Connie Hawkins played in the ABA

NBA Legend: Connie Hawkins' Bizarre Path To The Association

If he were alive today, the irony of the NBA having four partners in sports betting would not be lost on Connie Hawkins. 

For it was the NBA’s fear of gambling – except for team owners going to events like the Kentucky Derby - that cost (most) basketball fans the chance to watch one of the greatest players to ever step on the court. 

When my brother and I were very young, for Christmas one year we received the book Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story, by David Wolf. 

We’d never heard of either the subject of the book or the author, but we read that thing so many times it eventually fell apart, despite the fact our comfortable white suburban lives could have not been more different from Hawkins’ impoverished upbringing in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. 

Hawkins led Boys High to two undefeated seasons and was chosen to the NYC first team All-City squad. 

As a teenager, he played in pickup games and held his own against pro players, including Wilt Chamberlain. Against his peers, he did whatever he wanted. Naturally, he was intensely recruited, and ended up at the University of Iowa, which provided him with a job keeping seaweed out of the football stadium. 

In Iowa. 

It was while he was in his freshman year that it came to light Hawkins had borrowed $200 for school expenses from a former prominent New York basketball player who had become a lawyer. (Even in a very poor neighborhood, the Hawkins family stood out as destitute. Connie was known for sleeping for extremely long periods, and for being bone thin, both probably due to malnutrition.) 

Unfortunately, that lawyer had also been part of a point-shaving scandal in New York, and during a subsequent investigation someone said Hawkins had taken money from him. 

Hawkins wasn’t indicted, wasn’t charged, wasn’t even arrested, but he was interviewed about his relationship with the lawyer, Jack Molinas. 

In a breathtaking display of sanctimony, that was all it took for the University of Iowa to pull his scholarship. This from an athletic department that had so much integrity it was paying a guy living in Iowa to be on seaweed patrol. 

It didn’t matter that as a freshman ineligible to play under the NCAA rules at the time, Hawkins had no way to shave points even if he wanted to.  

Once Hawkins was expelled from Iowa, no other college would offer him a scholarship, and even after his college class graduated, NBA commissioner Walter Kennedy told owners he would not approve any contract offered to Hawkins. 

The league’s policy at the time was to bar players who were even remotely involved with point-shaving scandals.   

What Hawkins needed was a good lawyer. That was to come. 

Still a kid, Hawkins played one season for the Pittsburgh Rens of the American Basketball League, a forerunner to the ABA, and was named the league's most valuable player in 1961 at the age of 19, averaging 43 points per game. 

Harlem Globetrotters   

The ABL folded in the middle of the following season, and the next stop on the Hawkins journey was four years performing with the Harlem Globetrotters. 

The Hawk had freakishly large hands and he could palm a basketball like most guys can a softball, a fact he used to great effect doing Globetrotter stunts. But try to imagine, say, a young Kevin Garnett throwing buckets of confetti on fans at a Trotters game. 

It was sad. 

The indignity of being a clown for a living caused Hawkins to quit that gig, and for a time he was reduced to playing for the Porky Chedwicks in the Young Men’s and Women’s Hebrew Association in Pittsburgh. No, not kidding. 

But during his time with the Globetrotters, Hawkins had finally met the lawyers that would bring him justice. On his behalf, Roslyn Litman and her husband David (big heroes in Foul!) filed a $6-million lawsuit against the NBA, claiming the league had unfairly banned him.  

The Litmans suggested to Hawkins that he join the new ABA to support his family and to demonstrate his level of talent. 

At this time a Sports Illustrated article quoted Bill Sharman, who coached in the ABL, then coached teams to championships in both the ABA and NBA, as calling Hawkins one of the best seven players in the world, putting him in a class with Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. 

That didn’t hurt – no one could say Bill Sharman didn’t know what he was talking about. 

Author Terry Pluto, in his seminal work on the ABA, Loose Balls, devoted a whole section to Hawkins. He quoted Mel Daniels, who is in the Basketball Hall of Fame, in describing The Hawk. 

“I am convinced that the Connie Hawkins who led Pittsburgh to that first title could play in the NBA and be on the same level as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan are today.” 

ABA Career  

Hawkins played for the Pittsburgh Pipers for the inaugural season of the ABA, and led the Pipers to a record of 54–24 and the 1967-68 championship, leading the league in scoring and winning both the ABA's regular season and playoff MVP awards. 

More importantly, several media outlets took notice of Hawkins, including Life magazine, which published an article by Wolf discrediting the dubious evidence that supposedly linked Hawkins to gambling. 

The NBA then chose to settle the Hawkins lawsuit, and agreed to pay him $1.3-million (in 1969 dollars.) His NBA rights were assigned to the expansion Phoenix Suns. 

NBA Career 

In 1969, recovering from knee surgery he had during his final ABA season, Hawkins began his rookie NBA season, during which he played 81 games, averaging 25 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists per game. In the final game of the season, he had 44 points, 20 rebounds, 8 assists, 5 blocks and 5 steals.  

The highlight of the playoffs came in Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals against a Lakers team that included Hall of Famers Chamberlain, Baylor and West. 

Hawkins scored 34 points, hauled down 20 rebounds, and dished out 7 assists. 

Mostly due to knee problems, The Hawk played only seven NBA seasons, but he was a four-time all-star and All-NBA First Team in 1970. 

In 1975, in a film shown on the first season of Saturday Night Live, Hawkins played a hilarious game of one on one against five-foot-three songwriter Paul Simon, and in 1979 he appeared in the movie The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, a Julius Erving vehicle. 

His number 42 jersey was retired by the Suns, and Hawkins was named to the ABA’s all-time team, and enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992. 

He died in 2017. 

A multi-part docuseries on the history of the ABA is being produced by Amazon Prime. When you watch it, you’ll of course want to see what Dr. J, George Gervin and Moses Malone were like playing with the red, white and blue ball. 

But pay attention to Connie Hawkins. 

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