Bubbles Hawkins: How to Burst a Bubble, 1977

[Robert Hawkins reportedly got the nickname “Bubbles” because of the way he floated through the air on the playgrounds of his native Detroit. He floated and scored at will. At 6-feet-4 and a slithering 175 pounds, Bubbles was a two-time high school All-American at Detroit’s legendary Pershing High and followed his coach Wil Robinson to Illinois State University. He starred there through three seasons, teaming with Doug Collins and Roger Powell. But in 1975, Bubbles left Illinois State a year early to turn pro. It was a crapshoot—and a big mistake. Golden State drafted Bubbles and his soft, left-handed jump shot in the third round. But the Warriors were loaded in the backcourt, and Bubbles wasted away on the bench for the first time in his career, making mostly cameo appearances in 32 games. 

All Bubbles needed was a chance to play, but he never got it with Golden State. The Warriors waived him before the 1976-77 season, and Hawkins went home to Detroit to work out at Lasky’s Recreation Center and hope another NBA team would inquire about his services. Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News picks up the narrative: 

In October and November and December, the whole world was Lasky’s Recreation Center on Fenelon Street in Detroit. But by December, even the fun had gone out of Lasky’s, and he was down to two hours a day. He played basketball alone.

“There wasn’t no one around usually,” he says. “And most times when there was, they was always askin’ me, ‘What you gonna do, Bubbles?’”

Bubbles Hawkins didn’t know. The Warriors had cut him in October after one season, that much he knew. Buffalo Braves coach Tates Locke had called a few times. After two months of unemployment, all Bubbles knew was Lasky’s, his girl Kim, and the waiting.

Then his brother Nathan called him at Eric Money’s apartment on the afternoon of December 15—”I think we was listenin’ to George Benson at the time,” Bubbles says—and the best story we have right now in New York pro basketball began.

“New York is calling.”

“Who New York?” Bubbles asked. “Buffalo?”

“Nah, the New York Nets,” Nathan said impatiently. “Melky somethin’ name like that. Man said to call today.”

And so, Bubbles used the number that Nathan gave him and called Bill Melchionni and agreed to become a Net. The waiting was over. His basketball world was moving from Fenelon Street to Long Island. 

“I’ll be there today,” he said to Melchionni on the telephone.

“Tomorrow is soon enough,” said Melchionni.

“Today,” Bubbles said. 

The best story pro basketball in New York this season had begun. 

The New York Nets, the former ABA champions now sans Julius Erving, John Williamson, and others, were a shell of their former glory and, hands down, the worst team in the NBA. But there was opportunity in chaos, and Bubbles made the most of it. He pulled on his Nets uniform, called for the ball, and heard Nassau Coliseum buzz over this new kid coming off the bench with the hip playground nickname and all the cool one-on-one moves. Was he the next Earl Monroe? Newsday’s Bill Nack picks up the excitement in this article from February 10, 1977.]

With 54 seconds left in regulation play, with the Nets and New Orleans Jazz locked in a 77-77 tie, the Nets’ Tim Bassett threw an inbound pass to one Robert Hawkins, who caught it and took off. 

Hawkins swept in a parabola toward the baseline. Dribbling across court, passing the key on the right side, to the weak side, Hawkins stunted and seemed to start for the basket and then stop, finally turning away as a Jazz defender came out to meet him. 

Moving away from the basket, a defender following him out, he hovered and then improvised upon a characteristic theme. Stopping suddenly again, Hawkins pivoted to the basket. And up he went, floating slowly in the air, in one motion cocking his left arm and then lofting the ball softly toward the basket. Ricocheting off the backboard, the ball chopped through the net, and for the first time since early in the first quarter, the Nets had gained the lead, 79-77.

The fans at Nassau Coliseum were on their feet, pumping their fists in the air, many calling the name by which he is known:

“BUH-bbles! . . . BUH-bbles! . . .BUH-bbles! . . .”

The name has become the fans’ refrain, a sort of new tribal chant to ward off losing and to summon, as if magically, points upon the board. They called it with Bubbles Hawkins on the bench, impatiently urging coach Kevin Loughery to stop fiddling around and put him into the game. And last night, they called it thunderously, in a chant, booming it out in the waning moments of an overtime game in which he had been a virtuoso on offense. He did it all. He scored on turn-around jump shots off the backboard and on swishing jump shots from the top of the key and the side of the key and inside the key.

He scored on dipsy-doodle layups from both sides, penetrating through traffic and shooting with men all around him, his size 42 arms flailing like a spider’s scaling a web. He hits from the baseline and from the free-throw line. And when the performance had ended, the Nets had come from behind to beat the Jazz, 93-89.

