The ABA's Pipers, later Condors, make a mixed case for Pittsburgh as a basketball town | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pittsburgh was briefly a basketball town. Could it happen again?

click to enlarge A large domed arena overlaid with a subtle basketball graphic and red and blue colors.
CP Illustration: Sam Schaffer
Civic Arena hosted several basketball teams between 1961 and 1972.
Connie Hawkins had a choice to make.

He’d been kicked out of college, shut out of the NBA, joined a failed startup league, and after four years on the road with the Harlem Globetrotters, he’d hung up those shoes too. It was 1967 and, now in his mid-20s, he also had a family to feed. Maybe this opportunity with the Pittsburgh Pipers would provide short-term stability, if nothing else.

Besides, Hawkins had absolutely no clue what else he could even do. If he couldn’t play ball, as he told sportswriter David Wolf, “I think that would just be the end of Connie Hawkins.”

As Ebony Magazine expressed, he was trapped in a “Kafkaesque nightmare,” a sort of basketball purgatory. He wondered about winning his lawsuit against the NBA and getting a chance at his dream. After all, many believed he was one of the best basketball players on the planet.

New York Knicks future hall-of-famer Willis Reed told LIFE Magazine that Hawkins would be an NBA superstar. “All the guys know it,” he said. Rival (and future Hall of Fame coach) Larry Brown called him “simply the greatest individual player I have ever seen.” Throughout the years, he’d insist Hawkins inspired Julius Erving who inspired Michael Jordan.

This is the story of Hawkins, who briefly brought basketball greatness to the Steel City. Without Hawkins, the Pipers might have been a footnote in the sport's history — instead, his prowess with the Pipers, later dubbed the Condors, spurred changes in the NBA that made it the flashy, high-scoring affair it is today.

From scandal to stardom

Born on July 17, 1942 in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, Corenlius Hawkins was one of six children. His father left when he was ten, and while his mother worked as a cook, she suffered from glaucoma. They struggled financially. His mother guided her quiet and self-conscious Connie towards the YMCA playgrounds where he discovered basketball. It wasn’t long before his legendary status as a “Brooklyn blacktop legend” was established. They nicknamed him “The Hawk.”

Although Hawkins struggled academically, he excelled on the court for Brooklyn’s Boys High School. The team won two city titles and Hawkins earned Parade Magazine’s High School All-American accolades in 1960. Colleges were eager to recruit the 6’8” senior and he settled on the University of Iowa.

While there though, still only a teenager, his name was mixed up in a widespread point-shaving scandal. It’s a complex story, but Hawkins was never arrested, charged, or named as being involved. Simply knowing some who were was enough. Iowa kicked him out. No other college would touch him. Nor would the NBA.

Many neighborhood ballplayers back in Brooklyn shunned him. He cried often. All seemed hopeless. He felt he wasn’t good at anything besides basketball.

Fortunately, the American Basketball League (ABL) was about to have its first season in 1961 and they needed talent. Founded by Harlem Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein, this eight-team league included a three-point shot and a 30 second shot clock.

Even potential players were skeptical though. When the newly minted Pittsburgh Rens' ownership drafted one college standout, he balked. “I’d like to play ball,” he said, “but I want to be realistic about the future.” He became an accountant.

As for Hawkins, he signed a contract for $6,500. “God don’t have this kind of money,” he thought.

click to enlarge A man with brown skin and a mustache poses in a jersey reading "RENS"
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Connie Hawkins with the Pittsburgh Rens in 1962
This wasn’t Pittsburgh's first professional basketball team. In 1946, there was the Pittsburgh Ironmen — but that team ended with a dismal 15-45 record and folded after a year. The Rens did better, finishing the season 41-40, but the entire league folded the following season.

So, Hawkins joined Saperstein’s Harlem Globetrotters. For the next four years, he traveled with the team, making $125 each week while learning to really control the basketball confidently. “I had to learn to barnstorm,” he explained. These years greatly influenced his style.

He did a lot of growing up, too, marrying a woman named Nancy and starting a family in Pittsburgh. Lawyers Roslyn and David Litman, family of former Rens owner Lenny Litman, also filed a $6 million lawsuit against the NBA on his behalf. By 1966, he’d had enough globetrotting and returned to an uncertain future in Pittsburgh. He'd sleep in. He’d play some playground ball. He’d think about the NBA.

“It was the worst time of my life,” he’d recall.

