PHOENIX — For weeks and weeks I called every person I thought who might be able to put me in touch with Arizona’s first sports superstar.
If Ruth Drylanski, longtime assistant to chairman Jerry Colangelo, couldn’t make it happen, what chance did I have?
Closest I came was getting Connie Hawkins’ current phone number. Not surprisingly, his voice mailbox was full.
Of course, even if I had been able to leave a message, odds against a return call were prohibitive. I’ve had his e-mail address forever — sending him three expanded Post columns a week . . . but have yet to receive a response to wanting to interview the man who put Phoenix on the NBA map in 1969 when he came into a league (at 27) that had banned him illegally (and paid to correct the injustice) for associating with convicted fixers.
I even drifted over to Phoenix from Los Angeles last month in hopes of running into Hawkins at Turf Paradise’s wonderful annual tribute to Cotton Fitzsimmons, the Suns second (real) coach in franchise history; then GM Jerry Colangelo replaced its original, Red Kerr, on an interim basis before looting Kansas State of its diminutive drill instructor.
Next to a basketball court and a golf course, the track was Cotton Swab’s prized place to hang out. He was a Paradise regular with a reserved table and his own stable of horse-playing buddies. Fitzsimmons died July 24, 2004, from complications of lung cancer.
At any rate, Hawkins was a no-show for the first time. It was an ominous sign. The previous year he had graced the Suns family with his presence despite ongoing treatment for colon cancer.
“Gee, I don’t know if I can make it, baby,” he told JoAnn Fitzsimmons, who was married to Cotton for 26 years.
Typically, just as the mile race was about to get under way — the Suns family was clustered at the finish line — Hawkins appears out of nowhere and makes a grand entrance, strolling onto the infield to join the others.
“It was the best!” JoAnn exclaimed then and says now.
The Hawk loved Cotton and the feeling was mutual. They were together in Phoenix and in Atlanta and then again when both worked for the Suns after their coaching and playing careers were over.
Connie called Cotton “Whitey” whenever, wherever, raising many an eyebrow.
One evening in Atlanta, Hawkins missed an unmolested dunk. Loping upcourt he yelled over to the bench, “Hey, Whitey, either they have to lower the basket or raise the floor, ’cause The Hawk can’t soar no more.”
Cotton had as many well-scripted tales on the tip of his agile tongue as Rod Thorn does about Marvin Barnes. Early on in their union, before there was such a thing as a team bus — they were sharing a cab to Chicago Stadium to play a very good Bulls (Bob Love, Chet Walker, Jerry Sloan, Norm Van Lier, Clifford Ray, Tom Boerwinkle) team.
“You know what the best thing was about playing for the Globetrotters, Whitey?” Hawkins would say. “We always knew who was going to win.”
January’s absence from Cotton’s tribute seemed to worry no one but me. JoAnn recently had spoken to Hawkins, as had Suns senior VP Tom Ambrose and Zelda Spoelstra, trusted friend and league liaison to every player who so much as sniffed the NBA the first 50 years of its existence. Ambrose actually even saw him not that long ago; he had lost a lot of weight but seemed to be doing OK.
This past Thursday, I’m on deadline, writing up to the very last minute, as usual, when my cell rings. After all this time and legwork and futility, out of seclusion, it’s Hawkins.
“I hear you have been trying to reach me,” I said.
I wondered what gave him that idea.
I told Hawkins I would love to talk to him but, at the moment, only had a few minutes to spare. Most important, I wanted to know how he was doing. After all, it was two years ago last fall since the dreadful diagnosis.
“I’m cancer free, he said, his voice husky as ever. “Chemo and radiation threw me off my game for a while there. Let me tell you, they’re tougher than two-a-days.”
Both treatments were necessary; before surgery to shrink a tumor that had been discovered, and afterward to exterminate the lingering diseased cells.
“I had no idea what was happening,” he said. “I experienced a rapid loss of weight.”
“They figure I had the tumor a year, but still feel it was caught early. All those poisons broke down my body. My whole focus these days is to gain weight and exercise. I’m on high protein diet.”
I apologized to Hawkins. I had to finish writing. I asked if it would be all right to pick up where we left off on Friday.
Friday afternoon I called Hawkins to continue the conversation. He didn’t pick up. His message mailbox was full.
Peter Vecsey covers the NBAfor the New York Post.
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