Can Connie Hawkins Find Happiness in the ABA? 1969

[Happy New Year! This article comes from Jim O’Brien, a journalist who would cover the ABA like no other in the 1970s for the New York Post and The Sporting News. But here, O’Brien is still in back his hometown (where he is today, actually) writing for Pittsburgh Weekly Sports. His subject is none other than Connie Hawkins. O’Brien’s article, which appeared in the magazine Fast Break 1969 All-Pro Basketball Annual (or pre-David Wolf’s classic book Foul) doesn’t cover much new territory. But it does include some really nice quotes, which put Hawkins’ unique talent in perspective before his bolt to the NBA. That’s why I’m kicking off 2023 with a tribute to The Hawk. May all readers of this blog use their unique talents this year in their communities to soar like The Hawk, even if you can’t get up over the rim anymore.]

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Connie Hawkins has always been the superstar of “the other league.” He was the leading scorer, rebounder and, of course, most valuable player in the late American Basketball League (ABL), which lasted a year and a half before it died in December 1962. Last season, he was all-everything in the American Basketball Association, a word of difference, but not a world of difference from the earlier attempt at establishing a second pro basketball league in the country.

Hawkins had no peer in the ABA last winter. He led the league in scoring (26.8), was second in rebounding (13.5 a game), fourth in assists (4.5 average), and runner-up by a tenth of a percentage point to teammate Tom Washington in two-point field goal shooting accuracy (52.1 percent). He led the Pittsburgh Pipers to the first league title and was the obvious choice for the MVP award at the end of the season.

This second season, the Pipers will play in Minnesota where the team owners are hopeful people will pay to see them play, even though these same people in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington didn’t break down the doors to see the Muskies of the ABA last season. The Muskies have moved to Miami Beach and are now known as the Floridians. In Pittsburgh, the Pipers were unappreciated and virtually ignored. The Pipers were put down as minor leaguers and played in Pittsburgh’s spacious Civic Arena before friends, family members, and a thousand or two faithful fans.

Those few, who found the games exciting and entertaining, will tell you that the Pipers were as sound as some of the NBA teams, especially the expansion ones, and they will argue vociferously that Connie Hawkins has to be one of the greatest in the game, no matter which league you’re talking about.

But is this enough? Can Connie Hawkins be satisfied starring in the second-best league? Can Connie Hawkins find happiness in the ABA? Asked these questions, Connie can say he’s satisfied. But is he sincere? Can Connie smile when he says it? No, he can’t.

During the investigations of the 1961 college basketball scandal, it was alleged that Connie Hawkins, then a freshman at the University of Iowa, had accepted money and favors from one of the fixers. So did his boyhood friend from Brooklyn, Roger Brown, then a first-year student at Dayton University and now a star for the ABA Indiana Pacers. Neither was accused of fixing games. The ABA said they were guilty only of indiscretion and was willing to forgive. No NBA teams had ever drafted them.

Walter Kennedy, commissioner of the NBA, insists they weren’t blacklisted, but Hawkins has filed a suit against the NBA for depriving him of a livelihood in the game. Dave Litman, attorney for Hawkins, says, “Connie has been damaged badly by the blindness of the NBA.”

After the ABL folded in 1962, Hawkins played four years with the Harlem Globetrotters, who were founded by the same man as the ABL, none other than Abe Saperstein. Hawkins quit the tour in 1966, the same year he sued the NBA, and contented himself by playing in pick-up exhibition games and occasionally for Porky Chedwick’s sandlot team in Pittsburgh, a club sponsored by a disc jockey [Chedwick] for a Black radio station in the area. Two years ago, for 50 cents—if you didn’t know the man at the door—you could see Connie Hawkins and some of his former teammates with the late Pittsburgh Rens in action against the likes of the Duquesne Serbs or Bill Baierl Camaros at the Young Man’s Hebrew Association in Pittsburgh’s Oakland section.

Like any top athlete, Hawkins is hungry for adulation, for fame, and for money and the better things to come with it. He knows his abilities, but he’s also aware that the general public just won’t buy the arguments about how good he is, because they don’t see him playing against the NBA stars on television.

Connie Hawkins is the dominating force in the ABA, the way Wilt Chamberlain controls the action in the NBA. But the dubious won’t buy Hawkins until they see him up against the names they know best.

