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Rooted in the Game

For Coleman Hawkins, Fighting Illini power forward, family is at the heart of everything.

The California sun shines on three girls shooting baskets outside their house. Their laughter mixes with the thuds of the ball pounding the ground as they run drills in their driveway.

From behind the net, a young boy’s voice calls out between the dribbles, “Let me play!”

Long before Coleman Hawkins towered over his opponents at six-foot-ten inches, he looked up to his family. He grew up with three sisters, who never let him get an easy shot, his mom, who sacrificed time to be at his games, and his dad, who never wanted his own basketball past to interfere with Coleman’s dreams.

Even though he clocked countless hours on the court, family remains at the center of everything Coleman is. When he thinks of his future, he’s surrounded by the big family he hopes to have and plenty of space for his parents, sisters, and cousins from Chicago to drop in at any time.

“I feel like my bond with my family is unbreakable,” Coleman said. “I can’t imagine my life without them.”

To really know him, you have to know his family.

Coleman’s family watches the Illinois verses Rutgers game on February 11, 2023. Photo by Illinois Athletics

A Basketball Legacy

The story of Rodney Hawkins, Coleman’s father, also has deep roots in basketball. After graduating high school in the 1980s, he traded the noise of the South Side of Chicago and eight older siblings for the quiet of small-town America as a player for Colby Community College in Kansas.

Aiming to play for Coach Smokey Gaines, the first Black NCAA Division I head coach in California, Rodney decided to finish his undergraduate degree at San Diego State.

He quickly became known as a hardworking, physical player, eventually securing a spot on a European basketball team post-college.

And just as Coleman has in his father, Rodney had the mentorship and direction of a remarkable basketball player in his uncle, Tommy Hawkins.

Rodney grew up watching Tommy play. Tommy’s talent led him to the University of Notre Dame, where he was one of four Black students on the entire campus in 1955 and the first Black basketball All-American for the school.

Tommy remembered his time at Notre Dame fondly and took his game to the NBA, going on to play for the Lakers and former Cincinnati Royals.

From left to right: Tom Hawkins playing for University of Notre Dame in in mid-1950s, (Fighting Irish Media), Rodney Hawkins playing for San Diego State in the late 1980s (Courtesy of Rodney Hawkins), Coleman Hawkins playing for Illinois in 2022 (University of Illinois Division of Intercollegiate Athletics).
From left to right: Tommy Hawkins playing for the University of Notre Dame in the mid-1950s (Fighting Irish Media), Rodney Hawkins playing for San Diego State University in the late 1980s (courtesy of Rodney Hawkins), Coleman Hawkins playing for Illinois in 2022 (University of Illinois Division of Intercollegiate Athletics).

Today, two generations later, Hawkins dons the number 33 in honor of his late great-uncle, who wore that number professionally.

“Anytime I got a break during school, I would ask my parents to go to Chicago,” Hawkins said. “I was really young and just begging them to go see my family.”

Hawkins spent his time soaking up the summertime Chicago sun and playing Pokémon GO, feeling connected to the family history that imbued the city. Most of all, he loved being with his cousins who lived thousands of miles from his doorstep in California.

Hooper’s Goal

In between visits to the Windy City, Hawkins made a decision that would not only improve his game but also impact his and his family’s  lives.

Hawkins began his high school career at his local school. Starting as a first year on junior varsity, Hawkins had what would be considered a typical high-school experience for a six-foot-four-inch student-athlete playing both basketball and football. When a growth spurt propelled him to six-foot-seven inches, he narrowed his focus to basketball. Neither Hawkins nor his family ever intended him to end up living an hour away with a host family to pursue an intensive basketball program. Yet, a last-minute decision made all that a reality when Hawkins was accepted to Prolific Prep, a high school devoted to basketball.

Prolific Prep is in Napa, California and provides a college preparatory environment and rigorous basketball training. Players come from around the world for the opportunity to hone their craft and chase their ultimate goal of playing in the biggest arenas basketball has to offer.

