Connie Hawkins: No Harm, No Foul, 1970

[This article offers a nice overview of Connie Hawkins joining the Phoenix Suns in the summer of 1969. Though Hawkins had his moments during his four-plus seasons in Phoenix, several factors conspired against him (a bum knee, advancing age) from fulfilling the high expectations that greeted his belated arrival in the NBA. The article below, which has no byline, comes from Pro Basketball Almanac, 1970. It ran under the headline: What Connie Hawkins Will Do for Phoenix—And the NBA.]


The fog rolled in over Jersey City’s Roosevelt Stadium, depositing a thin, slippery film over the hardwood court. The wet, misty shroud that blanketed the aging baseball park, smothered the inadequate lighting and threatened to turn this All-Star basketball game into a dark, grotesque ballet. For a while, that’s what happened. 

The West squad, led by Jeff Mullins, Joe Caldwell, Paul Silas, and George Wilson, sloshed and slogged its way to a 20-17 quarter lead and a 37-37 tie at the half. Dancing daintily through the puddles and slipping and sliding over the ice-slick surface as the mist turned into a light rain, the West stars were still even as the game splashed into the final quarter. Then an East player found his water-wings. 

Where others had merely walked on water, a graceful, long-armed 6-foot-7 youngster began to run on water—then fly. And, all of a sudden, the game was no longer competitive. He was grabbing the rebounds, as he had been doing all along, but now he was no longer pitching out to his guards to set the fastbreak in motion. Now he was scrubbing the boards clean and dribbling the length of the treacherous floor himself, leading the fastbreak and capping it off with dunk shots or Cousy-like behind-the-back passes to teammates as he floated gracefully toward the basket, drawing the defense with him.

On a dry court, this sight of a 6-foot-7 big man rebounding, leading the fastbreak, and capping it off with fancy assists would boggle the imagination, but on a wet court, it defied belief. Yet time and again, it what was happening. Rebound for “the Hawk.” Full-court drive. Dunk or assist.

The final score was East 85, West 60, a tremendous whomping for Mullins, Caldwell, Silas, Wilson, et al., and a tremendous individual victory for one young man. The man, the winner of the Most Valuable Player trophy in this game, was Connie Hawkins. The date was June 29, 1960, the end of Hawkins’ senior year in high school, and it was the first time Connie would face players of NBA caliber, though they, too, were just high school seniors at the time.  

Hawkins proved he was a superstar in All-America competition then, as many think he will prove now playing his first season in the NBA. And, as he proves himself, he will be doing things for his team and his league. 

One thing Connie Hawkins will do for Phoenix is solidify the franchise overnight. No team can exist for long in the NBA today without a superstar, and Connie Hawkins fills the gap at Phoenix. He will be the Phoenix franchise, just as Elvin Hayes is the San Diego franchise. 

“To the NBA in general,” says its president, Walter Kennedy, “Connie Hawkins means about three more good home dates for each of the teams in the league. Last year when Phoenix came to town, en route to its 16 and 66 record, they couldn’t fill the house by giving away tickets around the league. This year, if they can’t give away tickets to a Phoenix game, it’ll be because it’s a sellout.”

“Connie means box-office,” agrees Suns’ general manager Jerry Colangelo. “We’ve sold twice as many season tickets as last year since we signed Hawkins. He’ll be an attraction around the league for both his skills and his showmanship.”

Colangelo and Phoenix coach Johnny Kerr are even happier about what Connie will do for the team’s won-lost record; if past performance means anything, he will make Phoenix a winner. The record shows that Hawkins made Boys High the New York City champions in 1959 and 1960; that he made the Pittsburgh Rens champions of the ABL in 1961, and the Pittsburgh Pipers ABA champs in 1967. Last year, when he was injured and played in just 46 games, the Pipers (whose franchise was shifted to Minnesota) dropped out of contention. 

“He’s gonna take us right into playoff contention,” says Kerr. “He could make us a .500 ballclub, and he’ll put us at least on a par with San Diego, Seattle, and Chicago. 

“He’ll help us in so many ways. He’s a great passer, a fine shooter, inside and outside, and a terrific rebounder on both boards. He’s more agile than any big man who ever played this game and as quick as most little men. The tricks he picked up with the Globetrotters should make him a real crowd-pleaser, like Cousy, Baylor, and Earl Monroe.”

Phoenix coach Johnny Kerr (right) with the The Hawk shortly after he signed with the Suns.

The only question mark, as far as Kerr is concerned, is the condition of Hawkins’ knee, which was operated on at the conclusion of last season. However, Kerr has been assured by Dr. Robert Kerlan, the surgeon who performed miracles with Baylor and Sandy Koufax, that it will be as good as new. 

The NBA players themselves are sure that Connie will become an immediate NBA superstar. Says Willis Reed, 6-foot-10 captain of the New York Knickerbockers: “I played against him up in Harlem. Believe me, he’s tough. He’ll be a superstar in our league, right along with Oscar, Elgin, Wilt, and the others. He can play!”

One knowledgeable basketball watcher calls Hawkins “one of the five best basketball players in the world—a mixture of Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, and Elgin Baylor.” But Jerry West, who saw Connie in some ABA games on the coast, goes even farther. Jerry calls Hawkins one of the three greatest players in the world.  

Seven-foot-one Lew Alcindor, who will have some proving of his own to do in his first year in the NBA, has played in pickup games with a number of pros, including Wilt Chamberlain, and he calls Hawkins “the best I’ve ever played against anywhere.”

Perhaps the most-positive statement made about Hawkins’ skills comes from Boston Celtics’ ace Emmette Bryant, who has heard Connie called “a taller Elgin Baylor.” Em shakes his head. “He’s better than Baylor.”

If Hawkins is respected among his fellow pros, he’s absolutely idolized at Boys High. Legend has it that he was the only player ever to come out of school who didn’t dunk. Not couldn’t dunk—didn’t dunk. 

Over the years, Boys High youngsters have left their opponents awe-stricken during their warmup drill as one after another of the Kangaroos, from the big men to the 5-foot-6 backcourt subs, would slam the ball down into the basket. But not Connie. He was above that, literally. “The Hawk” invariably would be the last man in the drill, and rather than dunk, Connie would soar to the top of the backboard and place the ball gently against the backboard, allowing it to fall the two or three feet down into the net. It may have been his subtle way of letting people know he was literally head-and-shoulders over the field. 

It has been a long, discouraging, heartbreaking climb to the NBA for the 27-year-old Hawkins. After earning All-America recognition at Boys High, Connie went to the University of Iowa. His collegiate career was cut short in his freshman year when he was dropped from school after being implicated in the college basketball fixing scandal of 1960. Though he was never indicted for any crime, the NBA also officially barred him. 

Nine years later, after evidence was unearthed that cleared him of any complicity in the 1960 scandals, Hawkins is at last getting his chance. His antitrust suit against the NBA was settled for a $1 million, multi-year contract with Phoenix. The contract is worth more than money to Hawkins. Symbolically, it’s his vindication in his fight. 

For the NBA, the settlement is cheap. For Connie Hawkins, it means so much. It softens the memories of his unjust banishment and gives him a chance to show what kind of a basketball player he is. And that’s really what he’s wanted all along. 

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