An upstart league

Meanwhile, the American Basketball Association (ABA) was about to launch. Like the ABL, the ABA retained the three-pointer, kept the longer shot clock, and emphasized a faster-paced, flashier style of play.

NBA legend George Mikan was hired as the league’s commissioner and eleven teams were finalized to compete. The Eastern Division included the Pittsburgh Pipers, Indiana Pacers, Kentucky Colonels, Minnesota Muskies, and New Jersey Americans. The Western Division had the Anaheim Amigos, Dallas Chaparrals, Denver Rockets, Houston Mavericks, New Orleans Buccaneers, and Oakland Oaks.

Here Hawkins was then, faced with this choice: play in the ABA or, quite likely, nowhere. His lawsuit was ongoing, but the Pipers, co-owned by East End native Gabe Rubin, wanted Hawkins now. Rubin, who owned several local theaters, was described by the Jewish Chronicle as feisty, unpredictable, and a born showman. He was also very convincing. Hawkins signed a two-year contract worth $45,000. Ebony predicted that the Pipers would be the team to beat thanks to Hawkins, the “stringbean who is good enough to play in any league.”

Vince Cazzetta, a mild-mannered college coach, was hired while management secured sharing the Civic Arena with the Pittsburgh Penguins. When the season commenced, Hawkins exceeded expectations. Media described his “razzle dazzle” and ability to handle the ball. He excelled one-on-one, made tricky passes, finger-rolled, and soared through the air.

“Someone said if I didn't break the laws of gravity, I was slow to obey them,” Hawkins quipped to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Sports Illustrated said he might have been “the most skillful passer among all the big men who ever played.” Others commended his instincts and his ability to understand what everybody was doing on the court at all times. He was, it seemed, “playing a very fast game of chess.”

This wasn’t translating to wins or attendance though. The Pipers started out 11-12 and barely cracked 2,000 fans. “Welcome to the Losers’ Club,” declared the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Some blamed Hawkins. “Quite often Connie is conning the fans,” claimed Pittsburgh Weekly Sports, adding harshly that all “he does is go around believing he's the greatest and that the world owes him a living.” Others blamed Cazzetta for “pampering” Hawkins.

The team had to make some moves. They traded for Art Heyman, a former Duke University All-American who had NBA experience, but also a reputation for his intensity, short-temper, and on-court fights. “Art Heyman was crazy,” opponent (and future Syracuse University coach) Jim Boeheim would recall. “He was very explosive,” Vic Bubas, his college coach, said. “The trick,” he added, “was to direct the fire the right way.” Maybe that was exactly what the Pipers needed: a tough-as-nails swing man who could take outside shots, but also drive inside and rebound as needed.

They won their next game. Then they won the next fourteen. The Pipers found their groove. Playing guard was Charlie Williams and Chico Vaughn. At forward was Tom “Trooper” Washington. The 6’9” Ira Harge, who’d been teaching public school the year prior, played center. Along with Heyman, support included Craig Dill, Jim Jarvis, Arvesta Kelly, Rich Parks, and Barry Leibowitz, with a rotating cast of others. As for Hawkins, Sports Illustrated called him the “best unknown pro in the land” while Los Angeles Stars coach Bill Sharman praised him as a mix of Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain.

The Pipers ended the regular season with a league best record of 54-24. Despite this success, attendance rarely surpassed 3,000. “I do wish I could notice a little feeling, a little enthusiasm,” Cazzetta vented to the Pittsburgh Press. “It’s almost a feeling like who cares.”

Entering the playoffs, they faced the Indiana Pacers first, sweeping them in three games. Next, they won the Eastern Division, beating the Minnesota Muskies 4-1. The championship series was against the New Orleans Buccaneers, an equally as fast, but more traditional team.

Starting for New Orleans on April 18 in Pittsburgh were Larry Brown, Doug Moe, Red Robbins, Jimmy Jones, and Jackie Moreland. The Pipers won 120-112 with Hawkins dropping 39 points and Heyman and Williams scoring 26 each. New Orleans responded by winning the next two.

Game four was in New Orleans with 7,000 in attendance. The Pittsburgh Press called the game “heart-stopping.” Up by three points and with only a few seconds left in regulation, the Pipers turned over the ball and Larry Brown sank a dramatic three-pointer to tie the game. Overtime was even more dramatic. Charlie Williams was fouled with only one second left and, game tied, he made the game-winning free throw. Hawkins, called “simply unstoppable” by the Pittsburgh Press, had contributed 47 points.

