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HE ONCE seemed like an urban legend, a myth, one of those shadowy figures who fit comfortably into a once-prevalent stereotype: the city kid who wasn't very smart, who jettisoned his future with bad decisions and who was comfortable only on asphalt, never able to tailor his aerial acrobatics to the strictures of organized hoops.

Except it was wrong. Connie Hawkins, who died last week at 75, may have been undereducated, but he was a thoughtful man who got caught up in events beyond his control and whose game, once he got a chance to show it to a mainstream audience, was splendidly versatile, highlighted, to be sure, by a superb athleticism that predated Julius Erving, among others.

The Brooklyn-born Hawk (above, 42) could dunk, it was said, by the time he was 11. While at Iowa, Hawkins was questioned regarding a widespread investigation into point-shaving, one that led to the arrests of 37 students from 22 colleges. Hawkins was never arrested or charged, but he was—to use a dreaded word—implicated. Thrown out of Iowa and barred from playing in the NBA, he became a hoops nomad (the Harlem Globetrotters, the American Basketball League, the ABA) before he successfully sued the NBA and was allowed to play in 1969. He was then 27 but made an immediate difference for the Phoenix Suns, averaging 25 points in a '70 first-round playoff loss to the Lakers.

The Hawk was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1992. His body of work alone probably would not have gotten him into Springfield, but he had Hall of Fame style, and basketball owed him a Hall of Fame debt.