Connie Hawkins could dunk a basketball at the age of 11, and it got to the point where some in his native New York wondered if the playground wonder was bound by the laws of gravity.
But despite his allegedly supernatural abilities, Hawkins’s legend was unfairly slow to grow. As he was preparing to take the court as freshman at the University of Iowa in 1961, his name came up in a point-shaving scandal back in New York. Hawkins never was arrested or directly implicated — at worst, he had borrowed $200 from the man at the center of the scandal to pay for school expenses, money that had been paid back before the news broke — but the whiff of impropriety surrounding a black basketball player in the early 1960s was enough to halt his rise. Iowa expelled him, and no other college would take a chance. The NBA very publicly said Hawkins would not be welcome, and in 1966 he was formally banned from the league altogether.
So “The Hawk” played a year with the Pittsburgh Rens of the American Basketball League, winning MVP honors at the age of 19. He then barnstormed with the Harlem Globetrotters until 1967, when a new league called the American Basketball Association caught his eye. Having filed a lawsuit against the NBA over its ban, Hawkins’s attorneys suggested that he join the start-up ABA as a poke in the eye to the older league. In his first season back in Pittsburgh with the Pipers, he led the ABA in scoring, won another MVP award and led the team to the first ABA title.
In 1969, the NBA finally came to its senses. After a Life magazine story revealed to the world that Hawkins almost certainly had nothing to do with the earlier point shaving in New York, the NBA settled its lawsuit with Hawkins for more than $1 million and he was drafted with the No. 2 pick by the Phoenix Suns (who had lost a coin flip with the Milwaukee Bucks over the rights to the No. 1 pick; the Bucks took Lew Alcindor). Eager to prove that he belonged in the NBA, he averaged 24.6 points in his first season and led the Suns to the playoffs in just their second year of existence, earning first-team all-NBA honors along the way.
Hawkins was named an all-star in each of his first four NBA seasons, and his fame was such that in 1975 he appeared in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch in which the 6-foot-8 Hawkins lost a pickup game to 5-3 singer Paul Simon. But his knees started to fail him and his skills soon began to fade. In 1976, he retired after spending a year as a reserve for the Atlanta Hawks.
The Suns released a statement Saturday morning:
Hawkins averaged only 16.5 points and eight rebounds over his seven NBA seasons. Still, he’s seen as a precursor to the highflying players — Julius Erving and Michael Jordan among them — who came after him. In 1992, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, the status that once was denied him now fully confirmed.