The series was tied heading back to Pittsburgh, but there was bad news: Hawkins was out with a knee injury. The Pipers played well, but lost by three points. Game six was back in New Orleans. Forcing a game seven would bring the final game back to Pittsburgh. “If we win down there,” Cazzetta said, “we'll win the championship.”

Hawkins had practiced lightly and set to return. He wasn’t the only one battered either. Vaughn was nursing a hamstring injury while also dealing emotionally with the death of his father. Heyman had a sprained ankle and tonsillitis. Washington’s jaw was broken. At the half, Pittsburgh was down 72-59, but they battled back to win 118-112.

Back in Pittsburgh, they had a crowd of 11,375 for game seven – more than the previous three home games combined. The Pipers pulled it off, winning the final game 122-113.

New Orleans coach Babe McCarthy said graciously that the Pipers were the better team, adding that Williams was “just fantastic” and Hawkins was “one of the greatest basketball players in the country.” Rubin beamed at the crowd. The city had shown up. Maybe Pittsburgh could be a basketball city after all. “Isn’t that something?” he uttered. “It makes you feel like it was all worthwhile.” Cazzetta was pleased too, telling UPI, “I hope we can start off this way next year.”

They wouldn’t get the chance.

click to enlarge A basketball team with short shorts and high socks in the late '60s.
Photo courtesy of the Heinz History Center, Detre Library & Archives.
Pittsburgh Pipers ABA Basketball Team, 1967-68. Hawkins is holding the league's distinct red, white, and blue ball at center.

Headed north

Rumors spread that the Pipers were leaving Pittsburgh. Post-Gazette sports editor Al Abrams said nobody “financially inclined” could blame them. Rubin publicly denied the rumors, but admitted he’d thought about it and wanted to stay in Pittsburgh if “economically possible.” An unidentified source told the Post-Gazette, “There's something in the wind.”

Meanwhile, Cazzetta was named League Coach of the Year and Hawkins was unanimously selected as Most Valuable Player. Statistics demonstrated a very well-balanced team. The Pipers had a promising future.

Then the bombshell on June 28: they’d be the Minnesota Pipers next season. William J. Erickson, a Minneapolis lawyer, had purchased a majority stake and while Rubin said he loved Pittsburgh, the team needed to grow their fanbase.

Cazzetta was not happy. He made it clear to Rubin that he was going to need a new contract to uproot his wife and six children. On July 12, the Pittsburgh Press revealed that Rubin and Cazzetta hadn’t spoken in a week. The feud played out publicly through the media. Rubin expected Cazzetta to honor his contract. Cazzetta stated plainly that he had a legal right to terminate it. His calls with new general manager Vern Mikkelson weren’t productive. Erickson claimed he wasn’t opposed to a raise, but Cazzetta countered that Mikkelson had outright refused any increase in salary. “He must think this is fun,” Rubin cracked.

Cazzetta resigned. Rubin unleashed on him to the Pittsburgh Weekly Sports, calling him an “overrated” and “lousy” coach. “In my opinion,” he seethed, “the Pipers won in spite of Vince Cazzetta.”

“When he was selling the club, he said I was the best coach in the country,” responded Cazzetta. Charles Kramer, publicity director for the Pipers, defended Cazzetta in the Post-Gazette, calling Rubin's comments “unwarranted” and saying that Cazzetta had helped turn a preseason “squad of misfits” into a championship team.

Players weren’t happy either. As Williams recalled in Terry Pluto’s Loose Balls, the team trusted Cazzetta. He understood he didn’t need to overcoach them. “Vince’s personality was why the guys on the team pulled together and won a championship,” he said.

College coach Jim Harding was hired as Cazzetta’s replacement for the 1968-69 season. The Pipers started strong, winning 18 of their first 25 games, but health issues for Harding and player injuries slowed their momentum. Tensions with Harding didn’t help. He coached with an unfamiliar intensity interpreted by the team as a lack of respect.

“I believe in what I do and what I do is sometimes controversial,” Harding admitted. “All I want out of life are championships.” Players called him a maniac behind his back. He kicked over chairs. He’d scream. It was a far cry from Cazzetta’s laid-back approach. “I’m an intense person,” said Harding. He was a perfectionist and expected his team to give as much as he did.

Hawkins then went down with another knee injury. It required surgery and he missed 25 games. Then during All-Star weekend, Harding and Rubin got into a physical fight over comments Harding made about some players. Rubin fired Harding. “I guess that incident does not add luster to my reputation,” joked Harding.

