ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The other day, thinking of the current scandal in college basketball, I was telling a younger colleague who follows the sport about the point-shaving scandal of the 1960s. I told her especially about a young high school phenom from Brooklyn whose career was collateral damage of that scandal. Having taken a loan from a crooked gambler, Connie Hawkins left college without playing a game of varsity ball. He was only admitted to the National Basketball Association at age 27. And at that age, he became an instant superstar, a Hall of Famer. On Saturday, we learned of Hawkins' death at age 75.
Well, sportswriter Peter Vecsey wrote about and knew Connie Hawkins and joins us now to talk about him. Thanks for joining us today.
PETER VECSEY: Well, thanks for having me. You know, I've been in this business a long time, and I feel I finally made it being on NPR.
SIEGEL: (Laughter) I want you to describe for people who didn't know of Connie Hawkins how he played basketball and how remarkable that was.
VECSEY: Well, he was - as everyone says about him, he was way ahead of his time in the things that he did with the ball. He played above the rim. Most people - you know, we're the same age. So most people our age would play below the rim.
SIEGEL: (Laughter) Very far below the rim.
VECSEY: Yes, yes. And but he had these enormous hands. You know, I used to say his hands were so big they could palm Sunday. You know, he had such extension cords for arms that when he, you know, got up in the air and just put his arm out with the ball in one hand, it was amazing to see. And nobody really could do that in those days.
SIEGEL: In the years when Connie Hawkins, who was known to have been great from high school and from the Harlem tournament games - when he was banned from the NBA, he played for two rival startup leagues. He played for the Harlem Globetrotters. He could have been winning games, breaking records in the NBA. Was he resentful about the years that he lost?
VECSEY: I'm sure he was, Robert. It just never escaped his lips to me. I think he accepted being in the league. He wanted to be playing pro ball, and that was enough for him. He was making great money finally. You know, I'm a big believer in, you know, sad stories that have happy endings. And this of course had a happy ending but not really, you know, from my perspective because of all the wasted years being kept out of the league by the NBA for no reason. They had nothing to substantiate, you know, putting this blacklist on him. And then he only had, you know, seven years in the NBA, and only four of them were really that productive.
SIEGEL: I read in one of the obituaries - one of the tributes to Hawkins over the past couple of days - someone remarked that he grew up about as poor as anyone this person had ever known - I mean, poor in Brooklyn, urban poverty.
VECSEY: No, he had nothing. His mom, you know, had a bunch of kids, and they were always out, you know, finagling for money, you know, went to bed many times hungry. There's no doubt about that. There was a lot to overcome. And you know, he thought he was the dumbest kid going when he was young. You know, not until much later in life did he realize that he really was very smart.
VECSEY: And he was a pleasure to be - and he also developed an unbelievable wry sense of humor.
SIEGEL: Yeah, you write about him today (laughter). And I had no idea that he was as funny as he could be.
VECSEY: Yes. In - I believe it was 1984, he and I were out dining in Denver during the All-Star break. And we go into this restaurant, and the maitre d' brings us upstairs. So Connie says to him - he says, is this where you put your mixed couples?
VECSEY: You know, we laughed about it, you know (laughter)? And then as the place filled up, you know, we noticed downstairs and all around us, it was a gay bar. And Connie and I - it kind of dawned on us at the same time. And he looked over to me. He says, oh - he said, I didn't know you cared (laughter). And at the end of my piece today, I did say, you know, Connie, I did care.
SIEGEL: Yeah. Peter Vecsey has been writing about basketball since the age of the two-handed set shot. These days you can find his work on Patreon. Thanks for talking with us about the late Connie Hawkins.
VECSEY: My pleasure, Robert.
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