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He’s Setting a Framework for the Aztecs : Hawkins Takes Charge On and Off the Court

Times Staff Writer

Rodney Hawkins, son of a registered nurse and an auto plant foreman from Chicago, has a clear vision of life after basketball. It doesn’t start with a lunch bucket and thermos.

Hawkins, a senior speech communication major at San Diego State, believes his future is in advertising or public relations. The business world appeals to him.

“Something white collar,” Hawkins says, “because I’m not a blue-collar kind of guy.”

Those who have seen him play basketball might disagree.

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Hawkins is the ultimate working man’s player. He hustles. He rebounds. He plays defense. He does what the coach tells him. He tells the other players to do the same.

“He has done all the dirty jobs,” says Jim Brandenburg, SDSU’s first-year coach. “He really is a totally unselfish player. It’s not fair to him that we’ve put him in so many situations where he hasn’t been able to maximize his potential all the time. He sacrificed a lot for this team.”

The rewards have not always been what Hawkins dreamed.

His college basketball career could end as early as this afternoon when the Aztecs play 14th-ranked Wyoming in the quarterfinals of the Western Athletic Conference tournament at Brigham Young University. If it does, he will walk off the Marriott Center court without a championship ring, without having played on a winning team at SDSU, without knowing what it is like to still be playing basketball deep into March.

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He will leave with only his hopes of continuing in professional basketball either in this country or in Europe and the personal satisfaction of knowing that he did as much as anyone to help Brandenburg begin his rebuilding of the SDSU program.

Some days, that doesn’t feel like quite enough.

“We never had that chance to get an NCAA bid,” Hawkins said earlier this week. “I think about that. I rationalize that guys like Dr. J (Julius Erving) never had that chance, either. But it messes with my mind sometimes when I think that we’re going to be below .500.”

With a regular-season record of 12-16, the Aztecs would need a WAC tournament championship and two NCAA tournament victories for that not to happen. Even Hawkins is not thinking that optimistically.

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He will have to take his satisfaction from a few personal and team accomplishments. He expects the real payoff to be a few years away.

“In two years, San Diego State is going to be a top 20 team,” Hawkins said. “I’d like people to say, ‘Rodney Hawkins was a part of it. He was a building block.’ ”

Just how valuable he has been can be found in a review of his 1987-88 statistics. Hawkins, who has started all 58 games at forward in two seasons at SDSU, since he transferred from Colby (Kan.) College, is at or near the top in almost every offensive and defensive category.

He leads the Aztecs in rebounding (7.9 per game), field-goal percentage (54.6%) and blocked shots (32). He is second in assists (74) and steals (29), third in scoring (12) and sixth in turnovers (47) despite leading the team in minutes played (978).

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He also leads in personal fouls (103) and needs just four more to tie the school record he set last season. That unflattering distinction is Hawkins’ only entry in the SDSU record book, but it is hardly a fair measure of his worth.

Those numbers say nothing about his defensive intensity. The way he hounds opposing players. The way he relentlessly pursues them from baseline to baseline with his agile 6-feet 8-inches and 205 pounds. The way he has intimidated the best players in the WAC into some of their worst games of the season.

Of the six players named to the All-WAC team--Fennis Dembo and Eric Leckner of Wyoming, Jeff Chatman and Michael Smith of BYU, Mitch Smith of Utah and Pat Durham of Colorado State--Hawkins this season has been assigned to guard all but two--Leckner and Chatman.

“We couldn’t have him guard two guys on the same team, but I would have liked to try,” Brandenburg said.

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His defense comes from an inner pride and toughness. It is a quality he wears on his sleeve in the form of a fraternity symbol branded into his right arm. As is his way, Hawkins was the first of six in line to be branded with the diamond by his Kappa Alpha Psi brothers at SDSU.

“It stung a bit at first,” Hawkins said. “But it was something I wanted. Fraternities are real big where I grew up in Chicago. I didn’t want to be a grown man wishing I had done it.”

When he was growing up in Chicago, Hawkins first developed his defensive toughness. He started his basketball career at Chicago Vocational High School, using his defense as a way to make an impression on the coach while his other skills developed.

Despite coming from a basketball family (his uncle, Tommy Hawkins, played for the Lakers and Cincinnati Royals), Rodney Hawkins was not a fast starter. He was cut from his high school team as a junior but came back out as a senior, using defense to show he was an improved player.

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“Some guys had better ability,” Hawkins said. “But I used my defense to show them I meant business. I wanted to get them used to the idea that I was around to stay.”

He improved enough to start as senior at center and average 19 points and 9 rebounds. But when it came time for college, Hawkins found himself with few offers and less-than-impressive grades. He decided to attend a community college.

