Basketball Culture 101: For Want Of An Arli$$

[Editor's Note: Hayes Davenport is a writer at the ESPN TrueHoop Network Blog CelticsHub. Hayes grew up in Boston before moving to LA, where he now works as a writer for an upcoming Fox TV show. Here, Davenport takes a critical look at the mythology of Connie Hawkins's career as told by David Wolf, and discusses the surprising implications for today's rising ballers.--Beckley]

I’ve long believed that the worst thing about NBA basketball is that players are only expected to play basketball. Unlike any other profession, professional basketball players are expected to cede control of their careers before they graduate high school. Most of them never really manage their own professional lives, and I’ve always found that unseemly because of the potential for exploitation. So I didn’t expect David Wolf’s Foul!: The Connie Hawkins Story, a book about the rampant exploitation that led to a great player’s exile from the NBA, to force me to question those beliefs.

Quick summary of this long, involving story: Connie “Hawk” Hawkins was raised broke and illiterate in the ghetto of Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn by a blind mother, but rose to prominence in high school as the greatest basketball player in New York and potentially the best forward in America. Schools from all over the country used extremely illegal strategies to lure him to their campuses, even though he was not at all prepared for college academics. He ended up going to Iowa because they gave him the most backroom money and offered to bus girls in from Brooklyn, should the need arise.

Hawkins was about halfway through his freshman year when NYC detectives turned up his name in their point-shaving investigation of lawyer Jack Molinas, a charming, undiagnosed sociopath who had chatted up Hawkins on the schoolyards in preparation for roping him into a fixing scam. The DA’s office flew Hawkins back to New York for two weeks of interrogation, and even though Hawkins had no knowledge of Molinas’s dealings, he was pressured by New York detectives into a false confession. When he got back to Iowa, he asked to leave, and later found himself exiled from NBA basketball.

Connie was forced to wander the wasteland of semi-pro leagues, from the ABL to the YHMA to the Globetrotters to the ABA, for eight years before a few Pittsburgh lawyers helped him sue the NBA for the right to play in the league. Connie won the suit. He became a star rookie at age 27, but he’d lost some of his best years in empty gyms.

Even though Connie is at the center of this story, he exerts no influence on its outcome outside of his work on the court. He’s thoughtful and intelligent, but for most of his life he lacks the functional knowledge to manage his own career, so people assume those responsibilities for him. His life is a series of phone calls and surprise visits in which he’s told that he can or can’t play basketball. He has nothing to do but observe and react as a parade of individuals seize control of his career, withhold information from him, and negotiate the terms of his life.

Those people who manipulated Connie, to hear David Wolf tell this story, are to blame for his misfortune. They wrung profits from Connie’s talent but never had their player’s interest at heart, or even on the periphery. It’s hard to disagree with this claim when you hear Abe Saperstein sought out darker-skinned players to be Globetrotters, because he thought they were better suited for his “black clown” act. Or how Connie’s ABA coach forced all his players to wear white shirts and ties on the road.

But looking at the other possibilities for Connie’s life, how things might have been different, the problem might not have been the fact that Hawk was exploited. It might have been that he was exploited incompetently.

I offend myself, typing that out. But I get to this from the fact that Connie’s story is inconceivable today. Because if Connie Hawkins had grown up 20 years later, someone would have recognized the opportunity to manage his career and profit off of him for the rest of his life. Whether he grew up in Bed-Stuy or Cameroon, a player like Connie Hawkins would have been surrounded by gatekeepers before he turned 15. Not only de facto agents or professional representatives, but the kind of people those people send to protect their future interests, the William Wesleys. He would never have been permitted to get involved with Jack Molinas, and certainly wouldn’t have been interrogated for two weeks without a lawyer.

But nobody like that showed up in Hawkins’ life. Instead, the people who were in a position to control him were shortsighted enough to ignore his well-being. They underpaid him, underplayed him, and refused to acknowledge that he was bigger than their league, because they didn’t get that their interests were aligned with his. If they’d made Connie feel appreciated and safe, like a savvy agent would, they would have seen a lot more profits than they did. But they were caught up in his background and playing style, and their prejudice fed their incompetence, and they all ended up losing Connie because of it.

It’s true that Hawk’s value wasn’t as high back then as it would be today, but don’t underestimate how high it was. Chamberlain called him one of the three best players in the world. Kareem said he’d never seen anybody better. Those are two guys not known for throwing compliments around. In the end, Connie’s career ended prematurely to knee injuries brought about by playing hundreds of games a year in the lower leagues. If he’d started his NBA career at 22, he’d have been a superstar in the league for well over a decade and you’d be seeing him in Shapeups commercials today.

Of course, the relationship between basketball players and their representatives does not always play out for the best. That’s why we have the stereotypical portrayal of agents in sports movies (tiny ponytails, Bluetooths, “babe”). And that’s what (ostensibly) drives the movement to require players to go to college for a year and forbids them from speaking to representatives before a hard deadline. The idea behind this is that hiring an agent is itself a decision that should be informed, so players should be as mature and well-educated as possible before they’re allowed to make it.

But for a player like Connie Hawkins, any time he was without professional guidance would have come at some cost. Connie needed help. Growing up the way he did in Brooklyn, he would have needed help with almost any career he pursued. He couldn’t read. He had trouble communicating. He was shy.  He slept twelve hours a night and was pathologically late to important meetings, even the legal proceedings that decided his NBA future. He had no financial resources, and essentially nobody in his family or neighborhood to tell him what to do.

It’s not that Connie should have been denied control of his basketball career; it’s just not totally clear what he would do with it if he had it. That’s why an agent, a manager, or someone who could pick up those responsibilities could have prevented his eight-year exile from ever happening. Sure, yes, they’d have been doing it for personal financial gain, but does that really matter if that intervention would have saved Connie from playing beneath his talents? Remoras suck plankton for their own selfish reasons, but you don’t hear the sharks complaining.

Here we run facefirst into William C. Rhoden’s “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” which contends that employees of a system over which they have no control are still slaves, no matter how much you pay them. Slavery, in his view, has as much to do with control as it does with wealth, and the fact that players have virtually no role in business affairs makes them subservient. And because that position is philosophical in nature, it’s hard to call it wrong, even if the word choice makes you tug your necktie knot.

But again, it helps to look back at Connie Hawkins. His upbringing simply didn’t provide him with the tools to make sophisticated career decisions. If professional basketball required that players manage the business side, would it prohibit the entry of players like Connie, who actually just wanted to play basketball? And if we allow that he needed some kind of help, could we really have asked him to wait for it until he turned nineteen?

Check out more of HoopSpeak’s Basketball Culture 101

This HoopSpeak project is based on the University of Michigan course Basketball Cultures. Click to read the enlightening thoughts of course’s professor, Dr. Yago Colás

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