Hawk Was A Legendary Suns Player

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Reports out of the Valley area indicate former Phoenix Suns great, Connie "The Hawk" Hawkins, 65, is very ill.

Team officials are tight-lipped about the basketball legend's health, but he was missing at a recent tribute held for his close friend and former Suns owner, Jerry Colangelo.

The younger generations know little about The Hawk, but he remains to this day an athlete of incredible talent who played much of his professional career outside the spotlight.

As a freshman at the University of Iowa, he was linked to an infamous NCAA basketball point-shaving scandal for simply knowing some of the conspirators involved.

Although it was proved years later that The Hawk was an innocent victim and had no part in point shaving, he was expelled from the University of Iowa and banned from playing in the NBA.

He went on to play for the Harlem Globetrotters and in the American Basketball Association but those venues never provided him the world stage he needed to showcase his remarkable court skills.

I met Connie Hawkins for the first time in the summer of 1969, only days after the NBA cleared him to finally play.

I was a stat keeper for the Suns during a summer rookie league when The Hawk, then 27, made his entrance into Phoenix Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

The sight of the legendary player sent whispers through the crowd that originally turned into a standing ovation.

We all knew The Hawk was widely considered the most talented player in the NBA, even though he was beyond his prime when he joined the Suns.

Former Philadelphia Sixers coach Larry Brown said of The Hawk, "he was Julius (Erving) before Julius. He was Elgin (Baylor) before Elgin. He was Michael (Jordan) before Michael. He was simply the greatest individual player I have ever seen."

During The Hawk's first NBA season with the Suns, his soaring, swooping drives and acrobatic slam-dunks captivated Phoenix fans and others from around the country.

My greatest memory of The Hawk is watching him soar past Wilt Chamberlain on the way to a reverse slam-dunk that left the legendary Laker center befuddled and bewildered.

In those days, no one showed up Wilt the Stilt the way Hawk was capable of doing.

At the conclusion of the 1969-1970 season, he was named to the All-NBA first team.

Hawkins played seven seasons for the Suns, Lakers and Atlanta Hawks. He played in four All-Star games and joined the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992.

As much as The Hawk's basketball talent fascinated me, it was his personal story that intrigued me most.

Possibly my lure to his early life's story was because I was at the time time coaching basketball and teaching in a poverty-ghetto area of South Phoenix, similar to the New York playgrounds he grew up in.

It seemed to me, Hawk's life story could be an inspiration to all the young men who thought they had no way out of their lives of poverty and prejudice.

I knew firsthand, the hope and despair of the ghetto schoolyard.

And I knew it was basketball, as much as the NBA and University of Iowa had wronged Hawkins, that eventually freed him from a life of poverty.

When The Hawk's life's story "Foul!" was published in 1972, I immediately scooped up a copy and read it from cover to cover. Then I read it again.

I also read excerpts from it to my players and students, hoping there would be something in them that would inspire the teens.

I even asked the school principal, Ken McKee, to read it. He had little sports and athletic background, but returned the book days later with a handwritten note, which I still keep in the book. It read," A real story to open people's eyes about overcoming."

Through the years, "Foul!" remained on our family book shelves along with a library of other sports publications, most about football.

I asked all our children, when they were old enough to understand the implications, to read the book.

About five years ago, I heard The Hawk was going to be at the Tonto Apache gymnasium to watch a youth basketball tournament.

After retiring, he remained in Phoenix to work in community relations with the Suns.

I found my copy of "Foul!" and took it to the reservation gym, hoping I could finally get The Hawk to autograph it. When I handed him the books, he looked puzzled, almost bewildered, and asked, "where did you get this, at a yard sale?"

I said no, "I've had it for over 30 years."

He smiled, then chuckled and pulled out a pen. He wrote on the inside cover, "To Max, peace & love, Connie Hawkins #42."

I don't know how seriously ill The Hawk is, but he should remain in all our prayers.

His acrobatic basketball talents thrilled us, but it was his courage, dedication and commitment to right a wrong that will always to an inspiration.

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