He selected Colby because it took him away from Chicago and had a reputation as one of the stronger basketball programs in Kansas. There he found a tough coach, not unlike Brandenburg, in Jack Renkens, and a living environment quite different from what he was used to in Chicago with his divorced mother and eight older brothers and sisters.

Chicago was urban and racially mixed. Colby was rural and white.

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“We had a little racial tension at first,” Hawkins said. “There were only four blacks in the whole school, and they were all on the basketball team. The town was not used to seeing black people around.

“You’d go into clubs, and people would stare at you. Naturally, you’d ask them what they were staring at, and sometimes that started things. At first I was getting into a lot of arguments, not taking anything off anybody. But after about the second month, it started to calm down.”

But while Hawkins was growing more comfortable with Colby, he was still having early trouble with Renkens. Hawkins had an edge about him that clashed with the disciplinarian in his coach.

“I was from the city, and the coach was a young guy (then 34),” Hawkins said. “I didn’t like a young guy like that telling me what to do. I was a role player on that team, but like a dumb freshman, I didn’t want to do the little things. I wanted to score like everybody else.”

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The confrontations continued until one day the coach had enough. He stopped practice and showed Hawkins the door.

“I told him to get out,” said Renkens, now the coach at Assumption College, an NCAA Division II school in Worcester, Mass. “I told him if that was the way he was going to be, he could get on the first bus out of here to Chicago--and I would pay for the ticket.”

The incident jarred Hawkins. Renkens said they never had a serious problem again. The experience also helped Hawkins prepare for Brandenburg’s demanding style.

“Coach Renkens was the meanest coach I ever had,” Hawkins said. “My high school coach was mean. He was like the Bobby Knight of Chicago. But he couldn’t compare to Coach Renkens. I knew wherever I went in Division I, I was prepared.”

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Hawkins came to SDSU to play for Smokey Gaines, but Gaines resigned last season, leaving Hawkins uncertain about his future. He thought about transferring again, but a call to his uncle in Los Angeles changed his mind.

“He was all set to leave,” said Tommy Hawkins, now Dodger vice president for communication. “But I told him to stay put, see what this coach has planned for him. It turned out to be one of the better decisions he has made, because Rodney has blossomed under Jim.”

Brandenburg said he discovered early on that Hawkins would be one of the players most receptive to what he wanted to accomplish in his first season at SDSU.

“I could see that right away,” Brandenburg said. “He reached out and wanted direction.

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“Rodney is a very responsible young man. He wants to do right. He wants to please. He knows he must play in the system with a certain discipline.”

But Brandenburg found more than a player willing to follow his direction. He found a player who shared what can be his greatest strength and his greatest curse.

“Rodney gets frustrated because he is a perfectionist in an imperfect world,” Brandenburg said. “He has certain structures and disciplines for himself. Maybe he makes a little harsher judgment on some people than he should. So in that way, we’re very similar. And we’ve got some imperfect guys on this team.”

The ups and downs have complicated Hawkins’ role as team captain. He finds himself walking a controversial line between his responsibilities to Brandenburg and his duty to his teammates.

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Playing the role of peacemaker is never easy, but it is made more difficult on a team that has gone through the upheaval of a coaching change and the struggles of a losing season. When Hawkins and Sam Johnson, his roommate and the other starting forward, went to Brandenburg for a meeting in December, the coach was stung by their comments.

The players were concerned that the coaching staff had set low expectations for the team. Brandenburg said nothing could be further from the truth. The comments bothered him at first, and the meeting had its tense moments, but Hawkins said it served its purpose.

“We all understood each other better after that,” Hawkins said. “We had to get used to the coach, and the coach had to get used to us.”

And his teammates had to understand that he could not go running to Brandenburg with every gripe. That might have been the toughest lesson.

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“Sometimes I don’t know what to do,” Hawkins said. “They say, ‘You’re the captain. Do something.’ It puts me in a bad spot. If I come up to the coach and say something, the coach thinks it’s my view, too. But it’s not. I’m just speaking up for the other players.”

The dilemma did not go unrecognized.

“Rodney has taken a lot of grief and responsibility,” Brandenburg said. “He has had to back off sometimes for fear of being called the coach’s pet or something like that.”

The thought gnarls Brandenburg. He more than anyone understands what Hawkins has meant to his rebuilding of the Aztecs.

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“We may have saved three or four years of this program down the line with some of the things he has helped us accomplish in this year,” Brandenburg said. “I would have hated to go through this season without Rodney Hawkins. There is no telling what kind of disaster this might have been without him.”


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