And Bubbles Hawkins had 44 points. “I haven’t heard the people cheering like this since the playoffs against San Antonio last year,” said Joe Filippone, a season-ticket holder from North Babylon, NY.

“Fantastic!” said Joseph Van Berckelaer of Hicksville, NY. “The guy’s amazing. That soft shot, that beautifulsoft shot!”

“What he really reminds me of,” coach Kevin Loughery said, “is Earl Monroe when he was young. What he can do is get to the lane like the great ones could—Monroe, Oscar Robertson, Walt Frazier, Jerry West—and shoot in the traffic . . . It is totally amazing to think that he was out of professional basketball.”

But out he once was. Hawkins left college following his junior year at Illinois State, signed with the Golden State Warriors last season, rode the bench with them most of the year, and at the start of this season was cut.  He played a total of 152 minutes in 32 games. 

“But that’s stretchin’ it some,” Hawkins said as he dressed before last night’s game. “I’d go in for less than a minute, and they’d stretch it to a minute. I called it the two-minute drill. That’s when you go out there and play as hard as you can for two minutes. Some games you got lucky and played six, eight minutes.”

Deciding to go with more experienced guards, the Warriors cut him the day before the season started, and suddenly he was looking for a job. The market was thin. He called Buffalo and Denver and Los Angeles, looking for someone who needed a guard, but they never called him back. 

So, he left the Bay Area, a place he loved, and went home to Detroit, waiting for someone to call. When no one did, beginning to give up any hope of playing pro ball, he got himself another job. “I was going to work in the courthouse in downtown Detroit,” Bubbles Hawkins said, “serving summonses and taking reports over to the courthouse. I had it all lined up. I had it set for January 21, if things hadn’t developed by then.”

Things then developed. The Nets, looking for a guard and having heard about him as a gunner, called Hawkins on December 15 and signed him to play for the rest of this season. He signed for the NBA minimum, $30,000 a year, less two months he had not played. So, he started playing this year for about $22,000. He came grateful for the chance.

“I figured if I had a chance to play, I’d prove I could play in the league with the best players,” Hawkins said. “There’s a lot of difference between playing regularly and sitting on the bench or playing sporadically, every two or three weeks. It helps a combination of things, your stamina and your shooting sharpness. Not only timing of shots, but shot selection. Not only your rhythm, but your confidence in taking shots. As you play more, your shot selection gets better.”

In Hawkins’ case, better and better. He came into last night’s game with 21 games behind him and a 17.4-point average and lately had been scoring heavily. He had 37 points against Cleveland recently and is regaining confidence and timing as he works into the Nets’ offense. “I feel more confident just getting the feel of the floor,” Hawkins said. “Earlier on, I was concerned about doing things right and not thinking about much else. It’s become enjoyable.”

Living on Long Island, however, has been another matter. “I miss California, the climate most of all,” he said. “Sunshine, fresh air, beautiful scenery, the hills. I had a view of the whole bay, and I could watch the sun set behind the mountains. I lived up on one of the hills.

“Here, I look out over a side street next to the IGA [grocery store]. Most of the time, the curtains are closed, anyway. I couldn’t afford to move here. The place I’m staying in now, in Hempstead, I really don’t like it. The price is outrageous. Three hundred dollars. One bedroom, one bathroom, one kitchen, one of everything.”

The most-valuable working Net smiled softly and shrugged. “The place has roaches,” he said. “That takes me back a little ways. It took me back to my childhood days. It took me back to the days I thought I had surpassed.”

[Here’s a second sampling of the Bubble-mania that wafted over New York and northern New Jersey that winter. Blowing Bubbles this time is reporter Rich Sadowki of the Paterson (NJ) News on February 24, 1977.]

. . . Bubbles’ bad days, however, appear to be over. The 6-feet-4 guard has become one of the very few reasons a trip to Nassau Coliseum to take-in the Nets is still worthwhile. Hawkins has taken the league by storm since his return [to the NBA], averaging nearly 20 points an outing through 29 games, including dazzling efforts of 44 points against New Orleans and 37 versus Cleveland. His twisting, spinning jumpers are a pleasure to watch, as are the floating one-handed scoop shots, which have become a part of his offensive repertoire.

“I see a lot of Earl Monroe in him,” revealed Loughery, a teammate of the Pearl with the Baltimore Bullets. “. . . I just hope someday Bubbles will be in the same class. He’s still just a kid, you know. He’s proven he can play in this league. He’s going to be some fine ballplayer.”

