He played basketball and played it very well during his undergraduate days at Notre Dame
, but he often dreamed about life after the running and the shooting - and especially the rebounding - ended.
That's why he often sat like a sponge and absorbed everything he could about any class as a student. He learned the art of being a dynamic public speaker. He was determined to maximize the chance at a first-rate education at a private four-year school, something seldom offered during those years to someone from the south side of Chicago.
He studied logic and history and sociology and psychology. He embraced English literature. He challenged his professors, who in turn, challenged him. The more he learned, the more he wanted from school. From life. From the world.
Life took Tommy Hawkins in many different directions since he graduated from Notre Dame in 1959. He played 10 years in the National Basketball Association. He became a public relations executive with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He is an Emmy-nominated radio and television broadcaster and has been master of ceremonies for the John Wooden
Award — college basketball's Heisman Trophy
— for 30 years. He carried the Olympic torch through Los Angeles in 1984. He accumulated over 8,000 vinyl records — when there were such discs — most of them his beloved jazz.
“The pride of Notre Dame,”Pulitzer Prize
-winningsports columnist Jim Murray once wrote of Hawkins.
This weekend, Hawkins returns to the place he so cherishes for Reunion Weekend 2012 to sign copies of his book “Life's Reflections: Poetry for the People,” Saturday at Hammes Notre Dame Bookstore from 9 to 11 a.m.
Tommy Hawkins, still the leading rebounder in Notre Dame men's basketball history and a member of the program's All-Century team, dreamed years ago of doing something special in life, but penning poetry never made the list.
“Not in your wildest dreams, my wildest dreams.” Hawkins said with a hearty laugh recently by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “How could you ever project that? So many things had to happen and fall into place for me to be where I am today, and it all happened right there at Notre Dame.”
Even after all these years, after all the memories of the moments should have faded, Hawkins remembers so much about the time he spent in South Bend. Just the thought of riding up Notre Dame Avenue as the Golden Dome and the statue of Father Edward Sorin come into view out the car window; the thought of meeting with Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, a part of every return visit, is enough to give Hawkins pause.
“You're talking about a river of incredible memories,” said the 75-year-old. “The greatest decision that I ever made in my life was to attend the University of Notre Dame. 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 into the world and take on the challenges of the world.”
Over a half century has passed since he played for Notre Dame, but Hawkins' name remains very much embedded in the fabric of the Irish
men's basketball program. The first black player to play for and graduate Notre Dame, Hawkins ended his three-year collegiate career (freshmen were ineligible to compete) a two-time All-American.
When he graduated in 1959, nobody had scored more points or grabbed more rebounds in Irish history. Today, Hawkins is ninth on the all-time scoring list with 1,820 points. Nobody in an Irish uniform — not LaPhonso Ellis, not Luke Harangody, not Troy Murphy — has as many rebounds as Hawkins (1,318).
So much about the Notre Dame campus has changed since Hawkins' undergraduate days, yet that rebounding record remains. Has for 53 seasons.
“I just laugh and shake my head in disbelief,” said Hawkins, an undersized power forward at 6-foot-5 who had the luxury of a 42-inch vertical leap. “It was a tougher accomplishment than scoring. Rebounding is a lot of work, a lot of elbows upside the head and in the mouth. It was a hard part of basketball.”
Hawkins made it look easy on the back line of coach John Jordan's 1-3-1 defense. He averaged over 17 rebounds a game as a sophomore and a junior. How dominate was Hawkins as a rebounder? He set the school standard in 79 career games. Harangody is second on the all-time rebounding list with 1,222 in 129 games.
“I was,” Hawkins recalled, “the aggressive, willing pogo-stick.”
Memories of those days return each time Hawkins tunes in to watch the current Notre Dame team, something he does often despite the three-hour time difference. While his eyes fixate on Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant in the open court or Jack Cooley around the rim, his mind wanders to the late 1950s. Back to when he played against Kentucky at Chicago Stadium, or in the Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden
He watched fans storm the Purcell Pavilion floor after January's victory over previously unbeaten and top-ranked Syracuse, and his mind raced back to those home games in the old campus Fieldhouse, when an entire section of priests sat together and hollered for him every night.
“There was never a night that that place wasn't jammed,” Hawkins said.
On campus this weekend, Hawkins likely will meet many young and old who have little idea that he once played basketball for the Irish. But just as he did as an undergraduate, when he learned so much from his professors, he hopes to offer a life lesson or two through his poems, be it the one entitled “Sleepless in Chicago,” “The Person in the Mirror” or “The Traveler.”
“You will see yourself; you will see me. You will see members of your family and you will see your friends,” Hawkins said. “You will see that life is a marathon not a sprint.
“Life takes many directions and has many tentacles.”