Being away from his family forced Hawkins to grow up fast. He lived in a new city with people he just met, played with teammates he barely knew. Hawkins and his family made a decision that turned his world completely upside down. Each day he was walking into a competitive environment; a gym or a classroom designed to push him to his limits. It all paid off, though. Hawkins was able to perfect his game and mature as a person, all of which led him to Illinois.

“I don’t feel like this at any other school I visited.”Coleman Hawkins

Recruiters were eager to sign Hawkins, and even though it was only his third college visit, Illinois quickly became the only place Hawkins saw himself playing basketball. He remembered sheepishly making the case to his dad.

“I feel like this is it for me,” Hawkins said of Illinois. “I don’t feel like this at any other school I visited.”

He feared committing so soon would lead his dad to believe his son wanted the whole thing done. However, Rodney supported Hawkin’s choice, as he had done so many times before.

Once Hawkins decided, Rodney shared that he had crossed paths with Coach Brad Underwood in Kansas when both of them played ball in the late 1980s. Now with Hawkins joining the Illini roster, their paths have crossed again.

What brought Hawkins to Illinois was a feeling. What keeps him here are the people.

“From the coaching staff to the guys on the team—everybody on campus is so welcoming,” Hawkins said. “The fans are supportive, and there’s always a sold-out crowd. The atmosphere here is always so great, and that’s probably the biggest reason for loving Illinois.”

Coleman Hawkins walks on the Quad. He is pursuing a degree in Recreation, Sport & Tourism.

Under Pressure

The love Hawkins feels at Illinois is not without its challenges, and he hasn’t escaped the pressure many student-athletes face in the transition from high school to college.

Pressure. It starts early, and it’s a feeling every student-athlete knows well—juggling the time to study, spending more time in the gym than sleeping, or encountering a fan before a big game. It’s an emotion many athletes don’t get the chance to talk about openly. They know they should be grateful they get the chance to play, be humble that they have the talent. Yet, typical student-athletes are young and just learning to be on their own, chasing success playing the game they’ve always loved.

“I think I’ve been kind of missing those days a little bit,” Hawkins said. “There are times I miss just being free, not having a lot of pressure, being at the park with my friends, playing basketball, and running around.”

Even though Hawkins misses those times, he appreciates that his family was never a part of adding to that pressure. Hawkins always felt his dad was just his dad growing up—no shouting plays from the sidelines or long talks on the car rides home. Rodney had his career and allowed Hawkins to build his own.

Learning to Lead

When Hawkins came to Illinois, players like Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Trent Frazier, and Ayo Dosunmu led the team and held him accountable as a first-year Illini. If Hawkins didn’t know a drill, he’d be pushed to the sideline to watch these tenured players execute each play with experience.

As the years went on and Hawkins stepped into a leadership role, he found himself leading in the way he had been led, expecting perfection. Even though he was putting his all into it with his young team, he didn’t see the results he wanted.

“I had to take a step back,” Hawkins said. “I was getting on the guys, and they weren’t understanding what I was trying to get out of them.”

Once he adjusted his approach, he became the leader his guys could turn to when they needed perspective or support. He’s even taken that role off the court, setting up meetings to discuss spirituality and life beyond basketball. Changing how he connects with others has helped take the pressure off, giving him the freedom he’s looking for as he continues his career at the next level.

It’s a long way from the hoop in a California driveway to the boards in a big arena, but Hawkins will always retain his passion for the game wherever he plays. “I think I want to fall even more in love with basketball,” he said when talking about his future.

Secure in his professional goals, Hawkins also thinks about the life he wants outside the game. He lights up when he talks about each member of his big family, recounting the last time he could be with them. In the future, he sees himself giving back to the game, serving as a coach that players can turn to and learn from. He dreams of going home each day to his family, the same people he’s turned to his whole life.

This story was published .