Pittsburgh had its basketball kings for a day in '68
March 31, 2008 8:00 AM
The Pittsburgh Pipers won the first ABA championship in 1968, then moved to Minneapolis. From left are four of the starters: Chico Vaughn, Art Heyman, Connie Hawkins and Charlie Williams. The fifth starter was Tom Washington.
By Milan Simonich Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh's original Pipers came and went like a comet. They caught fire, streaked spectacularly and flamed out instantly.
The Pipers left town while at the top of their game, disintegrating faster than any champion in the history of professional team sports.
It happened 40 years ago, after they won the championship in the inaugural season of the American Basketball Association. Connie Hawkins, the most maligned and underpaid superstar in sports, lifted the Pipers to the title before an unexpected crowd of almost 11,500 at what is now Mellon Arena.
Mr. Hawkins never had a chance for an encore in Pittsburgh.
After that championship season, team owner Gabe Rubin sold the Pipers to a Minneapolis lawyer, who promptly moved the club to the Twin Cities.
"It came as a shock. We were starting to catch on with the fans in Pittsburgh, and then we were gone," said Jim Jarvis, a backup guard on the club.
After one season in Minneapolis, the Pipers were reclaimed by Mr. Rubin, who returned the team to Pittsburgh.
But by then, Mr. Hawkins was gone and so were the wins. An innocent man, he had been blacklisted from the more established National Basketball Association for supposedly consorting with a gambler to fix college games.
While with the Pipers, Mr. Hawkins had sued the NBA with the help of Pittsburgh lawyers David and Roslyn Litman.
The Litmans exposed the NBA's allegations against Mr. Hawkins as fraudulent, and the league awarded him a $1.3 million contract with the Phoenix Suns. He had made about $23,000 a year with the Pipers.
Now 65, Mr. Hawkins still works for the Suns in community relations. Aside from high school in New York City, he won his only championship in Pittsburgh.
His teammates have two vivid memories of him, one physical, the other a character trait.
Mr. Hawkins had the biggest hands anybody had ever seen, enabling him to palm the ball each time he touched it. He could snatch rebounds with one hand, a trick he learned while playing for the Harlem Globetrotters. His dunks would not be matched for artistry until Julius Erving came along.
Though he was a legend in exile, Mr. Hawkins impressed the rest of the Pipers by worrying less about himself than he did about the team. He looked to pass the ball before he thought of shooting it, a rarity for a player of his stature.
"He was totally unselfish, a pleasure to play with," said Mr. Jarvis, now in real estate in Asotin, Wash.
Two Pipers, starting guards Chico Vaughn and Charlie Williams, each took more shots than Mr. Hawkins during the championship season. Even so, Mr. Hawkins led the Pipers in scoring, averaging 26.8 points a game.
"We won the championship under the direction of Connie Hawkins," said Mr. Williams, now a sales representative for a steel company in Cleveland.
Ira Harge, who played with the Pipers for part of the season before being traded to the Oakland Oaks, said Mr. Hawkins looked out for the Pipers in an almost fatherly way, even though he was just 25 years old.
"He was the superstar, but he didn't act like it," Mr. Harge said. "Connie knew Pittsburgh, married a girl from Pittsburgh, and he was the one who told us where it was safe to go and not to go. He was the one who directed us to the good jazz spots in the Hill, and helped us find places to get our hair cut. He was very gracious."
In "Foul!" a biography of Mr. Hawkins, author David Wolf described the 1967-68 Pipers as "weird winners."
The late Tom Washington, a rugged rebounder, carried on soliloquies during games. He specialized in imitations of W.C. Fields.
The NBA had investigated Mr. Williams for supposedly failing to report a bribe while he was playing at Seattle University. The league eventually cleared him and offered him a contract with its Seattle franchise, but he had grown tired of the NBA's tactics and signed with the Pipers. Like Mr. Hawkins, he had a cloud over him, at least in terms of public perception.
Then there was Art Heyman, who had been an all-American at Duke and a disappointment with the New York Knicks. He brought talent and attitude to every game he played in Pittsburgh.
Mr. Heyman had started the season as a member of the New Jersey Americans, but he soon caused a stir. His coach, Max Zaslofsky, was ejected one night for raging at the referees. There were no assistant coaches, so Mr. Heyman, the team captain, took over. New Jersey, trailing New Orleans by 13 when Mr. Zaslofsky was tossed, rallied to win in overtime. In the locker room, reporters asked Mr. Heyman what the turning point was.
