Last week, the NBA lost another legend in Connie Hawkins. Hawk’s story is well-chronicled but bittersweet. In a nut shell, Hawkins was a New York playground legend who was very loosely implicated in a point shaving scandal. Despite no hard evidence against him, Hawkins was expelled from Iowa (he was a freshman at the time) and no other school would take him. Hawkins also was not drafted in the NBA, so he spent six years barnstorming with the Pittsburgh Rens and Globetrotters before the fledgling ABA gave him a chance in 1967-68. Hawkins showed he was really good and the NBA finally let him in, where he was an All-Star level player before retiring in 1976.
With the basic story out of the way, let’s do a deep dive on a few of the Hawk’s stops along the way:
The Scandal and the Lawsuit
In 1966, Hawkins sued the NBA for antitrust violations, alleging that he was unfairly blackballed from the league. In substance, Hawkins was a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A point shaving scandal was brewing in college basketball and Hawkins ended up in the middle of it. The scandal emerged when former NBA player Jack Molinas, who was involved in organized crime, paid some NCAA players to shave points. During that time, Molinas gave Hawkins $250 when Hawkins was a still in high school (even though by NCAA rule at the time, freshmen like Hawkins would not be allowed to play on the varsity college team the next season anyway).
When Molinas and his crew were arrested, Hawkins was mentioned by one of Molinas’ underlings. Hawkins was brought in and questioned by the Manhattan DA. Hawkins, who was only about 19 had no attorney representing him and he signed an incriminating affidavit during that meeting. In a 1970 story in Ebony, Hawkins said he signed the affidavit because the DA “kept saying I’d go to jail if I lied. They’d say they thought I was lying. So I thought I’d go to jail if I didn’t tell a different story.” Hawkins was given immunity by the DA but the affidavit was enough to get him expelled from Iowa and de facto banned from the NBA. Hawkins was not eligible to be drafted by the NBA until players his age had graduated college. He hoped to be drafted in 1965 but no one touched him, reportedly because NBA commissioner Walter Kennedy told them not to.
Hawkins then filed his antitrust lawsuit against the NBA. There are two reported decisions relating to Hawkins’ lawsuit against the NBA. In 1968, the NBA tried to seek dismissal of the action, arguing that the venue of the action in Pittsburgh was not proper because there were no NBA teams in that area (Hawkins lived in Pittsburgh at the time). The court denied the NBA’s motion, finding that its teams did business in Pittsburgh (except the Bulls, who did not exist when the alleged conspiracy took place). The NBA teams then filed a second motion, seeking to transfer venue out of Pittsburgh to New York because most parties did business in New York and for the convenience of material witnesses, who were mostly in New York.
Interestingly, the NBA claimed that Molinas and his associate Joe Hacken, who were in jail in New York, could not come to Pittsburgh. Hawkins’ attorneys smacked this argument down really well. They went to New York and interviewed Molinas and Hacken. Both men told Hawkins’ attorney that: (a) they were not incarcerated, (b) they would be happy to come to Pittsburgh if called, and (c) were willing to state that they never asked Hawkins to throw games. In short, the NBA lost this motion too and looked pretty bad when their attorneys were caught either lying about Molinas and Hacken or not understanding basic facts of the case.
Molinas’ statement that Hawkins was innocent, coupled with the fact that the judge in the case probably didn’t like the NBA’s shaky motion papers so far, helped the case get settled shortly thereafter. According to that same 1970 Ebony story, the NBA gave Hawkins a $400,000 guaranteed contract (for five years) from the Suns plus damages in the form of a trust, which would pay him $25,000 a year for 24 years (with the first payment starting when he turned 45).
Hawk and the ABA
While he was beating up the NBA in court, Hawkins was able to get into the ABA with the Pittsburgh Pipers in 1967-68 for the ABA’s inaugural season. The ABA came at the right time for Hawkins, who was in a bad situation. In “Loose Balls,” Terry Pluto’s oral history of the ABA, Pittsburgh writer Jim O’Brien told Pluto that Hawkins “was playing in an industrial league [at a local Y in Pittsburgh] and admission was 50 cents a night. In the summer of 1967, Connie had no money. He was living in a row house on Charles Street on the north side of Pittsburgh. The place was in pretty bad shape. Connie was married, had a couple of kids and was looking after his wife’s brother, who was mentally retarded. He had just about hit bottom.”
Despite all this, Hawkins was still only 25 and his attorney helped broker a deal to sign him into the ABA. Hawkins was great immediately. He led the Pipers to a title in 1967-68 and was named MVP (26.8 ppg, .519 FG%, 13.5 rpg, 4.6 apg). The Pipers moved to Minnesota for the following season and Hawkins was still great but missed a lot of the season with injuries. After 1968-69, Hawkins settled with the NBA and was signed by the Suns to that big contract mentioned above.
How good was Hawk in the NBA?
Hawkins was named an All-Star his first four seasons in the NBA. He was pretty good over that span, though his number trended down each season:
-1969-70: 24.6 PPG, .490 FG%, 10.4 RPG, 4.8 APG, 19.7 PER
-1970-71: 20.9 PPG, .434 FG%, 9.1 RPG, 4.5 APG, 19.0 PER
-1971-72: 21.0 PPG, .459 FG%, 8.3 RPG, 3.9 APG, 18.7 PER
-1972-73: 16.1 PPG, .479 FG%, 8.5 RPG, 4.1 APG, 16.2 PER
The Suns weren’t bad during this stretch but they made the playoffs only the first season. Ironically, that first season, the Suns were only 39-43, but missed the playoffs the next two seasons (1970-71 and 1971-72), despite winning nearly 50 games each of those years. Hawkins’ one playoff series in 1969-70 was a doozy though. The Suns took the Elgin/West/Wilt Lakers to seven games, blowing a 3-1 series lead. Hawkins played great and scored nearly 26 ppg for the series.
By 1973-74, Hawkins was only 31 but was clearly in decline. A few games into the 1973-74 season, The Suns dealt him to the Lakers for Keith Erickson. Hawk was a decent role player the next three seasons for L.A. and the Hawks but retired after the 1975-76 season.
Ultimately, Hawkins was screwed out of several years of his career by the Manhattan DA but he was able to get into the NBA while he was still relatively young (27). His prime years show that he was a very good player, if not quite Elgin Baylor. Hawk’s 1969-70 season earned him a top-5 MVP voting (though he was more lightly regarded in the MVP voting the rest of his prime). In the end, it’s not clear how much better Hawkins would have been with a few more of his front-end years to his career but it is reasonable to assume that he missed at least two more MVP-type seasons as a result.
In the end, justice was served for Hawkins. His story has an element of tragedy and redemption to it, though it does not fully fall into either category. Perhaps, Hawkins’ career is best summed up by former ABA player (and later-Hornets coach) Gene Littles, who told Pluto that “I played on a summer barn-storming team with him [when Hawkins already had his lucrative Phoenix contract], and Connie always kept a $100 bill balled up in his pocket. Right before he’d go on the floor, he’d give the crumpled-up bill to the coach and tell him to keep it until the game was over. I guess Connie figured no matter what happened, he’d always have $100. Probably that was how you thought if you came from Brooklyn and went through all that Connie did.”