Dazzling basketball great Connie Hawkins dies at 75

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

The Phoenix Suns confirmed the death but did not say where he died. Mr. 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.

Going back to his years as a playground legend, Mr. Hawkins had the kind of jaw-dropping flash that such superstars as 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 Mr. Hawkins. “He was simply the greatest individual player I have ever seen.”

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Mr. Hawkins would blow by defenders and, gripping the ball in one hand, finish with breathtaking wizardry or a thunderous slam, seemingly defying laws of gravity.

‘‘Someone said if I didn’t break them, I was slow to obey them,’’ he once said.

Playing for seven seasons in the NBA with three teams, Mr. Hawkins was a four-time All-Star with the Suns. He also played for the Los Angeles Lakers and Atlanta Hawks.

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 when he starred in Brooklyn and was chosen as a first-team All-American.


Growing into a 6-foot-8-inch frame, he had a talent for bursting through defenses. But by the time he reached the largest stage, the NBA, he was at an advanced age for a rookie and just had knee surgery.

By then, a 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,” Mr. Hawkins told 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 Mr. Hawkins was inducted into the Hall, in Springfield, in 1992, Bob Lanier, the former Detroit Pistons center, who was part of that class, said Mr. Hawkins had “never got his just due.”


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

Mr. 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. He was questioned by authorities about possible connections with one of the fixers, but he was never accused of wrongdoing. Nonetheless, he was banned from collegiate play and the NBA.

He 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 NBA.

Mr. Hawkins’ path to the NBA was buoyed in part by a 1969 article in Life magazine. “Evidence recently uncovered,” David 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 DA’s detectives pressed him to say.”

On Mr. Hawkins’s behalf, a team of lawyers sued the NBA on antitrust grounds, arguing that the league had in effect illegally banned Mr. Hawkins and deprived him of the “opportunity to earn a livelihood.”

They won. The league agreed to a $6 million settlement and to drop the ban.

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

“My attitude was that had I not played in the ABA, 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 NBA.”

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