I still remember the first time I saw him play.
Before Dr. J and Michael, there was an extraordinarily leaper who dazzled crowds. He was mostly known for his huge hands, big sideburns, and acrobatic dunks. His right arm was a pendulum with which he whipped passes like a pitching machine. His outstretched arm left his defenders stuck in the mud.
Cornelius “Connie” Hawkins was born on July 17, 1942, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York, where became a playground legend. At age 11, he dunked for the first time.
He never surpassed a seventh grade reading level and supposedly had an IQ of about 70. By his 13th birthday, he was introduced to marijuana, and as a 14 year old was drinking cheap wine regularly on Brooklyn street corners.
He was only 6’3″ and 140 pounds as a sophomore at Boys High School, but by junior year, he helped them to an unbeaten season and the Public-School Athletic championship. The New York Post named him All-City first team. As a 6’6″, 190-pound senior, he averaged 25.5 points and was touted as the best prospect ever to come out of New York City. He left high school as a Parade first-team All-American.
He won a scholarship to Iowa where, as a freshman, he was outplaying future Boston Celtic great Don Nelson in practice. However, the soaring “Hawk” was quickly brought down to earth.
He had become acquainted with Jack Molinas, who had been previously suspended from the NBA’s Fort Wayne Pistons in 1954 for gambling and would wind up in prison a decade later. Suddenly Hawkins found himself involved in a point-shaving scandal, despite any of the guilty parties saying he had any part in it. Eventually the district attorney claimed Hawkins was part of the recruitment of prospects for bribes.
That charge was enough for Iowa to cut its ties for good.
Hawkins returned home as a 19-year-old when Harlem Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein launched the American Basketball League in the fall of 1961. Playing for the Pittsburgh Rens, Hawkins led the ABL in scoring, averaging 27.5 points per game. His MVP season culminated with the Rens winning the 1961-62 league championship.
Unfortunately, in the middle of the 1962-63 season, the ABL folded. So, the Hawk became a member of Saperstein’s Harlem Globetrotters, with whom he played until 1967.
It was during those years that he filed a $6 million anti-trust lawsuit against the NBA that would continue until the spring of 1969, when he was finally cleared of any wrongdoing.
In the meantime, in 1967, the American Basketball Association opened its doors and Hawkins quickly became the league’s best player.
Finally, in 1969, at age 27, Connie Hawkins reached the NBA as a member of the Phoenix Suns, a second year expansion team that won the rights to draft him in a coin flip. Finishing sixth in the league in scoring with a 24.6 average, he led the Suns to a 23-game improvement over their first season, and into the 1970 playoffs, earning him a spot on the All-NBA first team.
He would make a total of four all-star teams before starting to slow down. His seven-year NBA career averages of 16.5 points and 8.0 rebounds per game make it easy to forget his impact on the game as a two-time MVP. Starting with the 1973-74 season he was not the same player, slowing down while playing for the Los Angeles Lakers and Atlanta Hawks. He retired after the 1975-76 season.
His NBA highlight came on March 29, 1970 in the first round of the playoffs, when the Suns faced the Lakers of Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. All Connie Hawkins did that night was put up 34 points, 20 rebounds and seven assists, leading the Suns to a 114-101 upset that evened the series.
Legendary Suns coach Jerry Colangelo called it “the greatest individual performance I’ve ever seen”.
Although the Lakers would come back to take the series in seven games, the Suns returned home after that second game for a Game 3 in front of the first sellout crowd in franchise history. He had put them on the map.
The first Suns player elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992, Hawk also had the distinction of being presented a Harlem Globetrotters “Legends” ring during a ceremony before a Suns game in 1994.
Reflecting back on his career, Hawkins only had fond memories despite the hardships he had to overcome. He once said “I was so happy to play; I didn’t have any problems with animosity or bitterness at all. As soon as I got that Phoenix Suns uniform, I just wanted to play.”
And so, he did. His dunks etched in our memory forever.