Mikkelsen took over, but the losing streak continued. They finished with a 36-42 record and a heap of debt. Relocation rumors circulated again. To the surprise of many, they decided to return to Pittsburgh for the 1969-70 season.

Unfortunately, the team lost their star. The NBA settled with Hawkins for $1.3 million dollars and lifted their ban. He signed with the Phoenix Suns where he’d have a stellar season. “I don’t have to be ashamed anymore,” said Hawkins, crediting his lawyers and writer David Wolf for clearing his name.

The Pipers still had Williams, Vaughn, and Washington, but the team shuffled a total of 22 other players and two coaches throughout the season. Their new star rookie was swingman John Brisker who was not the gentle-natured and humble Hawkins. Brisker could be downright mean with an explosive temper. In 2002, Seattle Times described him as “Mike Tyson with a buttery jumper.” He’d throw elbows and sometimes fists. He also just scared people.

“Say something wrong to the guy,” Williams reflected, “and you had this feeling that John would reach into his bag, take out a gun and shoot you.” Indeed, most knew he carried his gun. There was genuine love for him too, but teammates knew how easy it was to set him off.

Despite Brisker’s legitimate talent, the season flopped. Coach John Clark was fired after a 14-25 start and Buddy Jeannette didn’t fare any better, winning fifteen but losing thirty more, ending with a dismal record of 29-55.

The Condors fly away

In April, it was announced that the Pipers were sold to a subsidiary of Raven Industries. For the 1970-71 season, they’d also rebrand as the Pittsburgh Condors. Jack McMahon was hired as coach while Marty Blake, hired as general manager, promised he would build “a basketball tradition in Pittsburgh.”

“Condors do have the potential to be a good team,” insisted Ebony. Brisker was entering his second season and veteran Charlie Williams was returning too. The rebrand didn’t help though. They finished 36-48. Attendance was poor as ever.

Mark Binstein, general manager for the 1971-72 season, tried without luck to get Connie Hawkins to come back. McMahon remained coach. They weren’t contenders last year, he told Beaver County Times, but they had improved.

“I root too hard for [my players] to make it and sometimes it clouds my judgment,” he said. “[I]t’s a weakness I’m aware of.”

Binstein apparently agreed. He fired McMahon after a 4-6 start. “McMahon's weakness was that he was too nice a fellow with the players,” he told the press. The players needed more discipline. Binstein, a talented guard at West Point, took on coaching duties, despite little coaching experience. It didn’t go well. They won only 21 of the next 74 games. During their final home game, the organist played “Taps.”

While there were plans to relocate, they never had the chance. The ABA bought them out, shut them down, and redistributed the players.

click to enlarge A man in a Pittsburgh Pipers jacket with a short afro holds an ornate trophy with his photo on it
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Connie Hawkins holds the 1968 ABA MVP trophy
As for Brisker, he joined the Seattle SuperSonics in the NBA until 1975. After leaving, he allegedly traveled to Uganda where he disappeared and was presumed dead. Charlie Williams retired from the ABA in 1973, having scored over 6,000 points. Chico Vaughn worked in a public school for two decades, while Trooper Washington returned to basketball in 2004 to coach the Pennsylvania Pit Bulls, tragically collapsing and dying during their first game. Art Heyman was inducted in the Duke Sports Hall of Fame.

Connie Hawkins played seven seasons in the NBA, earning All-Star status between 1970-73. He retired in 1976. Living in Pittsburgh still (and later Wilkinsburg), he lent his name to the successful Connie Hawkins League, which lasted for decades and was, as the Post-Gazette described it, tough competition “that only a basketball junkie can appreciate.” In 1992, he was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. The call brought him to tears.

“He had to fight, fight, fight,” former Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo said. “And the fact that he accomplished what he did, we can look back and say, ‘Hawk, you did good.’”

The ABA merged with the NBA in June 1976 bringing into the league new teams, the three-point shot, and a new style of play that changed the game forever.

“The ABA is long gone,” The Washington Post declared in 2017, the year Hawkins passed away, “but it remains the soul of the NBA.”

The Pittsburgh Pipers remain Pittsburgh’s only championship professional basketball team. If the city has its way though, they may not be the last. As recently reported, the city’s Sports and Exhibition Authority is exploring the sustainability of an NBA or WNBA franchise in Pittsburgh.

“The Steel City has earned the right to be considered for an NBA expansion team because of its rich history as a tough sports town,” David J. Hunt recently wrote for Yardbarker. Who knows? Maybe, just maybe, Pittsburgh could be a basketball city after all.