I started a series highlighting the five (sometimes more) greatest highlights in each franchise’s history out of a stubborn refusal to write about the lockout and- fearing we’d not have an NBA season to enjoy- a desire to keep front and center that which drew us all to the Association in the first place. I now encounter the greatest of all possible obstacles, however, out of respect to the most fun project I’ve ever undertaken, this show will go on. The timetable will be less than certain as the upcoming season will take priority, but that’s just fine. These types of memories have a serious shelf life.
Alright, let’s get back to work, this time with the Phoenix Suns.
The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the Suns is fun, exciting ball. Walter Davis, Paul Westphal, Dennis Johnson. The talented lead guard quartet of Kevin Johnson, first alongside Tom Chambers, then Charles Barkley, followed by Jason Kidd, Stephon Marbury and two-time MVP Steve Nash in Mike D’Antoni’s “Seven Seconds or Less” offense, it’s impossible to think of an era in which the Suns were not both loaded with talent and a fun watch.
As you read on, you’ll notice one notable name missing from the list above and the highlights below.
Brooklyn-born, Rucker-trained and the first face of the Suns franchise, Connie Hawkins is deserving of a far more prominent place among the greats of his era. After starring in basketball’s urban cathedral, he accepted a scholarship to the University of Iowa. With great size, athleticism and a skill set rarely seen in a man his size, he was surely destined for the pinnacle of pro hoops.
Sadly, however, during his freshman year, he was wrongly implicated in a point-shaving scandal that was traced back to New York. “Hawk” maintained his innocence and never admitted to any wrongdoing, but was expelled from Iowa, unable to secure another scholarship (where’s Jerry Tarkanian when you need him?) and blacklisted from professional basketball.
Rather than parlaying his inevitable college dominance into NBA stardom, Hawkins, though dominant at the various stops on his journey, became something of a basketball vagabond. Following the scandal, he spent one season with the ABL’s Pittsburgh Rens, with whom he averaged 27.5 points and 13.5 rebounds, and won league MVP. Following the ABL’s demise, he spent three years with the Harlem Globetrotters, during which he filed a lawsuit against the NBA for unfairly banning him, before joining a new pro basketball startup- the ABA.
A member of the Pittsburgh Pipers in the ABA’s inaugural season (1967-68), Hawk had one of the best seasons in league history, averaging a league-best 26.8 points, with 13.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists, earning an All-Star selection, league MVP and- after averaging 30-13 in the playoffs- leading the Pipers to the ABA title and capturing the playoff MVP in the process. After the season, the Pipers moved to Minnesota, where Hawkins averaged a fantastic 30 and 11 in an injury-plagued 1968-69 season, after which his suit with the NBA was settled and, at age 27, his rights were assigned to the NBA’s latest expansion team, the Phoenix Suns.
Though he’s synonymous with franchise, Hawkins spent just four seasons with the Suns- one great (24.6, 10.4 and 4.8 assists in 1969-70), two near great and one solid. He was named an All-Star four times, All-NBA First Team once and was a part of the first playoff team in franchise history.
Had the league itself not robbed him of his best years, the Hawk would occupy a far more prominent place in NBA history. Unfortunately, we are thus left with patchy recollections and a collection of highlights devoid of context. What these clips, limited though, do not lack is a window into a graceful dominance- one reminiscent of today's elite big men- that made Connie Hawkins one of the sport’s great icons that never truly was.