29 September 2009
When Hersey Hawkins and his smooth jumper left the NBA back in 2001, he did so knowing he’d never step back on the floor again.
“It was something I prayed about for half a year. Was it the time to leave? It was just put on my heart that is was time to go,” Hawkins remembered after his 13 seasons in the league.
“I never really had the desire to ever play again. I really don’t have the desire to even step on the court and play. I really don’t. I bet the first four or five years after I retired, I played twice.”
But “Hawk” can still hit that sweet jumper, right?
“Oh, yeah,” he said laughing.
From Bradley University where he led the nation in scoring as a Senior with 36.3 points per game in 1988, to stops in the Association playing alongside Charles Barkley in Philadelphia, Alonzo Mourning in Charlotte and even Nate McMillan in the 1996 NBA Finals with Seattle, Hersey Hawkins is officially back in the league – this time as Director of Player Development with the Portland Trail Blazers.
Hawkins’ desire now has turned into a discipleship of sorts by teaching a current Blazers roster – both young and old alike - about the realities of NBA life and life after the NBA.
Hersey, 42, actually reached out to Vice President of Basketball Operations, Tom Penn - a person Hersey’s known since their college days – months ago about a position within the organization. At that point, Hersey was at a time in his life where he was interested in returning to the league having spent the last year as an assistant basketball coach for his son's team, Estrella Foothills High School in Goodyear, Arizona and he was optimistic the Blazers might eventually have something in store for him. When Tom called Hersey over the summer and invited him to Portland for an interview with Tom, General Manager Kevin Pritchard, Head Coach Nate McMillan and even President Larry Miller, Hersey knew it was meant to be.
The Blazers however wanted to be sure Hawkins was committed.
“A lot of guys who have played before, the one thing you wonder is, are they ready to work? These guys enjoy themselves but they do work and they work extremely hard,” Hawkins explained.
“You don’t put together a team like this without working at it.”
It was then that management informed Hawkins they were interested in hiring a new Director of Player Programs – a position held by Chris Bowles for the past three seasons. After speaking openly with his family about returning to the NBA and getting a “glowing endorsement”, Hersey said it was “full steam ahead”. Now in his new role, Hawkins’ job description according to the team entails he’ll be “a resource to support each player's professional, social and personal development.” But that phrase compared to how the words are actually lived out depends largely on Hawkins vision for the position.
“I don’t only want to be a mentor to the players but I think somebody who can be a help to their families – parents, wives, significant others. I haven’t officially met with the players yet, but my pitch to them is I’m here to make their job as easy as possible off the court. That could be appearance wise or if they need to talk, but also preparing them for life after basketball. That is a huge part of this – getting them to understand the business aspect of the NBA and understanding this doesn’t last forever. You have to prepare yourself for afterwards.
“That comes with knowing the players better. These are some good guys.”
As Hawkins began speaking about the Blazers current roster – their character and likeability - he couldn’t help but laugh at the notion of taking over this position during “that era” when Portland was known for having players fill the police blotter instead of the sports ticker. But Hawkins has been there before. He played 13 seasons in the league between Philadelphia, Charlotte, Seattle and Chicago and knows how important it is to have guys you can turn to in this league.
“When I first started out, that kind of position wasn’t even around. Each year, players and organizations are realizing how vital this position is. Players need someone to talk to besides a teammate or a coach. You have to be able to get that out some kind of way. When I was a player, there was a line with my coach I didn’t want to cross to go and talk to about things. Hopefully that is the kind of relationship I can develop with these guys. I’m hoping I’m bringing my personal knowledge and experience having gone through those things – playing on losing teams and winning teams and being married my entire NBA career – and not make the same mistakes and maybe give them advice on steering them on the right path so they can perform their best on the floor.”
For Hawkins – a devout Christian – his faith helped guide him through his journey in the league, a path often filled with the difficulties of the NBA lifestyle.
“It’s extremely difficult,” Hawkins admitted.
“Just the reputations of the league with everyone going out to strip clubs and you have to hear all of that stuff. The temptation is out there. That’s where having people to hold you accountable really comes into play and was fortunate to have those kind of guys across the league and you sort of look out for one another. The one thing I learned is, if you don’t put yourself in those kinds of situations where temptation is around you, then you don’t have to worry about it. That’s what I did.
“After I left Charles Barkley in Philly, I didn’t really go out at all,” Hawkins said laughing.
With the NBA being so youth driven, Hawkins easily recognizes the difficulties the players compared to his time in the league. He believes players today deal with a lot more issues than when he played, particularly with the “astronomical” salaries contributing to people wanting to take advantage of the players.
In some ways, Hersey is a rookie all over again as he prepares for his first training camp and season in Portland.
“At least I don’t have to do any running up and down the court,” he joked.
But just as players mature and grow in this league, the same goes for Hawkins in a role he feels safely at home in.
“I really don’t know,” Hawkins said when asked what his end goal is for himself now that’s he’s back in the NBA.
“I think it’s an honor to be able to work with young men and possibly have an influence on them in some kind of way. That’s the kind of job everyone looks for – to make an impact on someone’s life.
“This is one of those dream jobs.”
pic via: vintage hoops