Before Julius Erving and before Michael Jordan, there was Connie Hawkins.
Hawkins, who could soar for dunks, use his massive hands for creative scoop shots and throw football-like outlet passes, died Friday, according to the Phoenix Suns. He was 75.
He was nicknamed “The Hawk” as much for his gravity-defying swoops to the basket as a play on his name, but most basketball fans never saw the best of Hawkins. In a social media, YouTube and “SportsCenter” generation, Hawkins would have been a sensation. But in the mid-1960s, the best Hawkins highlights played out in the shadows.
“The Hawk’ revolutionized the game and remains to this day an icon of the sport and one of basketball’s great innovators. His unique combination of size, grace and athleticism was well ahead of its time and his signature style of play is now a hallmark of the modern game,” the Suns said in a statement.
Born in Brooklyn and one of the city’s playground legends, Hawkins spent seven seasons in the NBA averaging 16.5 points, eight rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.2 steals. He was a four-time NBA All-Star and made the All-NBA first-team in 1969-70 – a season in which he averaged 21.7 points, 9.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists for the Suns.
Hawkins was banished from the University of Iowa after his freshman year, and he was blocked from entering the NBA because of a questionable connection to the central figure in a point-shaving scandal.
Hawkins never expressed bitterness for an NBA ban that forced him to play the best years of his career first in the American Basketball League, then with the Harlem Globetrotters and finally in the American Basketball Association.
Hawkins was named the first Most Valuable Player in the ABA after leading the Pittsburgh Pipers to the championship in the league’s inaugural season in 1967-68.
After a legal battle with the NBA, and a Look magazine piece authored by David Wolf exonerated Hawkins, the angular 6-foot-8 forward made his NBA debut with the Suns in the 1969-70 season at the age of 27. Wolf also authored a book “Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story,” which told Hawkins’ life story and centered on his battle to have the NBA’s blackball lifted.
Hawkins earned first-team All-NBA honors in his first season and starred for the Suns for four seasons before being traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in his fifth NBA season.
Hawkins was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.
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