Notre Dame All-American Tommy Hawkins was a class act on and off basketball court

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Decades drifted away by the dozens and often left one of the greatest to wear a Notre Dame men's basketball uniform to wonder.

Did anyone remember his dominant playing days? Did anyone care?

They remembered.

They cared.

A call that All-American forward Tommy Hawkins waited for so long to answer finally arrived early in what would become a magical 2014-15 season for Notre Dame. That was the year that included an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship, a memorable sprint through the NCAA Tournament and ended with the near-miss against Kentucky in an East Regional final in Cleveland.

It also included a January afternoon where “the Hawk” finally had his day in front of an appreciative sellout crowd.

The summer prior, out in Southern California where Hawkins had called home long after his professional playing days ended, he received news that moved him to near tears. A school that he so loved had asked him to come back for an occasion. A very special occasion.

That basketball season, Hawkins would be inducted into the school's Ring of Honor. His name had saturated the school record books in several categories. Over a half century after his final Notre Dame game, he still holds the record for career rebounds with a number (1,318) that might never be topped.

Today, a white and blue and gold banner with his No. 20 forever hangs on the east side of Purcell Pavilion after the Jan. 17, 2015 ceremony.

A two-time All-American and member of the school's All-Century team, Hawkins played in an era void of televised games. There was no ESPN. No social media. No consistent national recognition. No color photos of his domination on the floor of the dusty old campus Fieldhouse.

The more time passed, the more people seemed to talk about all the power forwards and scorers and rebounders who came after him. They rarely mentioned Hawkins, even though his statistics spoke for themselves. Stood by themselves.

He was a man that the school seemingly forgot. Yet the Ring honor affirmed to Hawkins that he was good. Really good. Historically good. A man who seldom was without a smile, he was beyond happy the fall day in 2014 when the Ring honor was made official.

“Hot Dog, this is wonderful,” Hawkins told a reporter. “I did what I did and I think it was significant, but I didn't want to toot my horn. You just wait for the call from someone at the university.

“It finally came.”

That call meant so much to a man who meant so much to the university. Not just because of his basketball skills, but his life skills. Hawkins was a true original. He was as tough and as fierce and as focused off the court as he was on it.

The 80-year-old Hawkins died Wednesday in his sleep at his home in Malibu, Calif. He is survived by his wife, Layla, and their daughter, his first wife, Dori, and their four children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Memorials for Hawkins will be held in Los Angeles and South Bend at a later date.

The 6-foot-5 Hawkins started all 79 games and averaged 23 points with 16.7 rebounds during his collegiate career (1956-59). No other Irish has ever finished with better combined averages for points and rebounds. Hawkins still ranks ninth in career points (1,820) nearly six decades after his last game. He was the fifth member of the men's program to enter the Ring, joining former coach Digger Phelps and former standouts Austin Carr, Adrian Dantley and Luke Harangody.

He made the most of his time on the basketball court, then off it.

A Renaissance man

Hawkins was the third overall pick in the 1959 NBA draft by the then-Minneapolis Lakers. When a 10-year professional career ended in 1969, retirement never was part of Hawkins' plan. Let others sit on their patio and watch the sunset while telling tales of the good, old days. He lived a good life long after basketball.

Hawkins did a little of everything. He taught sports sociology at Long Beach State. He worked in radio. Worked in television. Was nominated for Emmys for that work. He was vice president of communications for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

He could talk music, politics and sports with equal authority. And he could bond with people. Any kind. Anywhere.

He carried the Olympic torch through Los Angeles prior to the 1984 Olympics. Five years ago, he wrote a book of poetry, then returned to campus for one late-summer reunion weekend to sign copies of it at the bookstore. Any trip to Notre Dame was beyond special for Hawkins. He'd always make it a point to get back. Needed to get back to the place where a kid from the south side of Chicago became a man.

Every campus visit for Hawkins included three musts. A ride up Notre Dame Avenue so he could see the Golden Dome. A stop at the statue of the university's founding father, Father Edward Sorin, and a visit with a man who gave him the confidence to find his place in the world, the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, former university president.

The campus did more than give him a place to play basketball. It's where Hawkins learned about life on so many different levels when life then wasn't the easiest to live for an African-American raised by a single mother.

Considered the top prep prospect in Chicago his senior year, Hawkins made one visit to a college campus. After seeing Notre Dame, he didn't need to visit any other schools.

“The greatest decision that I ever made in my life was to attend the University of Notre Dame,” Hawkins told the Tribune in 2012. “When I think about coming back, I think about the place that I grew from a teenager with great potential into a man who was ready to step out in the world and take on the challenges of the world.”

There were challenges. Many. Few of which Hawkins refused to fight.

Hawkins was one of only two African-Americans in his freshman class when he arrived in 1955. And the only one on the basketball team. He was the first African-American to serve as team captain and earn All-American honors. Racism ran rampant in the South during his undergraduate days. Notre Dame even canceled a planned trip to play in Louisiana because Hawkins would have been required to stay in a different hotel separate from his teammates.

Hawkins and his teammates and Hesburgh would have none of it. That was no surprise. Hawkins' role model was Jackie Robinson, who busted past the color barrier of Major League Baseball.

One day nearly five years ago, Hawkins fielded a phone call from a reporter whom he had never met. Thirty minutes and many stories and laughs later, the call finally ended. But only after Hawkins made the reporter on the other end promise to phone him. Anytime. For anything. To talk Notre Dame. To talk college hoops. To just talk.

Hawkins always answered.

Always.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Notre Dame legend Tommy Hawkins often wondered if people forgot about what he accomplished in college. One day that came during a memorable 2014-15 season proved they didn't. (SBT File Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)
In this Sept. 28, 2000 photo, Tommy Hawkins, left, then the Los Angeles Dodgers' vice president of external affairs, left, greets Tommy Lasorda, former Dodgers manager and manager of the American gold medal Olympics baseball team, on the team's arrival at Los Angeles International Airport from Australia.
In this April 22, 1968 photo, Tommy Hawkins of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots over Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics during a game at Boston Garden.