Bill Sharman, who coached the San Francisco Warriors in the NBA last season, but has since jumped to the Los Angeles Stars of the ABA for the season, saw Hawkins in the championship playoffs in New Orleans last year. “He had his leg taped up like a racehorse after a knee injury,” says Sharman, “but I’ll tell you, Hawkins made some plays I’ve never seen before. He’s 6-feet-8 ½ and belongs in the same class with Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and John Havlicek.”

Similarly, Hawkins has another supporter who used to draw his paycheck in the NBA, teammate Art Heyman. The former Duke All-American played with the Knicks, Royals, 76ers, and Celtics, as well as the Hartford Capitols of the Eastern League and New Jersey Americans of the ABA, and he insists that Hawkins has them all beat.

The only chance Connie Hawkins has to prove all this is when he returns home to New York in the summer and plays on the playgrounds against stars of the NBA. “They know,” Hawkins declares.” What they know is that Hawkins can do it all, against anybody.

“Chamberlain is conceited,” says Hawkins, “and I’ve seen him disregard a lot of stars in the NBA when they hang around him. But he shows me respect. That’s all. I can’t compare with Wilt. No one can. He’s up there (Connie extends his long arm toward the ceiling) and the rest of us are down here.”

Former NBA performer Ed Fleming is a friend of Hawkins and knows the situation quite well. Now a teacher and coach at Westinghouse High in Pittsburgh, where he and Maurice Stokes were teammates, Fleming played five years in the NBA after graduating from Niagara University. He played for the Rochester Royals for two seasons, then three with the Minneapolis Lakers.

This past summer, he worked with Hawkins at clinics on Pittsburgh’s playgrounds. “As a friend, I feel sorry for Connie,” he said. “It’s a shame he can’t prove himself with the NBA pros.”

Fleming watched Hawkins demonstrate his skills to some wide-eyed youngsters and reflected. “When I was playing in the NBA,” he said, “Bob Pettit of St. Louis was regarded as the best forward in the league. Listen, I played against them both, and I don’t think there’s any comparisons between Hawkins and Pettit. Yet Pettit ends up as an all-time NBA great. I believe Connie is the best 6-feet-8 player I’ve ever seen. Don’t put him in the pivot with Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. He’s a cornerman, perhaps the greatest.”

Hawkins had to play the pivot for the Pipers because there was nobody else who could do the job. Big, strong, mobile centers aren’t plentiful in the NBA, and they’re nearly nonexistent in the ABA.

Jim Pollard pointed to Hawkins as the best big man in the ABA, but thought his center, rookie Mel Daniels, an All-American from University of New Mexico, was the second best. In the strange world that is the ABA, Daniels was dealt to the Indiana Pacers during the offseason for some cash to pay the bills before the team skipped Bloomington for Miami Beach.

Daniels was the Rookie of the Year in the ABA, but he was simply no match for Hawkins, who is now 26 and has been playing some kind of pro ball for seven seasons. “What are you going to do when a guy goes eight feet off the ground and throws the ball down through the hoop?” Daniels declared in the dressing room one night after the Pipers had beaten the Minnesota Muskies.

“I couldn’t believe how high he went,” Daniels went on, “and how he stayed up there. I looked up at him and said, ‘the hell with it.’”

Hawkins had some game that night. He hit 10 of 13 shots, mostly spectacular stuffs and acrobatic assaults on the hoop that delighted the crowd. Pittsburgh sports announcer Joe Tucker tabbed one of his tricky shots “the flying trapeze.” It’s Hawkins’ Globetrotter game showing through. “My schoolyard shots,” Connie insists.

While Wilt Chamberlain is the super stuffer, slamming the ball through the hoop like no one else, Hawkins has to finesse the enemy to get to the hoop. Vince Cazzetta, who coached Hawkins and the Pipers last season, but in typical ABA form has departed the scene this year, was an assistant coach at Seattle University when Elgin Baylor was there, and he was fond of comparing the two all the time. It lent class to the ABA’s cause.

“You never know what he’s going to do next,” Cazzetta would say of Hawkins, “I thought I had seen every shot in the book, but Connie shows me new ones all the time. He can do whatever he wants to do with the ball.”

