Connie Hawkins, Electrifying N.B.A. Forward Barred in His Prime, Dies at 75

Connie Hawkins, right, protecting the rim against Walt Frazier of the Knicks at Madison Square Garden in 1973. CreditJohn Lent/Associated Press

Connie Hawkins, a high-flying basketball sensation who was molded on the playgrounds of New York and inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, but whose career was unjustly derailed when the N.B.A. barred him until his prime years had passed on suspicions of involvement in a college point-shaving scandal, died on Friday. He was 75.

The Phoenix Suns confirmed the death but did not say where he died. Hawkins, who lived in the Phoenix area, joined the team when he was 27 after starring with two lesser leagues and the Harlem Globetrotters. The Associated Press said he had been in frail health and was found to have colon cancer in 2007.

Even as a playground legend, Hawkins had the jaw-dropping flash that superstars like Elgin Baylor, Julius Erving and Michael Jordan would display, turning pro basketball into a national sports spectacular.

“He was Julius before Julius, he was Elgin before Elgin, he was Michael before Michael,” the longtime college and pro coach Larry Brown once said in an ESPN documentary on Hawkins. “He was simply the greatest individual player I have ever seen.”

Hawkins, who played seven seasons in the National Basketball Association with three teams, was a four-time All-Star with the Suns and averaged more than 16 points a game. But his pro career was haunted by what ifs

The former playground phenom could dunk the ball at age 11, when he was 6 feet 2 inches. He became one of the finest players in New York City high school basketball history, starring in Brooklyn and being named a first-team all-American. Growing into a 6-foot-8-inch frame, he possessed unusually large hands and a talent for bursting through defenses before slamming down a dunk.

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Hawkins during the 1972 N.B.A. All-Star Game.CreditWen Roberts/NBAE, via Getty Images

But by the time he reached the grandest stage in basketball, the N.B.A., he was at an advanced age for a rookie and recovering from knee surgery.

By then, a basketball career that had held so much potential for greatness had been damaged by the suspicions — unsubstantiated — that he had been involved in a collegiate point-shaving scandal in the early 1960s.

Recovering from the setback proved to be an enormous emotional challenge.

“It was totally devastating,” Hawkins told NBA.com in 2009. “I was innocent, but no one would listen to me. Plus, coming from a poor family, no one even thought about trying to get a lawyer to fight it. We just weren’t that sophisticated.”

Other players in the league shared the view that he had been mistreated. When Hawkins was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1992, Bob Lanier, the former Detroit Pistons center, who was part of that class, said Hawkins had “never got his just due,” adding, “because obviously the media wasn’t big then.”

Lanier marveled at Hawkins’s skills. Referring to Erving, he remarked how Hawkins “was doing these wild, swooping kind of moves before anyone knew about Dr. J.”

Hawkins had been recruited by numerous colleges before enrolling at the University of Iowa in 1961. But he never a played a game there.

College basketball at the time was engulfed in its second point-shaving scandal after players had received money from gamblers to affect the final score of games. Hawkins was questioned by the New York City authorities about possible connections with one of the fixers, but he was never accused of wrongdoing. Nonetheless, he was barred from collegiate play and the N.B.A.

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Connie Hawkins, left, in 1997 at the American Basketball Association’s 30th reunion in Indianapolis. With him, from left, are Marvin Barnes, Julius Erving, Charlie Scott and George Gervin. CreditTom Russo/Associated Press

Hawkins played one season in the American Basketball League and two seasons with the Globetrotters and was a star in his two seasons in the American Basketball Association, which later merged with the N.B.A.

Hawkins’s path to the N.B.A. was buoyed in part by a 1969 article in Life magazine by David Wolf. “Evidence recently uncovered,” Mr. Wolf wrote, “indicates that Connie Hawkins never knowingly associated with gamblers, that he never introduced a player to a fixer, and that the only damaging statements about his involvement were made by Hawkins himself — as a terrified, semiliterate teenager who thought he’d go to jail unless he said what the D.A.’s detectives pressed him to say.”

On Hawkins’s behalf, Roslyn Litman, a civil liberties activist, along with her husband and law partner, S. David Litman, and another lawyer, Howard Specter, sued the N.B.A. on antitrust grounds, arguing that the league had in effect illegally barred Hawkins and deprived him of the “opportunity to earn a livelihood.”

They won. The league paid Hawkins a settlement of nearly $1.3 million and dropped the ban. Hawkins joined the N.B.A. in 1969 and became an instant star with the Suns.

Mr. Wolf recounted the Hawkins case in 1972 in the book “Foul!: The Connie Hawkins Story.” Jonathan B. Segal, writing in The New York Times Book Review, said it showed “how an underprivileged black man was victimized by a fat-cat, unfeeling Establishment.”

Cornelius Hawkins was born on July 17, 1942, in Brooklyn. He was introduced to basketball as a youngster in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn by a New York City police officer, Gene Smith, who helped run recreational programs at a Y.M.C.A.

His career at Boys High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant was capped by his being named a first-team high school all-American by Parade magazine in 1960. 

“My model was Elgin Baylor,” he told The Times in 1992, recalling the forward known for his superb body control when playing with the Minneapolis and Los Angeles Lakers. “My friends and I used to sneak into the old Madison Square Garden to see him play. Before Baylor, basketball was a more stand-up-and-shoot game.”

Hawkins averaged more than 24 points a game, sixth best in the N.B.A., in his first season with the Suns, and he was named to the all-N.B.A. first team.

He put up impressive numbers for several more years, but when his skills began to erode he was traded to the Lakers early in the 1973-74 season.

The Lakers dealt him to the Atlanta Hawks before the 1975-76 season, and after one season with them he retired, having averaged 16.5 points a game in his N.B.A. career.

Hawkins later worked in recreational programs for youth in Pittsburgh and was hired by the Suns as a community ambassador in 1992.

A list of survivors was not immediately available.

When Hawkins was inducted into the Hall of Fame, he was asked about being denied an N.B.A. career for so long. He displayed no rancor.

“My attitude was that had I not played in the A.B.A., I wouldn’t have a job,” The Boston Globe quoted him as saying. “Had I not played with the Globetrotters, I would not have learned the experience and traveled around the world. Those things helped me out and gave me a different style of play once I got into the N.B.A.”

Asked whether induction gave him a sense of vindication, he responded: “My vindication was that I got into the N.B.A. and was able to play basketball. This was icing on the cake.”

Correction: October 7, 2017 
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this obituary misstated the amount of a settlement between Hawkins and the N.B.A. It was nearly $1.3 million, not $6 million.