If the scale ranges from Walt Frazier on one side to Walt Whitman on the other, then the first published collection of poetry authored by former Lakers forward Tommy Hawkins dribble drives from one end of the court to the other.
The eclectic book, “Life’s Reflections: Poetry for the People,” which includes inspiring artwork by people such as LeRoy Neiman and Ernie Barnes, makes it public debut on Thursday during a reception at the L.A. Museum of Tolerance.
In a multi-media presentation that includes jazz artist Kenny Burrell, Hawkins will read his works that cover sports (including the NBA, Jackie Robinson and Sugar Ray Robinson), travel, music, relationships, the 1960s, jazz, love and psychiatry.
The former Notre Dame All-American, Dodgers executive and sports-talk radio host who turns 75 later this month explained how it all came together:
Q: You’ve noted in the introduction that it’s not easy to get people to embrace poetry. So what gives you the incentive to try?
A: Well, this is actually the first of three books I want to write, and I wanted to cover my poetry first because I wanted the shock waves to go through the populist so that they know I’m serious about my writing and they know I can do it. (The follow up will be about his 10-year career in the NBA and his third will be about experiences he’s had with famous people along the way). There may not be a lot of people interested in poetry, but they are interested in narratives, so that’s really more of what I’m trying to do, something that cuts through with everything else that’s going on in society. I have a lot of artistic friends and I wanted to use their images to match the narratives. I’m appealing to the reader’s sense of rhyme and rhythm and their sense of visualization. And their adherence to a message that makes them think and they can find themselves in.
Q: That’s even tougher, forcing people to think sometimes. You’re OK with that?
A: I’m spilling the windmills of their mind. Maybe it sounds comical, but that’s what I am doing. A lot of people are in humdrum states and have no real stimulation. This is stimulation. Forty-five narratives. No repetition. I won’t bore anybody. I’m appealing to your sense of self, family and friends.
Q: If you hadn’t filtered your life through a career in sports, would you have gravitated toward the arts in some way?
A: Growing up in Chicago, all I wanted to be was a disc jockey. They were the king. I wanted to be in some form of communications, but basketball got in the way. I got a great education at Notre Dame and met thousands of people through my basketball. I was taught to become a communicator and public speaker, and I parlayed that into a pioneering life. You may not know this, but I was the only black player at Notre Dame in four years (Class of 1959, majoring in sociology and minoring in psychology) and the only black in any of the classes I attended. In the NBA (’59-’69, with the Lakers in six of those seasons), I was a player representative and labor negotiator. I retired at 31 and got into communications, and I lasted there for 18 years.
When Regis Philbin left his talk show called “Tempo” at Channel 9, he told me to audition. I told him, “They’re not going to let an ex-basketball player do that. It’s not a sports show.” He said, “I think you’ve got possibilities, go for it.” So I auditioned and I did it for four years (1974-’78) and then came back and did two more (’85-’87). That’s two hours a day, five days a week, live. And I did it concurrently with the sports reports on KABC and KLOS. I’ve done so much broadcasting in this town. I was even doing a jazz show on KKGO. I got a call one day from Peter O’Malley to talk to me about joining the Dodgers. That went on for six months and I ended up with a three-year contract to be the vice president of communications. But the only thing was that Peter wanted me to give up all my broadcasting jobs. Well, being an eclectic pioneer, I gave it up for sports management, and that was another 18 years.
And that really gave me some more creativity and I was constantly learning. I learned so much for Peter O’Malley, you can’t believe. When the McCourts came in to buy the team, I never thought he’d have a prayer of being a success with the organization. I said it right from the start and here we are today.
Q: How did you create the time to write the poems? Did it have a lot to do with traveling and having quiet moments and absorbing other things that inspired you?
A: There are times when it’s 2 in the morning and I’d sit up straight in bed and say, “I gotta go to the study and work on this.” To write narratives like these, you have to be concise and your vocabulary has to be compelling. You have to state a message.
Q: Who are your favorite writers or poets or artists?
A: Irving Wallace (a Chicago native author and screenwriter) really encouraged me to write, and unfortunately he died before he was able to see this get published.
I’ll tell you, Kenny Kingston, the psychic, did my TV show once and asked me, “When are you going to write?” I told him, “I don’t have any time for that. I’m doing all these shows . . .” And he said, “You know what, you’ve got all this bubbling up, striving to get out, you need to release it.” I said, “Kenny, please, save all that for your adoring public. I don’t believe in your babble.” He said, “Just listen and remember what I’ve said. You can take that to the bank.” And he walked away and I haven’t seen him sense. I guess he was right.
