What does it mean to lose so much of a career that looked like no one else’s? That’s the question Connie Hawkins leaves us with.
Broadly speaking, we remember athletes for two reasons — what they did or how they did it. The points they scored, the titles they won, the times they charged into the stands to fight with fans; all fall into the former category. It’s a good way to ensure your place in posterity. No one can change the facts afterward. But it’s the how that sticks in the collective mind more readily. A player who does something in a way that hasn’t been seen before, or that no one else can match, might never be forgotten. The how made a superstar out of Charles Barkley, always punching above his height, and built the legend of Allen Iverson. Long before Nikola Jokic was a likely MVP, he was beloved for being this bizarre amalgamation of traits: a point guard’s mind in a pro wrestler’s body. You don’t even have to be great if you’re distinct enough. There’s a reason Space Jam filled out its five-man alien roster with Muggsy Bogues and Shawn Bradley.
Sixty years ago this past May, basketball nearly lost one of these uncommon talents when an 18-year-old Connie Hawkins was expelled from Iowa, blacklisted by the NCAA, and shadow-banned from playing in the NBA after his name was caught up in the 1961 college basketball gambling scandal. Hawkins, like every other talented basketball player in New York City at the time, knew the primary fixers Jack Molinas and Joe Hacken, and while their actions suggested the pair were grooming him for the future, both claimed that they had not yet mentioned anything untoward to the player. As a freshman ineligible for varsity, Hawkins couldn’t have shaved a point even if he had wanted to the year he was hauled before the grand jury, and he never introduced players to the two men.
But investigators with the New York County District Attorney’s office didn’t believe his story and held him in a hotel room with other suspects for nearly two weeks without access to a lawyer or his family. Interrogated countless times, threatened with perjury, and pitted against the others, the psychologically battered teenager realized the only way out would be to tell the detectives what he thought they wanted to hear, even when those confessions were contradicted by the accounts of others. Hawkins, as author David Wolf explained first in a story for Life magazine and then in the biography Foul!: The Connie Hawkins Story, didn’t understand the grave consequences his admissions would have for his life and career. He would never play a game of college basketball. No NBA team would draft him when he became eligible. Instead, he bounced around for eight long years, playing in two different fledgling NBA competitors, in weekend games, and as the world’s most overqualified Harlem Globetrotter.
During at least some of this period, Hawkins was arguably the greatest offensive basketball player in the world. He was the top scorer and MVP of the only two complete professional basketball seasons he had played in his life: the first in 1961-62 at the age of 19 in the short-lived American Basketball League, the second in 1967-68 during the first season of the American Basketball Association, where his team, the Pittsburgh Pipers, also won the championship. He averaged more points per game in his second seasons in both leagues before the league’s collapse in the first case and a knee injury in the second ended his seasons earlier. He and a squad made up mostly of old ABL teammates would dominate summer tournaments in New York City, beating teams of NBA stars like Willis Reed and Dave Bing. “We all know he’d be a superstar in the NBA,” Wolf quotes Reed as saying.
Connie Hawkins eventually got his NBA chance
Hawkins would finally get his chance in 1969 when the NBA settled a lawsuit it had no hope of winning by giving Hawkins more than a million dollars and awarding his rights to the Phoenix Suns. By then it was already too late. The injury in his final ABA season changed Hawkins’ NBA trajectory, the first in a series of knee problems that would chip away at his fluidity and his mobility for the rest of his career. Despite an ongoing recovery during his first NBA season, he would still make the All-NBA First Team in 1969-70, and his Suns team would take the Lakers of Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, and Elgin Baylor to seven games in the Western Conference semifinals. He’d make four All-Star games and average more than 20 points his first three seasons.
