The Hawk Never Stopped Soaring

It happened in nearly every school basketball court, or at pickup games in city parks around Phoenix.

At least one young man taped his middle and ring fingers together. Another refused to bounce the ball when shooting a free throw. Still another tried to defy gravity going to the hoop.

They all wanted to be Connie Hawkins.

All I can say is….me too.

The passing (I just can’t bring myself to say the word death) of the man known as “The Hawk” over the weekend reminds us that everybody needs heroes. While Charles Barkley was right that athletes are not supposed to be role models to raise someone’s kids, athletes, really special ones, offer kids a goal to shoot for, a standard to reach, a dream to accomplish.

Having been implicated and later cleared of charges in a point shaving scandal, Hawkins finally was allowed to enter the NBA in 1969, and the league assigned his rights to the Phoenix Suns, who a year earlier in their debut season, played like an expansion team, posting a 16-66 record.

General Manager Jerry Colangelo transformed the roster overnight, adding power forward Paul Silas and rookie center Neal Walk to a team that already had a solid backcourt in Gail Goodrich and Dick Van Arsdale. Colangelo assumed the coaching duties midway through the 1969-70 season, and the Phoenix Suns surged to a 39-43 record and a spot in the playoffs.

Colangelo’s strategy was to get the ball in Hawkins’ large hands as much as possible, and let the Hawk do the rest.

The standout performance of that season for Hawkins came in Game Two of the Western Division semifinals against the heavily-favored Los Angeles Lakers at the Forum in Inglewood. Check out this stat line: 44 points, 20 rebounds, eight assists, five blocks and five steals. The Suns eventually lost the series in seven games after having a 3-1 series lead, but the Hawk and his team had sent word to everyone in Phoenix that big time sports had arrived.

It also gave every schoolkid in the Valley a hero.

Like any hero, The Hawk was not perfect. The years after basketball saw his life make a downward turn, until Colangelo, by this time the club’s Managing General Partner, paid for The Hawk to move back to Phoenix and work for the Suns as a community ambassador.

In reality, that job was as good a fit for The Hawk as having a basketball in his right hand.

His talents would have made him a star even in today’s NBA, but he remained humble. In the Suns offices, The Hawk could be found saying hello to every employee he encountered, his days filled with going to schools where years earlier, kids tried to emulate his playing style.

In reality, the kids of the late 60’s and early 70’s would have admired The Hawk even more in the later years of his life.

In 1992, he earned his rightful place among the game’s greats in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Several years before that, The Hawk stood alongside his friend Al McCoy as the Suns made him an original member of the Suns Ring of Honor.

Okay, now the really tough part. How to explain to all of you who didn’t live here, or weren’t alive, when The Hawk soared at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, how great he really was.

He could handle the ball with ease, pass like a point guard, compete with big men for rebounds, run the floor, and attack the basket with a grace and style the NBA had not seen. He was Dr. J, Michael Jordan, and Lebron James before any of them got to the NBA.

And here’s the most amazing part – we got The Hawk in the twilight of his career.

Because of the NBA’s ban, The Hawk was forced to put on nightly highlight shows in the American Basketball League, American Basketball Association and with the Harlem Globetrotters. The majority of pro basketball fans were denied the chance to see Hawkins at his best, and yet, for a brief time, he was as breathtaking as any player in the NBA before or since.

That’s why a whole bunch of people my age here in town choked back tears Saturday when we heard he was gone.

I think the best way to honor the man who really put the Suns on the map is for you to get a basketball, go to a park or school, find the basketball court, go to the free throw line, and shoot. Don’t bounce the ball. Just shoot.

No one around you may understand what you’re doing, but I’ll bet you’ll feel a little tap on your shoulder. That’ll be The Hawk saying thanks.

No, Hawk. Thank You.