It was the spring of 1985, and the Lakers stood one victory away from avenging a painful history of playoff losses to the Boston Celtics.
Watching on television from home, the long-retired Tommy Hawkins — who had played for the Lakers when they moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles — couldn’t help digging through his closet, searching for his old uniform.
That was how Hawkins spent the final game of the NBA Finals that year, wearing a jersey and shorts, jumping up and down in his living room as his former team won the title at Boston Garden.
“I really got into it,” he told The Times.
It might be simplest to remember the 80-year-old Hawkins, who died at home in Malibu on Wednesday, as a basketball player. But that would be an incomplete accounting of his life.
A fixture on the Southern California sports scene for five decades, the man known as “the Hawk” forged a career in television and radio when his playing days ended, then served as a Dodgers front-office executive.
Away from sports, he wrote poetry and had a weekly radio show in which he spun records from his vast jazz collection.
“A true renaissance man,” said Ross Porter, the former Dodger announcer who worked with him. “He was interested in so many things and he would learn them, study them.”
A kid from Chicago’s tough South Side, the 6-foot-5 Hawkins had enough skill at forward to earn a scholarship from Notre Dame, where he became the first African American player in school history to be an All-American.
“Tom was a trailblazer, a class act,” current Irish coach Mike Brey said.
The Lakers selected him in the first round of the 1959 NBA draft, and he joined the team while it was still playing in the small, creaky Minneapolis Armory.
“In those days, no one cared about the players’ knees or ankles. The wooden floor was laid right down on the concrete,” Hawkins recalled in a 1999 interview. “And the plumbing! We had a rule — if someone was using the shower, no one was allowed to flush the toilet.”
Things did not get much better with the move west in 1960. A few years earlier, the Dodgers had received a grand welcome to L.A., but the NBA was not so popular and the Lakers drew less fanfare, arriving quietly by bus.
Hawkins recalled riding through neighborhoods in a sound truck before games, hollering into a microphone: “Hi, I’m Tommy Hawkins of the Lakers. Why don’t you come out and see us play the New York Knicks Saturday night? Plenty of good seats still available.”
His professional career lasted 10 seasons, including two stretches with the Lakers on either end of a stint with the Cincinnati Royals. Hawkins averaged a workmanlike 8.7 points and six rebounds.
“He was a competitor — played hard, worked hard,” former teammate Elgin Baylor said.
Jerry West recalled: “He was one of those people who was hard not to like if you were around him. He was very gregarious and would interact with anyone.”
Shortly after his retirement in 1969, that personality got Hawkins hired as a rookie sportscaster with KNBC-TV.
“The first day he got there, the Angels changed managers and he had to go down to Anaheim,” Porter said. “Poor guy, he didn’t really know what to do. The cameraman helped him — gave him a press release, told him to read it and handed him the microphone.”
Hawkins learned fast enough to stick around, his career also including a job with KABC radio and a midmorning television show with Stephanie Edwards on KHJ-TV (now KCAL-9). Then life took an unexpected turn.
In 1987, Dodger executive Al Campanis made an infamous appearance on “Nightline.” Asked about the shortage of blacks in baseball management, he said, “they may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager or, perhaps, a general manager.” He later added, “Why are black people not good swimmers? Because they don’t have the buoyancy.”
The Dodgers quickly fired Campanis and turned to Hawkins, a popular figure in the black community, hiring him as vice president of communications.
Fred Claire, the team’s former general manager, recalled Hawkins as “one of the most respected people I have had the honor to know.” Former team owner Peter O’Malley recalled that he “did an extraordinary job.”
Hawkins remained with the front office until 2004, at which point he devoted more time to writing and the music he loved.
“He was just a classy guy,” West said. “He had a smile on his face all the time.”
Hawkins is survived by his wife, Layla, and five children. Information regarding his memorial service will be posted on the John R. Wooden Award website.
Times staff writers Broderick Turner and Pedro Moura contributed to this report.
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