As the Phoenix Suns rise, Connie Hawkins legend revealed in the shadows

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In the spring of 1969, I was 14 and there was a copy of Life magazine lying around in the living room. If you are not a senior, let me explain that Life magazine was an oversized, photographic-rich magazine with a habit of stretching out in millions of American living rooms.

In 1969, the circulation was 8.5 million. This issue had a bright yellow cover touting a crisis in American high schools. I’m pretty sure the crisis was that the students wanted the right to dissent and question authority.

But inside the magazine there was another story.

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It was about a man named Connie Hawkins, who had grown up – raised by his blind mother – in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood which, at the time, had few rivals in the race to the bottom. of poverty, the urban scourge and all the gritty and toxic byproducts of despair.


Hawkins’ life would have been defined by all of this, except for one thing. He could fly. He became a high school and playground basketball phenomenon in New York City and ended up in Iowa for his freshman year.

On his way from New York to Iowa City, almost exactly 1,000 miles away by car, Hawkins borrowed $ 200 from a shady guy named Jack Molinas. Her brother Fred repaid the money the following summer. But Molinas was the hot center of a college basketball point-shaving scandal that mud-spattered the sport during the 1960-61 season.

Hawkins was trained there, although at the time freshmen couldn’t play college games. A Manhattan attorney named Frank Hogan got it into his head that Hawkins was some sort of middleman. As Life magazine pointed out, it’s not that there was little evidence to support these accusations. There was no proof.

And yet, Hawkins was kicked out of the college game. The NBA commissioner said he would never play there either, and in 1964, his year of draft eligibility, all teams dropped out.

How good was he? Reports from those freshman practices suggested he easily surpassed team star Don Nelson, who would play 14 years in the NBA.

Basketball players who saw Hawkins in his prime tended to echo the words of longtime player and coach Larry Brown: “He was Julius before Julius. He was Elgin before Elgin. He was Michael before Michael. He was quite simply the greatest individual player I have ever seen.

But few people saw it. Hawkins started with the American Basketball League, which immediately shut down. He gratefully signed with the Harlem Globetrotters, who offered a punitive schedule of relentless travel and two-a-day matches. After four years, the trot had turned Hawkins’ knees into flaming globes.

But a new league has beckoned. The American Basketball Association loved the flash and the dash and had this crazy idea that a longer shot should be worth three points. Hawkins, with the Pittsburgh Pipers, was the ABA’s first scorer and first MVP.

How good was he? Ask Hawkins: “Someone said if I don’t break the laws of gravity, I am slow to obey them. “

I put the magazine down. It was a scandal. I told anyone who wanted to listen to it, which was basically nobody. But then …

The magazine’s play was so damning that the NBA agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by Hawkins. It was the year the Milwaukee Bucks won a draw that allowed them to draft Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for you). The Phoenix Suns, with the second pick, took on a center named Neal Walk. Note to GMs: Football teams probably shouldn’t draft Joe Holding. The same goes for the NHL teams and Jean-Pierre Icing or the baseball teams and Eli Caught-Stealing. Walk was an interesting guy who at one point suggested that basketball would be better if no scores were recorded and the game appreciated for its good looks. As a center, he looked like Kareem pretty much like I look like Neal Walk. Not at all.

The Suns also ended up getting Hawkins as a consolation prize for 27 years. This is how I became, in 1969, perhaps the biggest fan of the Phoenix Suns of Connecticut. They weren’t on TV very often, but when I saw Hawkins there was still an air of tragedy around him. He was good, but there was the inescapable feeling that we had missed his best. And his knees were like bald tires.

Anyway, I stayed for another 50 years, and they often weren’t successful. An exception was the early 1990s, when Charles Barkley joined the Suns for four seasons.

Barkley is a huge person according to the story of the gang, but there is something even more disproportionate about his character. When he was a rookie in Philadelphia, the Sixers general manager was Pat Williams, who had 18 children, 14 of whom were adopted. He took on Barkley as the unofficial 19th, and there’s a story about the Williams clan at the beach and one of the kids asking daddy, “Can I go in the ocean?” “

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because Charles is using it now.”

I had a little boy in the early 90s. He had an enchanting stutter and merge of the Suns with the UConn Huskies, the other team we watched on TV. Seeing Barkley, estuaries of sweat streaming down his battlements and battlements, standing on the free throw line, my little boy asked, “Doooooooooo other Huskies love Sir Charles?”

For the past 10 years, the Suns have been a chore, often approaching the 16-66 first season record that landed them Connie Hawkins (and Neal Walk).

But this season was, of course, different. They are really good. My little boy is now 31 and is going through horrible times. I drew him to the Suns and he watches some games with me, although I often have to come home at halftime and text him at the end of the game.

Barkley, a charming television commentator, sings and sneers about “my suns”. Hawkins passed away in 2017, so that’s one more thing he’ll miss.

When he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, Connie spoke about seeing the world with the Globetrotters who, true to their name, took him to China and Jerusalem. Hawkins: “A poet once said, ‘I am a part of everything I leave.’ “

Either I’m not familiar with this poem, or it slightly misquoted Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” a beautiful text for a warrior who suffered from an unwanted odyssey.

I thought about Ulysses a lot during a difficult year of decline and loss. Tennyson concludes: “And though / We are no longer that force that once / moved the earth and the sky, what we are, we are; / The same temperament of heroic hearts, / Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find and not to give in.

Come on Suns.

Colin McEnroe’s column appears every Sunday, his newsletter comes out every Thursday, and you can listen to his radio show every day of the week on WNPR 90.5. Email him at [email protected] Subscribe to his newsletter at http://bit.ly/colinmcenroe.


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