|Pittsburgh Sports Talk|
Pittsburgh Sports Talk Pittsburgh Sports Talk
|Pittsburgh Sports Talk|
"I don’t have plans and schemes
And I don’t have hopes and dreams
I-I-I don’t have anything
Since I don’t have you"
Jimmy Beaumont and the Skyliners
I should have known it was not going to be the best of weekends when the Penguins lost by 10-1 to the Black Hawks in Chicago last Thursday. It’s early, I know, but 10-1!!! That’s not a foundation for a Stanley Cup three-peat.
The Pitt football team followed with a sorry showing at Syracuse on Saturday and then Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers stunk out the joint on Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field in losing to the Jacksonville Jaguars, when Big Ben had four passes intercepted and two were returned for touchdowns by the Jags.
Steelers Nation abandoned the team in the late going. There was booing and early bail-outs at the North Side stadium. I think many of them were still miffed at the team’s failure to stand for the national anthem two weeks earlier.
They say that bad news comes in threes and those sports results certainly made that point clearly.
Then came the news that three of my all-time favorites had died over the weekend.
Connie Hawkins, a Hall of Fame basketball player who led the Pittsburgh Pipers to the first championship in the American Basketball Association (in 1968), died at age 75 in Phoenix. I was always close to Connie and I knew he was not well, but that gets your attention when you are also 75. He was a month older than me. He died on Friday.
John Troan, the former editor of The Pittsburgh Press, and the writer who broke the story that Dr. Jonas Salk had discovered an anti-polio vaccine during his stay at the University of Pittsburgh, died on Saturday at age 99. Right up to the end, he was sharp as a tack. We should all be so lucky.
His headline story in the April 12, 1955 issue of The Press said “POLIO IS CONQUERED.” Dr. Salk trusted Troan and they had the same kind of relationship that I had with “The Hawk.” Dr. Salk liked Troan because he was always careful to get his facts right.
Dr. Salk and Connie Hawkins, along with Pitt All-American Don Hennon, were Pittsburgh’s greatest shot-makers, to expand on a line once offered by Pitt sports publicist Beano Cook. Cook wanted to get a picture of Dr. Salk with Don Hennon, and Dr. Salk said, “Who’s Don Hennon?” A great idea went out the door of Dr. Salk’s lab on the Pitt campus. Cook wanted to caption the photo “Pitt’s two greatest shot-makers.”
I have kept in touch with Connie Hawkins and John Troan through the years, and I should have known something was amiss when my last two phone calls to them – over the past month – were not answered.
Troan and Leo Koeberlein, the managing editor of The Press, were responsible for hiring me away from The New York Post in 1979 and assigning me to cover the Steelers. I had first gotten to know them when I served a summer internship on city-side at The Press during my sophomore year (1962) at Pitt. Troan was a nice man, a passionate Penn State alum and a friend of Nittany Lions’ coach Joe Paterno.
On Monday, I went out on my driveway in a light rain to get the Post-Gazette before it got damp, and learned that Jimmy Beaumont,
the lead singer of the doo-wop group “The Skyliners,” had died Saturday at his home in McKeesport at age 76.
I still love to listen to “Since I Don’t Have You” on Sirius Radio in my car. Yes, I still love to listen to the rock and roll songs of the ‘50s and ‘60s. They remind you of when you were young and went to school and church dances every other weekend. Kids today can’t relate to that often challenging but so rewarding experience.
I never met or spoke to Jimmy Beaumont, but he came out of Knoxville to become a national favorite and continue to perform for 60 years. He had staying power. Hawkins, Troan and Beamont were all points of pride for Pittsburghers. Yes, bad news often comes in threes.
It’s funny what you remember best about certain people. I saw Hawkins in his high-flying and mystifying ball-handling magical days many times at the Civic Arena here, and at cities across the country in his ABA and NBA days, but when I think about him three memories come to mind.
I have just completed a book called “Looking Up” about the best basketball players I have met and interviewed in my career, and Hawkins is one of eight great players in a drawing by Bob Weaver that forms a wrap-around cover for the book.