“I always had confidence in myself, that’s something I never lost, I knew I could play,” said Bubbles. “All I ever wanted was the chance to show what I could do.”

[On March 18, 1977, the Nets celebrated Bubbles Night at Nassau Coliseum. Bill Verigan  of the New York Daily News captured the moment and the odd celebration. But, as fun as it was to watch Bubbles Hawkins defy gravity and sometimes physics, the Nets still couldn’t win on Bubbles Night, falling hard to Cleveland.]

Afterwards, after the Nets collapsed in the fourth quarter and were outscored, 18-2, over six minutes for a 101-88 loss to the Cavaliers, Bubbles Hawkins stood beside his locker alone.

Other players get cars and watches on their nights; Bubbles Hawkins proudly pointed out the year’s supply of soap mix, the sterling silver bubble-making wand. “Hey, this is the first time in my entire career I ever had anything given to me for basketball,” he said. “Maybe it’s not a car, but I don’t care about that. The only thing that hurts is the loss. We have to get things done with that extra possession it comes from that extra hustle. But we just seemed to stop doing everything this time.”

Maybe. But for more than three quarters, the Nets have gotten that extra hustle. While other teams that are still in positions to make the playoffs have looked near death, the Nets have fought on.

And this time, Bubbles Hawkins had led them. Whenever some of the fight seemed to be going out of the Nets, he and Mike Bantom yanked them back to life. Neither one of them had been with the Nets at the start of season, but each had 24 points.

[The Nets ended the season with an NBA-worst record of 22-60 and entered the offseason with five players eligible for restricted free agency—Bubbles Hawkins, Mike Bantom, Mel Davis, Jim Fox, and Chuck Terry. According to GM Bill Melchionni, all would be tendered contract offers, but only two had developed into “good” basketball players: Hawkins and Bantom. To quote Zander Hollander and the 1978 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball, “A pretty good outside shooter with great quickness . . . It will be interesting to see how he plays without the ball (with playmaker Nate Archibald now healthy and joining the Nets). 

But not all believed Hawkins was one of the good ones. Take Barry Horn, who covered the NBA for the Yonkers Herald Statesman. Here is Horn’s verdict on Hawkins from April 10, 1977]

Bubbles Hawkins earned only $22,000 this season giving the beleaguered Nets’ fans something to cheer about . . . that comes out to the league minimum of $35,000, minus the portion of the season Bubbles spent in Detroit after being cut by Golden State.

Of course, Hawkins plans on earning a great deal more for next season . . . But if the Nets improve at all, they may find the need for Bubbles has diminished . . . Hawkins never displayed the ability to blend in on a team game . . . Hawkins was never much of a defensive player, though he did improve under coach Kevin Loughery . . . But Hawkins isn’t much of an outside shot . . . His strength is going one-on-one to the hoop. The stronger the Nets get, the less they will need Bubbles. 

[That summer, Bubbles hired former NBA player Archie Clark to negotiate his new contact. Archie wasn’t an established agent, but Melchionni was a former teammate in Philadelphia. He also understood better than most from his own career how the NBA system worked. Players were judged on (a) their productivity to their teams and (b) how their numbers compared with the league’s other players at their position. For Archie, Hawkins’ productivity showed he had been grossly underpaid at a league-minimum salary. He’d led the Nets in scoring with 19.3 ppg. That equaled the 26th highest scoring average in the league, even though Hawkins played the fewest minutes per game (28) of any top 30 scorer.  And then there was number 23. At age 23, Hawkins’ best years were clearly ahead of him.

Archie also had learned to start the negotiation high to prevent a GM from tendering a lowball offer. In this case, Archie’s strategy backfired. The Nets were notoriously stingy and their roster was in such transition that they could very easily live without Bubbles Hawkins.  And in these earliest days of restricted player free agency, teams were still resistant to signing a free agent and, league rules, handing over one of their own in compensation, especially for a one-season wonder like Hawkins. That left him with zero leverage in the negotiation. It cost him a relatively large guaranteed contract. Here’s more from the New York Daily News’ Bill Verigan from October 10, 1977.]

Bubbles Hawkins’ emotions were all twisted together yesterday as he sat in his room at the Nets’ hotel. He could no longer pull apart the separate strands—frustrations, relief, anger, rejection.

The last weeks had turned into a costly fiasco for Hawkins. He lost thousands of dollars and a guaranteed contract. In the end, he was forced to come back to the Nets on their terms instead of his.

