In my dad’s bookshelf at my parents’ Northern Arizona home is a copy of FOUL!: The Connie Hawkins Story. On the inside cover is a personalized inscription Hawkins made out to my dad.
The revolutionary basketball star appeared at a youth clinic in the late 1990s, speaking to a few dozen kids from the small mountain town in which I grew up. The youngsters were mesmerized hearing from a former Phoenix Sun, described to them as one of the greatest to ever wear purple-and-orange. Yes, there really had been a time before their young lives, predating Dan Majerle and Charles Barkley, or at that time, Jason Kidd.
The same sort of wonder seeing a piece of history seemed to come over Connie Hawkins when my dad offered him a copy of FOUL! to sign after the clinic.
Papa Kensing coached basketball for three decades and taught history even longer, so it’s no coincidence he’s long been a hoop history buff. FOUL! was one of the classics he recommended to me as required reading, along with Rick Telander’s Heaven is a Playground and Terry Pluto’s Loose Balls.
Connie Hawkins’ basketball life intersects the topics of all three. He’s one of the sport’s most fascinating figures.
A rangy, explosive big man, Connie Hawkins would fit into today’s game seamlessly. He led the ABA in scoring and led the fledgling league in scoring before joining the Phoenix Suns. He’s the franchise’s first real star. Growing up in Arizona at a time before the city of Phoenix really blew up into the mass of bedroom communities it is today, Hawkins’ name was mentioned in mythic tones.
He was dominant his first few years in the NBA, but his long road to the highest level of basketball made it short few years at the top. FOUL! fascinatingly details Connie Hawkins’ rise from the New York City courts to the University of Iowa, where his career was jeopardized by wrongful accusations of point shaving that surfaced. Paranoia from the Long Island scandal just 10 years prior lingered and Hawkins was caught in the crossfire.
Connie Hawkins’ story still resonates today — especially in 2017 with the ongoing FBI probe into improprieties in recruiting. The more unseemly elements of the basketball machine that have some suggesting college basketball is at a crossroads now very much existed in their own way more than a half-century ago.
One of the more frustrating What-Ifs in basketball history is just how much more prominent a place in the annals might Connie Hawkins have had if he’d played his entire peak in the NBA, rather than barnstorming with the Pittsburgh Rens and Harlem Globetrotters. He was Shawn Kemp 30 years before Shawn Kemp.
Though he was deprived of his place in history on the court, Connie Hawkins has a niche in the game’s lore all the same.