I just okayed the 480 proof pages last Friday and it goes to press this week. I was able to squeeze in a line on Monday about his death.
I have thought of him often since I moved to a new home in Washington County 18 months ago. There is a hawk that sits atop a skeletal tree that I can see from my back porch and when it swoops in figure-eights in the sky it reminds me of “The Hawk.”
I paid a visit to his modest row home on Charles Street on the North Side when he was between the ABL and the ABA in the early ‘60s, during a four-year period when he was playing with the Harlem Globetrotters.
As we were talking at his kitchen table, there was a knock at the front door. It was Roger Brown, who had driven from Dayton to Pittsburgh, to visit his old Brooklyn buddy. They had both been implicated in a point-shaving scandal in New York that got them thrown out of Dayton, in Brown’s case, and Iowa, in Connie’s case during their freshman years. They were never found guilty of any wrong-doing yet they were banned for many years from playing in the NBA.
Both were stars of the ABA.
We went across Charles Street that day to a tavern called Red & Dot’s. I was familiar with the name because my brother-in-law Dick Cook’s parents frequented the place. I had visited his parents’ second-floor apartment in that same stretch of row homes on Charles Street when I was 14 or 15.
We were playing at one of those bowling machines where you slide a steel puck down the lane, and the pins fold up when the puck passes through. An old guy who looked like Gabby Hayes was beating all of us. I asked Connie why the guy was so good. “That’s because he can’t afford to lose,” Connie came back. I could count on Connie for lots of funny lines. His sense of humor helped him survive many slights in his life.
It was that way with Connie and because of the tireless and relentless efforts of the Pittsburgh attorney team of Roz and David Litman, Connie won his lawsuit against the NBA. David Stern, who was the ABA’s attorney at the time and later the league commissioner, once told me he never saw a legal team fight so hard for a client as the Litmans did. David’s brother, Archie “Tex” Litman, owned the Rens.
Hawkins got a large settlement figure and, even more important, he was free to play in the NBA. Connie made good on his promise to give me an exclusive on the outcome of his case, and he called me in Miami with the good news.
It wasn’t as big a story as Dr. Salk, but I have some idea of John Troan felt when he broke the news of the new vaccine.
I also remember paying 50 cents to see a sandlot basketball game played at the YMHA in Oakland, just across the street from Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning. Connie Hawkins was the star for the Porky Chedwick All-Stars. His teammates included Jim McCoy and Walt Mangham, who had played for the Rens. Connie had married the sister of Jim and Julius McCoy, another outstanding college basketball player. Her name was Nancy and she and her kid brother were present the day I visited Connie on Charles Street.
I host a monthly Good Guys Luncheon Group at restaurants in the South Hills – TGIFriday’s and Atria’s Restaurant & Tavern – and John Troan spoke to our group about his coverage of Dr. Salk and the anti-polio vaccine. He was 96 at the time and he didn’t miss a beat. He was clear and often humorous and he was a big hit. He came other times to hear other speakers. His wife, Varcy, died during that stretch. They were a great and devoted couple.
I wonder what Troan would have thought if he heard Jimmy Beaumont singing “Since I Don’t Have You.
I was successful in getting Hawkins into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. I had been on the nominating committee there for a three-year term when I was the editor of Street & Smith’s Basketball Yearbook, the No. 1 selling annual of its kind. I contacted coaches and players to send me endorsements for The Hawk, and put a package together that I shipped to executives at the Hall of Fame.
He got in the same year – 1992 -- as another of my favorites, Lou Carnesecca, who coached at St. John’s University and with the New York Nets when I covered them for The New York Post. “Connie has always been a New York legend,” claimed Carnesecca.
Hawkins is among the sports greats of New York fame who are pictured in a Hall of Fame room at Madison Square Garden.
Jim O’Brien has a new book coming out later this month called “Looking Up.” His website is www.jimobriensportsauthor.com
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