At the end of last season, he was sure of himself. Although he had been cut by the Warriors, he had averaged 19.3 points coming off the bench after being picked up by the Nets. They even gave him his very own night.

“I did something not many players have ever done,” he recalled yesterday. “Who else has scored that many points as a sub? Don’t get me wrong. I have no bones about starting as long as I get my time in the game. I still feel that way.

Along came an older player, Archie Clark, who had come up the hard way. Clark thought he knew everything there was to know about negotiating, although the only contract he’d ever been involved with was his own. [Note: That’s just not correct.] At the end of last season, Clark told Hawkins he was a star and should be paid like a star. He sounded good, and Hawkins agreed to let Clark be his agent. 

But the summer vanished. “I couldn’t even play in any of the summer leagues, because I was unsigned and had no security,” said Hawkins. Other players went to camp, but Hawkins went nowhere—and neither did his negotiations.

Finally, a week ago, Hawkins called Net GM Bill Melchionni and struck his own deal. It was a good one—$60,000 annually for two years, with the first year’s salary guaranteed. The next day, Clark butted in and killed the deal.

Melchionni’s patience expired. He said the offer would be held out for an hour and a half and that Hawkins could take it or forget about it. Melchionni stayed by the phone, waiting in vain for Hawkins to call back.

Not until last Friday did Hawkins understand that he and Clark had made a serious miscalculation. He ditched Clark and called Irwin Weiner, a New York agent who represents Julius Erving and Walt Frazier, among the others. “Eric Money, who plays for Detroit, put us in touch,” Hawkins said. “It was a last resort. I never called Archie afterward.”

A few hours later, a deal was made. It was nearly as good as the first one, though. Now Hawkins will get $50,000 annually for two years, but nothing is guaranteed. He will have to earn his way onto the team.

Some of the sting was removed because Weiner would accept no fee, only a box of cigars for helping a kid who was obviously in trouble. “Bubbles just went too far in negotiations,” Melchionni said. “He had missed too much time in camp. As far as guaranteed contracts are concerned, well, I played nine years and never had one. Any man who is good enough will make this team.”

Hawkins said he was resigned to “just get what I’m getting.” He left then for last night’s exhibition game against the Knicks at the Rutgers gym knowing what was at stake.

[Hawkins made the 1977-78 Nets, coming off the bench to average 10.9 points through the first 15 games of the season. But Bubbles reportedly now clashed with coach Kevin Loughery and had lost his respect. In one bizarre instance, Bubbles discovered a cache of champagne aboard a team flight and started popping corks. With each toast, Bubbles got louder and louder, and Loughery finally grumbled that he’d had enough. He walked down the aisle toward Hawkins, who suddenly wasn’t feeling well from all the empty champagne bottles. He retched, turned reflexively toward the aisle, and accidently ralphed all over Loughery.

Bubbles landed in Loughery’s doghouse, getting fewer and fewer minutes off the bench. On November 28, 1977, when the Nets activated forward Jan van Breda Kolff off the injured roster, somebody had to go.  Hawkins, with no guaranteed contract, was the easy mark, and the Nets waived him goodbye.

Bubbles was back in the NBA the following season with the Detroit Pistons and playing for rookie NBA coach Dick Vitale. Yeah, baby. After battling through early-season back spasms and getting into just four games, Vitale cut Hawkins, whose contract wasn’t guaranteed. And so it went. “First coach I ever played for who insisted you speak to him every morning  and ask him how he was,” Bubbles said of Vitale. “That was the worst year in all of my basketball.”

Worst year and the end of his NBA career at age 24. Bubbles, married to George Gervin’s sister Barbara, an accountant, eventually moved to San Antonio and worked construction, which he claimed to love. “I haven’t played basketball in three years, but I do stay in shape,” said Hawkins, now 32 years old. “I just don’t have the urge to play anymore.”

With some financial help from Gervin, Hawkins opened a liquor store in San Antonio. But his good life in Texas started to unwind.  His marriage ended, and Bubbles returned to Detroit, working odd jobs, nursing a newly acquired drug habit, and mostly doing not much of anything. “I knew he was in bad shape,” said his former coach and mentor Wil Robinson. “I gave him a little money here and there.” 

Crack cocaine was now everywhere in urban America, and so was the violence that accompanied it. On a Sunday evening in October 1993, Hawkins stopped into a crack house on Detroit’s North Side. A drug deal went bad, and a gunman opened fire, striking Hawkins in the abdomen and killing him. “The next Earl Monroe” was 39 years old.]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: