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Tommy Hawkins book adds another chapter to a good life


No one can laugh at life like Thomas Jerome Hawkins, partly because the former Lakers and Cincinnati Royals  star has scored on virtually every challenge life has thrown him. He has succeeded in the NBA, as a broadcaster and as Dodgers executive. Now, Hawkins, 75, who is generally known simply as Tommy, has turned to verse.

When his alcoholic father left the family in Winston Salem, N.C., his mother moved him, his three brothers and sister to Chicago, where some of her relatives lived.

Tommy wrote a rather poignant yet dispassionate poem about his father in his new book, “Life’s Reflections: Poetry for the People”  (978-0-615-56430-2, $39.95). It is titled, “The Burial of a Slightly Known Man.” A stanza from it reads:

The funeral was attended by the folks who knew him best,
who along with his five children laid him evermore to rest.
He is buried on a hillside in a grave next to his mothers,
with a tombstone placed above his head to distinguish him from others.

Tommy was only 5 when his father left, but as an athletic child he soon learned that his coaches could stand in as father figures.

The first such person was Bill McQuitter, the coach at Carver Elementary school in Chicago, whom Hawkins met when he was 10.

“He was the prefect of discipline,” said Tommy, “and he got you on the right path. If you were timid, he’d help you get rid of the timidity. Growing up without a dad and having someone like that in your background was just everything.”

McQuitter formed a club for boys in the Altgeld Gardens Housing Project. “He had us playing everything–baseball, basketball, running track,” said Tommy.” He was a leader.”

Tommy has a poem in the book called “Bill McQuitter.” Two lines from the poem read:

Black man of strength and integrity, and with the torch to light our fire,
urging us kids to grow up with pride, respect, conviction, verve and desire.

The family soon moved to 69th and Michigan Avenue, not far from Parker High School, which was integrating for the first time. “This was 1955,” Tommy said. “For me, coming out of McQuitter’s army, it didn’t matter what I faced. I was ready.”

Hawkins was one of the first 25 African Americans to integrate the all-White Parker High. He was assigned to be the locker-mate of William Tovey, whom Tommy thought was “the most blonde, blued-eyed person in the world.” In attempt to learn more about each other, he and Tovey decided to meet at the locker for lunch. When they left the campus headed for a nearby hamburger stand, Tommy said there was a race riot going on in the neighborhood.

“He looked at me and I looked at him, and we asked each other if it had anything to do with us. And we said no, so we walked right past it. We went and got a hamburger and went back to school.”

All his varsity high school coaches were White. His high school coach was a man named Eddie O’Farrell, but Tommy said. “I always had great relationships with my coaches, but he was special because he understood the times in which we lived. Although he was a tough, hardnosed coach, he expressed a lot of humanity at the time.”

Tommy starred in both basketball and baseball at Parker High. “I was Chicago’s leading scorer as a prep and the city’s most valuable player,” he said. Beside basketball, he was the starting first baseman for the school’s baseball team.

In fact, he was so well-known that it became a problem.

“Everywhere I went in Chicago I was known,” Hawkins said. “It was sometimes a burden. It was like where do you go from here? I could get off the bus and walk downtown and speak to hundreds of people as a teenager. Everybody in my family was being asked questions about me. People in the neighborhood were asking–White people Black people.”

So great was the pressure of fame that when he received a scholarship to the University of Notre Dame, he told his mother in complete seriousness: “If I don’t make it I’m not coming home. I’ll join the French Foreign Legion.”

Every year the Chicago Club of Notre Dame held a father-son dinner. Coach O’Farrell, asked Tommy if he was going.

“No,” said Tommy.
“Yes, you’re going,” said O’Farrell, much to Tommy’s surprise.
“I said, ‘With who?’” said Tommy  
“With your surrogate father,” said O’Farrell.
“Who is that?” asked Tommy.
“Me,” said O’Farrell.
Tommy paused and took a long look at his coach.
“You’ve got to work on your tan?” he said.

He became the Notre Dame’s first African American basketball star. As the only African American on the team, what could have been a horrendous experience was turned into a victorious one for both Hawkins and the university. The year before he arrived, Notre Dame had been a 9-13 team. In his final two years they became a 44-13 team, and fought their way to the NCAA Elite Eight. Tommy was also the only Black in all his classes “There were only 10 Blacks in the whole university,” he said.

There were 10 Irish players on the Notre Dame team when he arrived. They told Tommy, If you’re going to hang around with Irishmen you’re going have to learn some Irish songs. Always game, Tommy took on the challenge.

Just to prove he still knew some, he launched into the popular favorite, “Did Your Mother Come From Ireland?”.

Did your mother come from Ireland?
Cos there’s something in you Irish
Will you tell me where you get those Irish eyes
And before she left Killarney
Did your mother kiss the Blarney?
‘Cos your little touch of brogue you can’t disguise

But not all the schools Notre Dame played were happy to compete against a team with an African American on its roster. Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, then university president, held a press conference to tell the world that anywhere a Notre Dame minority student was not welcome, neither was the University of Notre Dame.

“That was huge!” exclaimed Tommy. “Anywhere we couldn’t stay together, we’d move on. Anywhere we couldn’t eat together, we wouldn’t eat. I praise Father Hesburgh and Notre Dame for not bowing to segregation or discrimination.”

After college, the 6-foot-5 Hawkins was taken third overall in the first round of the 1959 NBA draft by the then-Minneapolis Lakers. He played two and a half seasons before being traded to the Cincinnati Royals in 1962. He returned to the then-Los Angeles Lakers in 1966.

In 1981, Tommy took a trip to Ireland with  “The Ken & Bob Company,” the KABC broadcast team that featured Ken Minyard and Bob Arthur, where they marched in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. They visited a pub, and in a cab as they all reveled and joked on the way back, Minyard shouted to the cabdriver:
“Hey, you know this Black guy back here is Irish.”
“Be gone with you,” said the cabbie. “That man’s not Irish.”
“He knows more Irish songs than you do,” said Minyard, always the jokester. “Name one and he’ll sing it.”

“I’ll name one, and if he sings it the cab ride is free. Tell the gentlemen to sing ‘Did Your Mother Come From Ireland?.’”

The cabbie almost had a wreck as Tommy began singing.

Did your mother come from Ireland?
‘Cos there’s something in you Irish
Will you tell me where you get those Irish eyes
And before she left Killarney
Did your mother kiss the Blarney?
‘Cos your little touch of brogue you can’t disguise