, coaches, and writers have been telling each other for years that Hawkins was the greatest. 

But careful questioning turned up the fact that precious few of them had ever actually seen The Hawk. Indeed, most folks harked all the way back to his prep days in New York to back up their claims. 

So there he was in Flagstaff, Ariz., in September—27 years old, 20 pounds underweight, his right knee scarred by surgery, and his soul scarred by a gambling scandal which had kept him out of the mainstream for more than half a decade. 

“I’ve got a lot to prove to myself,” he said. “I don’t really care what people say or think. I want to prove to myself that I can play in the NBA.”

The Suns, coming off a 16-66 season, were eager to accept him as their salvation. And he was no less eager to help. 

Yet, the Suns were to lose 23 games and one coach before they and he really got together to launch the drive that carried all the way to the seventh game of the playoffs against the Los Angeles Lakers. “On all the teams that I ever played for,” complained Hawkins, “the idea was to get the ball to the best player. On this team, I feel this is me, and I believe that if I can get the ball, I can either score or draw fouls.”

Hawkins started getting the ball in midseason when general manager Jerry Colangelo replaced Red Kerr as coach, although it would be wrong to assume Hawk’s problems stemmed entirely from Kerr. 

By the time Colangelo assumed command, Hawkins had regained much of his lost weight, had gained confidence in his knee, and had gained important knowledge about his mates and his opponents. 

In the first two months, the following conversation in the Suns’ huddle was fairly common :

Kerr—“Hawk, you take what’s his name?”

Hawk—“Coach, which one is he?”

When the last shot had been fired, the former American Basketball Association and Harlem Globetrotter star had logged an impressive list of accomplishments that included a spot on the All-Star team, an average of 24.6 points a game, and new league record for oohs and ahs. 

Yet he wasn’t completely satisfied. “I don’t think I got the most out of myself as an individual, or that we got all we could out of ourselves as a team,” said Hawkins.

The honor that most pleased Hawkins was being voted fifth most-valuable player in the league by his peers. His greatest single performance came fittingly and fortunately enough in the last period of the last regular-season game at San Diego. If they won, the Suns would tie for third. If they lost, they would finish fourth. The Suns had shelled the Rockets six straight, but the relaxed cellar-dwellers roared to a 23-point lead.

They still had 16 of it left when The Hawk went to work with 10 minutes left. All he did was steal the ball five times (twice for layups in the last 80 seconds), block five shots, and pick off ten rebounds. For an encore, he slid through heavy traffic to ram in a twisting follow shot that gave the Suns a one-point victory. 

In that span, he beat NBA rebounding champ Elvin Hayes on the boards, played defense like Bill Russell, stole passes like Walt Frazier, and went to the basket like . . . well, like only The Hawk can. 

Some had called him a tall Elgin Baylor, but that night he made Elgin look like a short Connie Hawkins. 

Like most stars, The Hawk stirs debate, but, in his case, it tends to break down into somewhat unusual categories. Things he can’t do . . . and things he doesn’t do.

He is not a first-rate defensive player, yet he has been known to play superb defense. He still doesn’t shoot as much as he should, he never has been accused of under-resting. 

Perhaps the biggest disappointment to him personally was his inability to turn on in the East in general and in New York in particular. This was due partly to the fact the Suns logged most of their Eastern time in the early portion of the season when Hawkins was still getting untracked. “Then too,” said Connie, “I think I just tried too hard back there.”

Hawkins played his best basketball the last two months, and he played it in obscurity. (Obscurity is everything West of the Hudson River.)

As superstars go, Hawkins is delightfully easy to talk to . . . and do deucedly difficult to understand. At times, he seemed incredibly naïve . . . at others, strangely shrewd. 

He seldom refers to his years with the Trotters and the ABA, but he specifically asked the Suns to list him from Iowa University on the program. He was at Iowa as a freshman when he was unwittingly involved in the gambling scandal which sent him into exile. 

Hawkins took up basketball to kill time while waiting for his mother to finish her day’s work when he was a youngster. And he’s never regretted it. “I’d have to say the game has been good to me,” he reflects. “I really love to play it, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

The Hawk can do it all on the court. 

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