You would think Juaquin Hawkins is finally comfortable being praised, that the handshakes and pats on the back no longer surprise him. But they still do.
Hawkins doesn't believe he's known, even after several standout seasons on the Long Beach State men's basketball team. He is so appreciative of any recognition that he sounds like someone who hasn't accomplished a thing. But Hawkins has done so much.
He's the steadiest guy on a shaky team. Hawkins' defense is the 49ers' most reliable weapon, and he's revered by his teammates for his character and commitment to the group.
He entered Long Beach as a Proposition 48 athlete and already has earned a degree. Hawkins is one of the best things going for Long Beach athletics. Even if he doesn't believe it.
"Everybody looks up to Hawk," 49er point guard Rasul Salahuddin said. "You always know, no matter what, you can count on Hawk."
Defense is his specialty. He guards opponents with passion and skill.
At 6 feet 7 and 195 pounds, Hawkins always draws the toughest assignment. He willingly takes on anyone--guards, forwards or centers. The bigger the challenge, the more Hawkins gives.
"Hawk is as good defensively as anybody in the country," said Fresno State assistant John Welch, a former coach at Long Beach.
"His instincts are unbelievable and his athleticism is great."
Hawkins and other 49ers credit Welch with improving their defense. Welch often worked individually with Hawkins.
"The effort he puts forth is equal to anyone in the country," Welch said. "Hawk takes more pride in his defense than anyone [he's seen]."
Hawkins' Big West Conference peers also recognize his ability. He was selected the conference's second-best defensive player--Salahuddin was first--in a poll of players during the conference tournament at Las Vegas in March.
"I was honored and kind of shocked," Hawkins said. "It was real surprising.
"I'm so used to people not noticing me. It made me feel good, like I really did something."
Said Salahuddin: "Hawk doesn't think people know, but they do."
Hawkins doubts his status because most fans look at offense first . . . and last. Hawkins hasn't been a big scorer at Long Beach, averaging 5.9 points in his career. He's averaging five points this season.
"To be recognized for my defense makes me feel great because I haven't been known as a standout scorer," Hawkins said. "Scoring has never been my role here.
"I'm the type of player who does all the little things to help the team win. I take charges, I deflect passes, I get steals.
"Those things count. They help win championships."
Hawkins would like to score more. He improved his shooting during the summer and is a threat from three-point range.
However, Hawkins hasn't shown off his improved skills. In the 49ers' first three games, Hawkins averaged only 5.6 field-goal attempts.
"It's been very frustrating," Hawkins said. "It's been real tough not to think about it.
"I don't want to say it's now or never, but it's getting like that. I think about it every day I'm at practice and every day I go home."
Salahuddin understands Hawkins' concerns. He wants to help.
"He's getting to the end of his career, so this is it," Salahuddin said. "I try to look for Hawk whenever I can."
But Hawkins' desire for more points hasn't affected his defense. Nothing does, Salahuddin said.
"Hawk's play speaks for itself," Salahuddin said. "No matter how many points Hawk scores, you always know Hawk is going to come out and play great defense."
In the spring, Hawkins earned a degree in black studies. It's his biggest accomplishment, especially since he once believed he couldn't do it.
As a Proposition 48 player, Hawkins wasn't eligible as a freshman. He had been a good student at Lynwood High, but standardized tests gave him problems.
"I cried at times," Hawkins said. "I thought it was very unfair because those tests didn't show what type of person I am."
Dejected, Hawkins didn't apply himself during his first semester at Long Beach. He was placed on academic probation and was in danger of flunking out of school.
Then came the turnaround.
"I kind of considered myself a failure," Hawkins said. "But then I just said to myself, 'I'm not going to sit here and have anyone tell me what I can't do.' "
That attitude still applies. Hawkins is enrolled in graduate classes and wants to help others believe they can overcome problems too.
"I want to work with children," Hawkins said. "I want to show them there's a future for them if they just put their minds to it."
Not very convincing: Salahuddin's shot at the final buzzer put Long Beach over 100 points in its rout (101-52) of Cal State Hayward at the Pyramid.
However, Hayward Coach Gary Stewart felt going for 100 was classless. What's more, he was angered that Salahuddin called a timeout with 2.1 seconds remaining.
Salahuddin called the timeout on his own. "It wasn't my idea," Greenberg said.