Why you should care

Because Connie Hawkins didn’t get the chance to shine on basketball’s greatest stage until he was 27.

Some of the greatest athletes in history never got the attention or acclaim they deserved. In this series, The Unsung, OZY looks at some of the most talented sports figures in history who were underappreciated, overshadowed or forgotten.

To watch Connie Hawkins play basketball was to be in awe of him. The 6-foot-8, 215-pound power forward had size, grace, agility and speed. He was one of those legends of the playground whose prodigious talent also translated to the professional game — and helped reinvent it. Before LeBron James, or Michael Jordan, or even Julius Erving, there was “the Hawk.” Today, Hawkins’ gravity-defying play would light up YouTube and social media, but at the time — and to the great detriment of the game — Hawkins soared under the radar of most fans. In fact, one of basketball’s greatest showmen did not even get the chance to shine on its greatest stage until he was 27.

The legend of Cornelius “Connie” Hawkins begins in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, where he was born in 1942. His mother was blind, and he spent most of a rough childhood hanging out on the street, drinking, smoking pot and shooting hoops. Hawkins was a late bloomer in Bed-Stuy and did not play organized basketball until his sophomore year in high school. But it did not take him long to lead his school to two straight state championships while being named a first-team All-American.

Had he started in the NBA in his early 20s, he’d be one of the all-time greats like Julius Erving.

Terry Pluto, author of Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association

After being recruited by dozens of colleges across the country, Hawkins accepted a scholarship in 1959 to attend the University of Iowa, which was an NCAA powerhouse during the 1950s, having made two Final Four appearances with a team nicknamed the “Fabulous Five.” Hawkins’ basketball career was ready to soar to new heights. Then he found himself connected to the wrong crowd. That crowd was named Jack Molinas.

Molinas was a lawyer, pornographer, loan shark and a big-time gambler and fixer of basketball games. As Hawkins was preparing to start his collegiate career, his name came up in a point-shaving scandal in New York tied to Molinas that would take down dozens of young players across the country. Hawkins was never arrested or charged with point-shaving, but he reportedly had taken a $200 loan from Molinas (and paid it back). The hint of impropriety, however, was enough for Iowa to expel him, other colleges to back off and the NBA to eventually ban him from the league.

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Connie Hawkins during an NBA game at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California, 1970.

Source Wen Roberts/Getty

And so one of the most electrifying young players in the country found himself taking the court at age 19 for the Pittsburgh Rens of the upstart American Basketball League. Hawkins was the league MVP his first season with the Rens. His second season, the league folded.

Hawkins next caught on with the famous Harlem Globetrotters, where he remained for four years until he decided to join another startup professional league, the American Basketball Association, in 1967. “Without the ABA,” says Terry Pluto, author of Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association, “I doubt Hawkins would be anything more than a very small footnote in basketball history.”

Hawkins was one of the flashiest players in a league devoted to outdazzling the NBA, and he led the league in scoring and won its MVP award during his first season with the Pittsburgh Pipers. One of the first players to really play above the rim, Hawkins used his long arms and enormous hands to throw down devastating dunks and elude defenders with wily scoop shots. “Someone said if I didn’t break the laws of gravity, I was slow to obey them,” Hawkins once quipped.

While he was dominating the ABA on the court, Hawkins was suing the NBA in the courtroom. With the help of two Pittsburgh attorneys, Hawkins filed an antitrust lawsuit against the league over its ban. Finally, in 1969, after journalist David Wolf wrote a Life magazine story that helped clear Hawkins’ name in the point-shaving scandal, the NBA settled its lawsuit with Hawkins for more than $1 million, lifted the ban and allowed him to sign with the Phoenix Suns as a 27-year-old rookie.

In his first NBA season, Hawkins averaged 24.6 points per game and led the expansion Suns to the playoffs in just their second season. The Suns lost four games to three to a Los Angeles Lakers team featuring Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, but not before Hawkins had shown why he belonged in the league that had blacklisted him for so long. The Hawk was an All-Star in his first four NBA seasons and even appeared in a Saturday Night Live sketch during the show’s first season in 1975 (losing a pickup game to the diminutive singer Paul Simon). Injuries eventually got the better of him, however, and he played only seven seasons in the NBA before retiring at age 33. Despite his belated entry into the league, it inducted him into its Hall of Fame in 1992. “Had he started in the NBA in his early 20s,” says Pluto, “he’d be one of the all-time greats like Julius Erving.”

If Hawkins, who died in 2017, was resentful about those wasted years, however, he never showed it. Through it all, he chose to count his blessings. “Basketball has taken me virtually everywhere in the world,” he once reflected. “A poet once said that ‘I am part of all that I leave.’ Just think what that means to a kid from Bed-Stuy.”

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