These days Hawkins is the keeper of the cool
It’s a gorgeous midwinter Saturday in Southern California, perfect for hiking or kite flying or any other outdoor activity, but Tommy Hawkins is happily cooped up inside a darkened studio in Long Beach, oblivious to the weather outside.
He says there’s no other place he would rather be.
The former Lakers forward and former Dodgers executive might be “one of the nation’s leading eclectics,” as the multifaceted Hawkins proudly describes himself in a bio, but his undying, overriding passion is for jazz.
And he is indulging it at this very moment, the “Jazz Hawk” spinning a playlist of songs hand-selected from his personal collection for his weekly three-hour radio show, heard Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on KKJZ-FM. .
“It’s not only my gig,” Hawkins says. “It’s my therapy.”
So enthusiastic for the music is Hawkins, a 71-year-old grandfather, that he leaves the impression that basketball may have stolen him from his true love, pausing before noting with a laugh when asked about this, “Let’s say two loves had I.”
He readily acknowledges that, had he stopped growing before topping out at 6 feet 5, “I’d be wailing on a trumpet right now.”
As an NBA player from 1959 to 1969 -- six seasons with the Lakers, spread out over two stints, and four with the Cincinnati Royals -- Hawkins says he spent more time prowling jazz clubs and riffling through record bins than he did on the court, where he averaged nine points and six rebounds a game.
“I’d get on the phone as soon as I could to call my mom and tell her where I was,” says Hawkins, who grew up in Chicago and was Notre Dame’s first African American basketball star. “And my mom would always say, ‘Now, you be careful. You’re there to play basketball, not run around these towns.’ She’d chastise me. . . . But you always knew where to find me. Someone would say, ‘Where’s Hawk?’ You’d say, ‘Check Birdland or Basin Street East,’ or another club.”
Hawkins says his first regular hangout was the London House in Chicago, which he started frequenting as a younger-than-he-looked 18-year-old, but by then his love of music already was deeply ingrained.
“My mom told me that before I could walk, I would pull myself up on the record player and try to move the needle onto the record,” he says. “We had everything from Perry Como to Charlie Parker being played in the house; Mom loved the Mills Brothers. I had three older brothers and one younger sister and when the paychecks came in on Saturday, we’d all be allowed to buy at least one record.”
Hawkins says he started collecting music when he was 12, building a treasure trove that has grown to include about 8,000 vinyl records and some 3,000 CDs. In high school, while also playing basketball and baseball, he played second trumpet in the concert band and studied at the Chicago School of Music.
“The jocks used to tease me,” he says. “They’d come into the assembly, I’m sitting there playing my trumpet and they’d say, ‘Look at little Tommy Toot-Toot.’ ”
Hawkins gave up the trumpet when he got to Notre Dame, but he never stopped listening. In addition to sports stars, he says, his idols included deejay icons such as Daddy-O Daley, Al Benson, Sid McCoy and Herb Kent, “The Cool Gent.”
In the NBA and later as a sportscaster, Hawkins says, his travels gave him entree into a world he might not have otherwise known. Duke Ellington once asked him over for crepes. Janis Joplin, seated next to Hawkins on a Lakers flight to San Francisco, invited him to come see her perform in Oakland, which he did.
“The advantage I have over most people who do this is that I hung out with all of these people,” Hawkins says. “I got to know the music and the musicians.”
Hawkins, who spent 19 years as a local and national television and radio broadcaster after leaving the Lakers, was a part-time deejay on KKGO-FM about 20 years ago and was itching to try it again after leaving the Dodgers in 2004.
“I wanted to share what I know,” says Hawkins, who lives in Malibu with second wife Layla and their 18-year-old daughter, Neda. “What cannot happen to jazz is this: When you bury Duke Ellington, Cannonball Adderley, Count Basie, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan and all these other people, you cannot bury their music with them.”
Says fellow KKJZ deejay Bubba Jackson, “His passion is unquestioned. When he puts together his playlist, it’s like he’s getting ready for a game.”
Hawkins spends about five hours a week preparing for his show, he says, so he’s not totally engrossed in music. He’s writing three books, among them a collection of poetry he hopes to have published this fall. Another book will focus on his NBA career, including the Lakers’ move from Minneapolis, and another will chronicle the celebrities and other interesting characters he has encountered, including his memorable exchange with Miles Davis at the Hollywood Bowl.
When Hawkins asked the volatile trumpeter how he could best introduce him, Davis snapped, “You can get the . . . out of my way. I need no introduction.”
Hawkins laughs at the retelling.
“Those other things were occupations and growing steps,” he says, referencing his varied resume as he cues up another CD. “This is a lifelong love.”