Last week, one of the all-time Notre Dame Fighting Irish basketball greats passed away in his home in Malibu, California.
Just a week prior, he gave a fantastic interview with a good friend, and any Notre Dame alumnus or fan, or any Lakers fan, or even just any fan of basketball or awesome people, should absolutely scroll down this article and listen to the interview that’s linked below.
First, a Background on Tom Hawkins’ Career
Tom Hawkins, a small forward, played at Notre Dame from 1956 through 1959, and was the university’s first African-American basketball star, collecting 2nd (UPI, NABC) and 3rd (AP) Team All-American honors in his junior season and being named a Consensus 2nd Team All-American in his senior season. He averaged 20.6 points and 17.3 rebounds per game in his sophomore season, and followed up those monster numbers by averaging 25.2 ppg and 17.2 rpg his junior year and 23.4 ppg and 15.2 rpg as a senior.
In 2015, he was inducted into the Notre Dame basketball Ring of Honor for his achievements with the program.
He was a first round draft pick by the Minneapolis Lakers in the 1959 NBA Draft, and went on to have a fantastic 10-year career in Minnesota (Lakers), Los Angeles (the Lakers moved), and Cincinnati (Royals). He averaged 8.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per game and teamed up with the likes of Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas, Gail Goodrich, and Walt Hazzard (among many others) in his time in the league, serving as a key defensive player and reliable scorer/rebounder on some great teams.
The Interview with Ted Sobel
After his playing career ended, Hawkins worked in radio and television broadcasting in Los Angeles, and also served as Vice President of Communications for the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was in his time in Los Angeles, both with the Lakers and then in his post-playing work, when Hawkins befriended Ted Sobel, an award-winning LA radio sports reporter/anchor who has been covering Los Angeles sports for over 40 years.
Just a week before Hawkins’ passing, Sobel sat down with him for what was meant to be a short interview, and instead the two pals talked for more than 3 hours. That gave us this 96-minute interview here, in which Hawkins discusses attending Notre Dame as a young black athlete in the ‘50s, his time in the NBA playing with some of the best players of all-time, and much more.
I don’t want to spoil too many of the fantastic anecdotes, but here were some of my favorite moments:
- In high school, as the school was being integrated, Hawkins and a white friend/locker mate named Richard (both of them freshmen) happened upon a race riot on campus. Their response was mature beyond their years: “Does this have anything to do with us? We said ‘no.’ So, we just walked away.”
Because of that, the two of them were sent to the principal’s office that day and named student ambassadors to the integration committee. As the principal named them ambassadors, Tom and Richard “leaned in very close to each other and said ‘What’s an ambassador?’ ”
- He was 1 of just 10 black students at Notre Dame during his time there (the only one on the basketball team)
- He described himself as “that black person that every white guy could relate to”
- Hawkins was the first black All-American at Notre Dame, the first black person to be given a two hours a day, 5 days a week radio show that had nothing to do with sports, and he and his Notre Dame roommate Gene Duffy were the first integrated roommates in any sport...the guy was just a trailblazer
- He said he didn’t have a single big racial incident at ND, but had some stories about what it was like being just 1 of 10 black students on campus, how police followed them whenever they walked anywhere, and how he was the first minority student to mix-date in 1955 (going to a football game with a girl from Saint Mary’s, who was just a friend)
- He told a fantastic story that I won’t spoil, but I will say that it includes this quote from Paul Hornung: “Goddamn you, Hawk. Because of your ethnic ass, I’m missing my pizza and lasagna. Get your coat on, we’re going downtown, and the owner is going to apologize to you.”
- This quote on his ND experience: “It made me much more than a basketball player. I was ready with integration, I was ready with education, and I was ready with basketball.”
- On being a part of integration of schools: “We were the race busters. We were the barrier breakers. We were the poster boys for what integration could be like.”
- A story about freshman year composition class with this quote from Hawk: “Oh shit. Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer. I’m gonna die in this class.”
- At one point he used the phrase “syllogistic reasoning” and talked about a class he took on abnormal psychology
- His ND coach, John Jordan, forced him to do public speaking before he even began playing for the Irish, and although his first time didn’t go well, he praised Jordan for the difference it made for him in terms of his career, his confidence, etc.
- Hawkins loved poetry, thanks to a professor he had at ND...he ended up publishing his own book of poems later in life
- When he entered the NBA, there were 8 teams with 96 total players...only 23 of them were black
- Hawkins was used to playing center in high school and college. He was told to go play small forward and the coach said “You’re a midget” to him. Hawkins described that moment by saying “the air went out of my balloon” and told the coach later from the perimeter “I can’t even see from out here.”
- Tom’s Mom on Jackie Robinson: “Do you have any idea what this is going to mean to you and for you? You look at this and you mark this down, because this is a historic event that will mean everything to you as you become a man.”
The world lost an incredible man in Tom Hawkins last week. But it’s recorded interviews like this one, along with all the memories that Hawkins brought sports fans over the years, that show what an amazing impact a great man, athlete, ambassador, and role model can have on the world around him.
Rest in peace, Hawk, and thank you for helping Paul Hornung get his pizza and lasagna back.