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Sunday, October 08, 2017

Rest in Peace, Connie Hawkins

Connie Hawkins passed away on Friday at the age of 75. Hawkins is part of the lineage of elite basketball high flyers that began with Elgin Baylor and then continued after Hawkins with Julius Erving and Michael Jordan. The NBA blackballed Hawkins for several years after Hawkins was wrongly implicated in a college basketball point shaving scandal, so Hawkins spent his prime first in the American Basketball League and then with the Harlem Globetrotters before winning the 1968 regular season MVP in the ABA's first season. Hawkins led the Pittsburgh Pipers to the 1968 ABA title, averaging 30.7 ppg in seven games versus the New Orleans Buccaneers. Hawkins averaged 29.9 ppg, 12.3 rpg and 4.6 apg during the 1968 playoffs after averaging 26.8 ppg, 13.5 rpg and 4.6 apg during the regular season. Hawkins was the league's top scorer during the regular season, playoffs and Finals.

In 1969--after years of being wrongly blackballed--Hawkins settled his multi-million lawsuit with the NBA and as a result he was finally able to showcase his talents on the sport's biggest stage. In 1969-70, Hawkins made the All-NBA First Team and finished fifth in regular season MVP voting after averaging 24.6 ppg, 10.4 rpg and 4.8 apg for the Phoenix Suns. The Suns were a second year expansion team but Hawkins led them to the Western Division semifinals, where they lost in seven games to the powerful Wilt Chamberlain-Jerry West-Elgin Baylor led L.A. Lakers.

Hawkins made the All-Star team in each of the next three seasons but his body was starting to break down and he only showed flashes of the form that he displayed regularly in his younger days. By 1976, his pro career was over.

Two of Hawkins' trademark moves were the soaring slam dunk and the one-handed pass. Before Hawkins' knees went bad his dunking prowess was on par with anyone who has played the game. Hawkins' passing skills were uncanny; he would hold the ball in his hand like a softball, wave it around his head and then whip a pass to a cutter for an easy layup.

Jerry Colangelo, who brought Hawkins to Phoenix after the NBA lifted its ban, has said that if Hawkins had entered the league as a 22 year old and played out his entire career there then he "could have been one of the top 10 or 15 players to ever play the game." Years of barnstorming and of playing in lesser leagues--before the newly formed ABA gave Hawkins a chance--did Hawkins no favors both physically and in terms of challenging him to hone his skill set.

The injustice that robbed Hawkins of the opportunity to showcase his skills in the NBA during his prime years did not affect how his peers viewed him. For example, Hawkins earned a permanent place as the sixth man in Julius Erving's All-Time Starting Five, high praise coming from one of the greatest basketball players of all-time. Erving has explained that his list--which includes "Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, with Connie Hawkins coming off the bench as my sixth man to play guard, forward and center"--is not meant to disrespect modern players but rather to pay homage to the players who came before him, who built the sport and who inspired him to become the best player that he could become.

Despite the truncated nature of his professional basketball career, in 1992 Hawkins became the first Phoenix Suns' player to be inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame; the voters finally looked past Hawkins' relatively modest career totals and recognized his diverse skill set and his enduring impact on the game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:38 AM

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