Hawkins has enormous hands, which allow him to pluck the ball off the hoop on the defensive boards with a swipe of a single hand. He is lean, weighing but 215 pounds, swift, and is an excellent dribbler and passer. “He showboats a little,” Cazzetta says, “but he does it in good taste.” His weaknesses, if you insist, lie in his defensive play, and he doesn’t move enough without the ball on offense.

Connie credits his fine grounding in the fundamentals to his high school coach, Mickey Fisher, at Boys’ High in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant section. It was there that Connie Hawkins learned to play basketball.

“I played 26 hours a day,” says Hawkins, and no that’s not a typo. “There wasn’t anything else I was interested in, so I spent all my time at it.” Sihugo Green and Lenny Wilkens of the NBA had both played at Boys’ High, but neither name is as well-remembered as Hawkins’ there today. Hawkins led the team to two city championships in his final two seasons.

Lenny Litman remembers Hawkins’ home and neighborhood well. “It was a real ghetto,” says the Pittsburgh promoter who went there to sign Hawkins, shortly after he left Iowa, to play for the Rens in the ABL.

Litman had to get Hawkins’ brother to sign the contract because Connie was a minor. “There was a bed in the living room where Connie slept with his brother,” Litman recalls. “I had to knock a roach off a dressing bureau so they could sign the contract. It was a real mess.”

Hawkins signed for a $500 bonus, and Litman had made a real steal. On the way to New York with Hawkins to see his brother, Litman learned just how good a prospect he had. The two stopped in Philadelphia, where Litman talked to Wayne Hightower, now of the ABA’s Denver Rockets, who had jumped the NBA that year and was going to Madrid, Spain, to play ball.

Hightower wasn’t interested in playing in Pittsburgh, but looking into a far-off corner where Connie Hawkins stood, shying away from the conversation and licking an ice cream cone, Hightower observed: “What do you need me for? You have a whole basketball team over there.”

“That was the first I knew,” says Litman, “how highly regarded he was.”

Hawkins burned the baskets in the ABL that first season, leading the league in scoring and rebounding. At the age 19, with no college varsity playing experience, he put the older pros to shame.

In his first game against the Cleveland entry, Hawkins had 40 points, and three centers had fouled out trying to stop him. Then Dick Barnett, now with the New York Knicks, fouled out, and he walked over to Hawkins and exclaimed: “This is illegal. You shouldn’t be allowed in this league.” Barnett went to his bench with six points.

Another ballplayer Hawkins outplayed in head-to-head duels was Bill Bridges, then a rookie out of Kansas University. This past winter, Barnett and Bridges both played in the NBA’s midseason all-star game.

“It upset Connie to watch that game on TV,” says Hawkins’ wife, Nancy, the mother of two children, Shawna,5, and Connie, Jr., a year old. “He wanted desperately to play in that league. He wanted to reach a goal of playing in the NBA, and it has disgusted him a lot that he can’t. That’s why he doesn’t like to talk about it.”

Hawkins was considered so superior, even at the age of 19, that the owner of the Cleveland team, George Steinbrenner, a shipping-line magnate on the Great Lakes, got disgusted with his team at midseason and called Litman in Pittsburgh to make a trade. “I’ll give you my whole ballclub for Connie Hawkins,” said Steinbrenner.

“Throw in one of your ships,” said Litman, “and it’s a deal.” Litman never heard anything else on the matter.

This season, Hawkins has a chance to prove just how good he is, if Rick Barry is permitted to play for the Oakland Oaks. Barry, the leading scorer in the NBA two years ago, is one of the players the ABA is counting upon to make it a success.

There could be six confrontations with Barry this season, and it’s a meeting most savored by George Mikan, the commissioner of the ABA. Every time Mikan met Hawkins last season, he snapped: “Hawk, when are you going to go all-out and score 50 or 60 points? You can do it, and you know it.” Mikan wanted a superstar to sell to the public. Now, he has two.

“Imagine Barry and Hawkins going head-to-head,” says Mikan. “I defy anyone to tell me that’s not major league.”

It’s a chance for Connie to convince the doubters, too. A chance to show that he’s not just the best of the second-best. A chance for Connie Hawkins to find happiness in the ABA.

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