Q: Who did you hang out with in the NBA that also had similar interests in more than just the game night after night?
A: The 10 years was really part of my growth as a man away from the court. I could walk up and down Broadway in New York and feel like I was the black Fiorello LaGuardia. I knew every matre d’ at the Copa Cabana and the Peppermint Lounge and Mama Leone’s. I enjoyed superstar status even though I was just a solid NBA player. In San Francisco, I could go to Rickshaw and get a big table for 10 friends and be entertained with music and Chinese food. That’s the way I’ve lived and known people. I love the fact I have been able to develop myself as a cosmic functionary. That’s a person who has been able to get in the jet stream and let him go where ever and function, regardless of race, creed or color.
I’d take some rookies under my wing, like Happy Hairston and Mel Counts and Walt Hazzard. Walt, I enjoyed the most. He was extremely multi-talented and intelligent and personable. We’d go to the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum of Art and we’d have some fabulous times. I miss him dearly.
There’d be times I was sitting on the back of the plane, huddled in my seat, writing poetry and Jerry West would come over to me and say, “Hawk, what the hell are you doing? Why aren’t you playing cards?” I got real quiet and said, “I’m writing my poetry.” And He’d say, “What?” I had to hide it. If the other guys knew what I was doing, they’d be all over me. It was something I loved. Jerry would tease me: “Roses are red, violets are blue, little Tommy is writing his poetry, too.”
I was afraid. They knew I liked to write, but I also loved jazz and music. When the game was over, I’d be out there interfacing with someone listening to music, going to lectures, whatever I could find that would help me grow as a man.
Basketball helps you to become disciplined and intuitive, but it doesn’t develop you as a person and I was hell bent on being a man in a man’s world. Notre Dame gave me the wherewithal to do that. The interesting thing about professional athletes is the worst time in your life is when you have to retire. All the things you take for granted are gone and the rug is pulled out. You struggle to find your place in society. I was one of the fortunate ones who could move from here to there and do it successfully. Yet what you find is there’s nothing in life that’s the same feeling of satisfaction and circumstance as the professional athlete.
Q: The piece of art used on the cover is very interesting. Where did that come from?
A: I didn’t have a cover for a long time, and my layout advisor Richard Fisher said he had a young friend at the Art Design Center in Pasadena named Laurent Lainez who had done some things and was interested in showing me something that could be different. What he brought me was this man in chips of gold, staring up in a state of recapitulation and recalling his life’s reflections. I had gone to bookstores and could see books with the flashy photos on the cover and thought, they’ll have no shelf life. I wanted something what then you’d see it, you’d ask, “What is that?”
All I’m trying to do is get people across the board that aren’t into reading this type of poetry to be pleasantly surprised. Anything I’ve ever endeavored, I want to do it well and be effective and be able to add some insight, stimulate communication and encourage people. Take this as a plate of multi-flavored beef jerky and everyone will find a flavor that pleases them.
== To find more information about the book, go to tommyhawkins.net.
== For information on reserving a seat for Thursday’s event at the Museum of Tolerance, go to www.museumoftolerance.com/lifesreflections
== A sample of one of Hawkins’ poems called “Jackie, Do They Know?” which is accompanied in the book by this illustration by Craig Pursley:
Do they know what you did Jackie Robinson when you broke that color line?
Do they know the worlds that you opened when the Dodgers asked you to sign?
Do they know the humiliation that you suffered through the years,
Or how it felt to ‘stomach’ the threats and constant racial jeers?
Do they know the competitive passion with which you played the game,
Or the host of insults you endured when they defiled your name?
Do they know that you rose above it with majestic winning style,
Escorting a perennial bridesmaid down the coveted championship aisle?
Do they know you were a ‘Black Moses’ with a soul of raging fire,
A man who firmly stood his ground with undiminished desire?
Do they know that you hd the tools: talent, ‘smarts’ and skill,
Well blended with civility plus an unshakable iron-clad will?
Do they know that when you left the game no grass grew under your feet,
You continued pioneering using the executive suite?
Do they know with respect and reverence, we document your deeds,
Careful to water and nourish your bountiful well-sewn seeds?
Do they know that in the Hall of Fame you regally reside,
Having scaled the heights of the ‘Grand Old Game’ and humanity with pride?
Do they know that you left us early, age 53 when you passed?
But in that great half-century, what a legacy you amassed.