Since ’68: The Hawk
Coin flips are a sensitive subject when it comes to the Suns. Had they called tails in 1969, the league’s eventual all-time leading scorer and six-time champion would have started his career in Phoenix purple instead of Milwaukee green.
Under Lew Alcindor’s ominous what-if shadow, Coin Flip Two is the forgotten story of how the Suns recovered in spectacular fashion.
Phoenix’s second round of high-stakes currency rotation occurred in 1969, against Seattle. Between them, the two fledgling NBA clubs sported a combined 69-177 record. The league determined they were the most deserving candidates for another superstar talent ready to enter the league: Connie Hawkins.
From his days as a high school and playground prodigy in New York through winning the ABA’s inaugural championship and MVP trophies, “The Hawk” had become the stuff of legend. Former NBA and ABA player Jerry Harkness added his first-hand witness of Hawkins in Loose Balls:
“I can recall seeing Connie while still in high school play against a team of pros that included Wilt Chamberlain, and Connie held his own. In high school, he was already the greatest talent I had ever seen. When he played with kids his own age, it was ridiculous. He just toyed with them. He was already as good as the pros when he was 16. He had those huge hands and he could do anything he wanted with the basketball…[In the ABA] it was the same thing, like it was when he played against the high school kids on the playground – he was so great, he could just control the game without breaking a sweat.”
Such game-changing talent would be granted to the winner of this latest franchise-altering coin flip. This time, the Suns made the right call. After a rude welcoming to the NBA world, it was just what Phoenix needed.
“Connie won some games for us, particularly going down the stretch,” former teammate Jim Fox told Suns.com. “He was really clutch and talented. He was a good guy. He could do everything. He was the precursor of Dr. J. Big hands and he was taller. He was Dr. J with a jump shot.”
“The three best teams in the Western Division,” said one critic in 1969-70, “are Atlanta, Jerry West, and Connie Hawkins, not necessarily in that order.”
That was no exaggeration. Hawkins took an expansion team and, in just one season, nearly turned them into a playoff bracket buster. The 6-8 forward with enormous hands and aerial flair averaged 24.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.8 assists while shooting 49.0 percent from the field in his “rookie” season. He led the Suns to a 3-1 first-round series lead over a Lakers team that featured Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West (Phoenix would eventually lose, 4-3).
Hawkins’ success as a Sun – which included four All-Star appearances and a place in the team’s Ring of Honor and the Basketball Hall of Fame – was tinged with a bittersweet flavor. Phoenix’s first superstar he might have been, but even that title came with a whiff of what could have been.
Hawkins’ arrival to the NBA was an overdue affair, explained well by Hall-of-Fame Phoenix journalist Joe Gilmartin in his book, The Little Team that Could…And Darn Near Did!:
The Hawk, said by man of his peers to be the premier basketball artist in the land, had been driven from college and barred from playing in the NBA because of innuendo. His name had been mentioned during an investigation of a college betting scandal in 1961, but he had never been accused of being involved in it. Still, no NBA team would sign him. Then David and Roslyn Litman, a high-powered husband-wife legal team from Pittsburgh, filed a $6 million suit against the league on his behalf. And Dave Wolf, a young sportswriter, turned the spotlight on the injustice of it all in Life Magazine. The NBA, hit by a couple of two-by-fours, gave Hawkins its undivided attention.
By the time Hawkins’ status was resolved, however, he had already undergone the kind of reconstructive knee surgery that, in that era, normally ended a player’s career. His superior talent willed him past the challenge, but there was no mistaking it: the All-Star version of Hawkins was, even at its awe-inspiring peak, a step down from his mystical, pre-surgery self. In his 117 ABA games before the injury, Hawkins averaged an other-worldly 28.2 points, 12.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game while shooting 51.5 percent from the field.
“I am convinced that the Connie Hawkins that led Pittsburgh to that first [ABA] title could play in the NBA and be on the same level as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan today,” Mel Daniels said in Loose Balls. “The Connie Hawkins that eventually got into the NBA was nearly 30, he had a couple of knee problems – it wasn’t the same guy.”
Even not being “the same guy,” Hawkins was still good enough to morph Phoenix from an NBA outpost to a legit-sized dot on the league map.
“Connie gave us instant big-league status,” said former general manager Jerry Colangelo.