Luka Garza’s 2019-2020 season may be the best single campaign in Iowa basketball history. The skilled big man has now been named player of the year by six major publications, and seems a virtual lock to finish as a consensus first-team All-American. Garza has cemented his legacy as one of the greatest, if not THE greatest, Hawkeye basketball player to ever earn a varsity letter for the program.
Garza is not, however, the best basketball player to ever attend the university. That would be this man:
Connie Hawkins is unquestionably the greatest player to ever come through the Iowa basketball program. Hawkins is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, was a four-time NBA All-Star, a member of the American Basketball Association’s All-Time Team, former MVP of the American Basketball League, and was crowned ABA champion, MVP, and Playoffs MVP during the 1968 season. Hawkins was also included on Bill Simmons’ list of the 100 greatest professional basketball players of all time, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar listed him as one of the fifteen best players he ever competed with or against on the basketball court. His highlights certainly speak for themselves:
For all Hawkins’ accomplishments, you might be curious why you likely have no memory of watching him play basketball at Iowa. The explanation reveals a long, torturous story of a legendary career interrupted, one which many Hawkeye fans who do not follow professional basketball may not be aware.
Hawkins may be the most decorated recruit to ever commit to play for the Hawkeyes. An athletic marvel who could dunk the ball at age eleven, Hawkins quickly established himself as a playground legend in his hometown of New York City. By the time Hawkins left for Iowa City, he had led his NYC high school team to two city championships and gained a reputation as one of the best young basketball players in the country. With Hawkins en route and future NBA champion and Coach of the Year Don Nelson already on campus, Sharm Scheuerman’s Hawkeyes appeared to have laid the groundwork for a dominant team in the coming years.
NCAA regulations prevented freshmen from playing in varsity games at the time, so Hawkins’ time on the court was largely limited to practices and scrimmages against the older players during his first year in Iowa. Yet legend has it that, even as a freshman, Hawkins was the best player on campus, even outplaying the future All-American Nelson in practices. Hawkins’ other teammates that season were no chumps, either. Iowa finished the 1960-61 season with an 18-6 record and a second-place finish in the Big Ten, begging the question of how high the Hawkeyes might have been able to climb that season had Hawkins been eligible to play. Still, with Nelson set to return and Hawkins primed to make his varsity debut, expectations for the 61-62 team should have been sky high.
Unfortunately, most Iowa fans would never get a chance to see Hawkins suit up for the black and gold. Before departing for Iowa City, Hawkins became acquainted with Jack Molinas, a former NBA All-Star whose pro career ended prematurely after he was banned for betting on games. Molinas gave Hawkins a $200 loan before the young star left for Iowa City to help him get settled as he relocated across the country, a loan which Hawkins’ brother repaid the following year. However, that loan, and Hawkins’ association with Molinas, would prove fatal to his college career and put his entire future in jeopardy.
As it turned out, old habits died hard for Jack Molinas. Exiled from the NBA, the man who had once bet on his own games turned to encouraging other young players to do the same for his personal financial gain. Molinas was a key figure in the 1960-61 college basketball point shaving scandal which saw 37 college players from 22 schools arrested and resulted in St. Joe’s vacating its 1961 Final Four appearance. Taking down Molinas became something of a fixation for Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan, who had gone after Molinas after a previous point-shaving scandal a decade prior. With Hogan’s office focused on nailing Molinas, it was only a matter of time before Hawkins’ name came up as a result of the investigation.
Hawkins maintained that he had no involvement in the point-shaving scheme (he had been ineligible to play in varsity games that season, after all) and was never charged with a crime. However, it was alleged that Hawkins had played the role of a middleman in Molinas’ point-shaving scheme, despite none of his supposed associates claiming that he had any involvement with these dealings. With a cloud of scandal hanging over Hawkins and the sport of college basketball in general, the University of Iowa disassociated themselves from the young star, sending his once-promising basketball career into purgatory.
Barred from the NBA due to allegations of wrongdoing and unable to find another home in the college ranks, Hawkins bounced around between the ABA, ABL, and the Harlem Globetrotters before finally being allowed to enter the NBA as a 27-year old rookie after additional reporting on the scandal fully exonerated him. While Hawkins went on to have a successful NBA career over the next seven years, one can’t help but wonder what he might have been able to achieve had he not been denied the ability to play basketball at the highest level for several of his prime years.
Similarly, Hawkins’ brief stint in Iowa City remains one of the great “what ifs” of Hawkeye athletics. Don Nelson is on the record as saying that he believes the Hawkeyes could have dethroned the powerhouse Buckeyes led by future NBA legends Jerry Lucas John Havlicek had Hawkins remained in Iowa City, and the continued success of the team might have allowed the program to return to the heights it reached a decade earlier under Bucky O’Connor. Instead, the Hawkeyes were a middling 13-11 during the 1961-62 season and followed up that campaign with two consecutive losing seasons, ultimately leading to Scheuerman’s resignation. Had Hawkins been given the opportunity to have the career he desired at Iowa, might we Iowa fans and national pundits be saying that Luka Garza is having the best season any Iowa player has had since The Hawk himself?
Connie Hawkins is one of the greatest basketball players of all time, and left an undeniable mark on the game of basketball over the course of his career. It’s just a shame he never had a chance to leave a positive mark on the Iowa program as well.