"When Coach got thrown out," he said, a quote that made the writers laugh.
His bosses were not amused. Two days later, the Americans traded Mr. Heyman to Pittsburgh. The Pipers, 11-12 when he arrived, went on a tear.
"We won about 15, 16 games in a row and then we lost to Dallas," Mr. Heyman said. "Then we won another 14, 15 games in a row."
Mr. Heyman never seemed to stop talking. Mr. Jarvis, his roommate on the road, said Mr. Heyman would wake him at 2 or 3 in the morning to pepper him with questions: "Jimmy, did you like that move I made tonight? Jimmy, didn't I play great?"
Now a restaurateur in New York City, Mr. Heyman said his reputation as the Pipers' chief flake was mostly myth.
Coached by the late Vince Cazzetta, the Pipers finished the regular season with a 54-24 record, best in the Eastern Division. Then they breezed through their first two playoff series, defeating the Indiana Pacers and Minnesota Muskies.
The final series, which started in April 1968, was against the New Orleans Buccaneers, owned by Sean M. Downey. He would become famous under the name Morton Downey Jr., father of trash talk not on the basketball court, but on television.
His Buccaneers were no joke. The team had two excellent players, Doug Moe and Larry Brown, who would go on to become NBA coaches.
The Pipers won the series opener in Pittsburgh, but then lost the next two games and seemed ready to crack.
Immediately after the Game 3 defeat in New Orleans, police officers arrested Mr. Heyman, accusing him of punching a fan at Loyola Field House.
"Totally untrue," Mr. Heyman said in an interview last week. "The guy had an epileptic seizure. He told the truth and they dropped the charges right away. I became friends with him after that."
Mr. Heyman was on the right side of the law, but momentum remained with the Buccaneers.
Mr. Hawkins scored 47 points in Game 4, which the Pipers won in overtime, 106-105. Still, there was no joy in the Pipers' locker room. Mr. Hawkins tore the medial collateral ligament in his right knee during the game.
He did not play in the next game, which the Pipers lost 111-108. That set up Game 6 in New Orleans, a must-win if the Pipers were to extend the series.
They started cold, and New Orleans raced to a 15-point lead. Then Mr. Hawkins, who had returned to the lineup despite his injury, took over. Seemingly immune to the pain in his knee, he scored 41 points, many on twisting, acrobatic drives.
The Pipers' 118-112 comeback victory set up the seventh and decisive game in Pittsburgh, where crowds had been sparse all season. Not so for the finale.
Steve Vacendak, a star at Duke who quit law school to play for the Pipers, said the teams were finished warming up when they were told tip-off had to be postponed.
"The officials came to us and said the game's going to be delayed an hour or so because there weren't enough ticket takers and sellers to get everybody in," Mr. Vacendak said.
When the game finally started, Mr. Williams exploded for 35 points and Mr. Hawkins scored 29. Still, the New Orleans team stayed within striking distance until the final minutes. Then, the referees hit Mr. Moe with two technical fouls and ejected him. He claimed the officials had let Mr. Hawkins get away with a double dribble.
The Pipers reigned as the first ABA champions with their 122-113 victory.
Soon after, the Pipers were dispatched to Minneapolis, whose own team had relocated to Miami.
George Mikan, the ABA commissioner, kept his office in Minneapolis. By Mr. Wolf's account, he wanted the Pipers to leave Pittsburgh for Minneapolis to justify having league headquarters in the Twin Cities.
The Pipers returned to Pittsburgh for the 1969-70 season, but by then Mr. Hawkins was starring in the NBA. In 1970, Pittsburgh's team changed its nickname to Condors. The franchise folded two years later.
The ABA collapsed after the 1976 season. Its four strongest franchises survived, joining the NBA.
Mr. Hawkins did not get his chance in the NBA until he was 27 years old and his body was failing him. Phoenix team physicians said the Pipers should not have played him so soon after his knee injury.
He bounced from Phoenix to Los Angeles to Atlanta, where he ended his career in 1976.
He remains an icon in Phoenix, the first professional sports star the city had. He is just as legendary in Pittsburgh, where the Pipers had one taste of glory four decades ago.