The what of Hawkins’ disrupted career shows a tragedy for the man. It’s the how of his game that makes it a tragedy for everyone, robbing fans of a singular talent. Hawkins was built to play basketball. Despite standing five inches shorter than Shaquille O’Neal, his hands were longer than Shaq’s and nearly as wide, big enough to swallow the basketball as if he was throwing a split-fingered fastball. Hawkins’ mastery over the ball gave his game an arsenal of flicks and fakes unrivaled in the game’s history, and led to the tranquil grace that was his calling card. Because he never had to slow down to gather the ball, he always looked like he was gliding around the court. Because he could make it do whatever he wanted with just a flick of his wrists or a snap of his fingers, he was freed instead to worry about other, bigger picture problems, such as opposing defenders or where his teammates were. His one-handed corralling of rebounds, a trick learned during his days with the Globetrotters, is one of basketball’s most casually devastating microplays. What hope do you have against someone who can do that?
Combine those hands with arms that appeared to distend like Dhalsim’s from Street Fighter and it’s no wonder so many of Hawkins’ available highlights show him spinning, sweeping, and scooping the ball in from impossible angles. He could freeze defenders by going one way with his body and the other way with his arms. He could reach what seemed to be all the way around his defender while airborne, or stick the ball straight through a thicket of defenders surrounding the rim to flip the ball home. He didn’t need to play powerfully because his control allowed him to remain one step ahead of what defenders could throw at him.
Hawkins defies comparisons or antecedents. He was a proto-Julius Erving, who was a proto-Michael Jordan, who was a proto-everyone-who-came-after-him, but as those and others constructed their games on his foundation, they also trended back toward what would become the stylistic mean. Hawkins talked in interviews with NBA TV of how he brought guard-like finesse to the forward position; Erving and Jordan made the power associated with centers something guards and small forwards could utilize as well.
Still, two of the most memorable plays of Erving’s and Jordan’s respective careers — Dr. J’s flowing scoop shot against the Lakers in 1980 and MJ’s anti-gravity hand-switching layup against the Lakers in 1991 — were the sorts of highlights common in the footage we have of Hawkins. They could go over or through guys, but Hawkins almost always went around them like this. Michael Jordan was Michael Jordan because he was better than everyone else. Connie Hawkins was Connie Hawkins because he played differently than everyone else.
He’s so sui generis the temptation is to liken him to other once-in-lifetime-type athletes, in which case the best comparison might be to think of him as some kind of equal and opposite sporting force to Bo Jackson. They certainly performed on opposite ends of some power-grace continuum, close to where the two poles double back toward one another. Bo lost the tail end of his prime to his injuries, Hawkins the beginning of his due to the scandal. Because there had never been anyone else like them, the sense of loss over their interrupted careers is especially acute.
Both built legends largely by word of mouth. The key question for Bo’s career was always: Did you see what Bo did last night? The difference between the two was that in Bo’s case, the answer was yes. Bo’s exploits were televised. Millions of people could watch him run up the outfield wall or drive Brian Bosworth’s soul from his body, the irresistible force meeting a suddenly very movable object. If they missed it live they could catch it on Sportscenter that night or the next morning, and if they missed it on Sportscenter they would listen to their friends tell them about it for the whole week until the weekly Top Ten was aired. There was copious video evidence that Bo was like no one else.
Hawkins performed his exploits for years in front of crowds of hundreds on New York City playgrounds or American Basketball League arenas. That audience spread the legend far and wide — “In Harlem, Connie Hawkins was a magic name,” Rucker Tournament co-founder Bob McCullough told Wolf –– but the base of the myth was orders of magnitude smaller than Bo’s, which is why Bo is still the greatest folk hero in sports history and Hawkins is some bizarre combination of forgotten and revered, the sort of player, like his idol Elgin Baylor, who comes up mostly in discussions of how forgotten he is. Even after his death in 2017, the NBA’s tribute video skips over any mention of his ban or his foreshortened, as though he just happened to play for the Globetrotters for several years in the prime of his career, no reason, why do you ask?
Imagine Hawkins having his career today, with a phone recording every playground game he ever played and the Internet serving as a 24-7 highlight delivery machine of, say, his playground games against NBA stars. What would his legend look like if everyone had seen everything, 10 years before Erving, 20 before Jordan? How would we remember Hawkins if everyone knew how he played?