Jeffrey Kee

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Juaquin Hawkins Interview: Hawkins Discusses His Improbable Journey to the NBA, Playing With Young Kobe, Lighting Up Michael Jordan, His Near Fatal Stroke, Book & Basketball Program

Juaquin Hawkins Interview: Hawkins Discusses His Improbable Journey to the NBA, Playing With Young Kobe, Lighting Up Michael Jordan, His Near Fatal Stroke, Book & Basketball Program

Jeffrey Kee: Talk about your upbringing a little bit.  What was your childhood like and how were you introduced to basketball?

Juaquin Hawkins: I was raised in Lynwood, California, which is basically the suburb of Compton.  It's the same type of area with the same type of people.  I was raised by my mother and my grandmother, so even though I didn’t have a father, I still grew up in a very loving household.  There were a lot of great moments, but obviously, it was tough because of the neighborhood I lived in.  

As far as basketball goes, I was first introduced to the game by my Uncle Charles.  He was a basketball player, not professionally, but he played in junior college.  I always wanted to be like him.  He was actually really good.  He was 6'5 and could play both the point and forward positions.  When I was a kid, I always wanted to play with him and his friends, even though they were all 30 years older than I was.  Competing against these older guys made me a much better player and helped prepare me for high school, college and eventually for a career in the pros.

Kee: You played at Lynwood High school, and earned a scholarship to Long Beach State where you played under Seth Greenberg.  Entering college, what were your expectations?  

Hawkins: I really didn’t have too many expectations other than wanting to take advantage of the opportunity I had to get an education.  I wanted to make my mom proud because she never had the opportunity to go to college.  My grandmother had dropped out of high school in the 10th grade.  My biggest expectation was just to stay in school for as long as I could and earn my degree. 

Kee: You enrolled at Long Beach State in 91’, but didn’t actually begin your college basketball career until two years later.  Why is that?  

Hawkins: In high school, I was a 3.0 student, but I didn’t pass my SAT or my ACT, so I was ineligible to play basketball my freshman year at Long Beach State.  My senior year, I had a lot of schools recruiting me, but when I didn’t pass my SAT, about half of those schools pulled their scholarship offers.  Long Beach State was one of the few that decided to take a chance on me and allowed me to enroll.  I remember Coach Greenberg telling me that while it sucks that I couldn’t play, if I got my grades up, he'd reward me with a scholarship for the remaining three years.  Since I was ineligible, basically, the only thing I did was go to school.  I couldn’t practice with the team or anything.  I worked out a lot and kept myself in great shape, but the only organized basketball I played was intramurals. 

Bryon Russell and Lucious Harris, who played in the NBA, were my mentors on the team, so I watched them and trained with them a lot to prepare for my sophomore year.  Unfortunately,  I only ended up playing 4 games the next season because I got very sick - I had stomach ulcers and was forced to medical redshirt my sophomore season, so I basically didn’t play college basketball until my junior year.  It all worked out though because I ended up playing as a junior, as a senior, and then played out my last year of eligibility as a graduate student.  Looking back, I actually contribute those two seasons off to really helping me make the NBA because I used a lot of that time to improve my skills.

Kee: In college, you didn’t have the big name or stats to play in the NBA.  Despite that, the summer after leaving college you were invited to play in pickup games at UCLA with Magic Johnson, which led to you signing with the Lakers.  How did you get the invite?  

Hawkins: One of my old trainers, Ivory Manning, was guiding and mentoring me at the time.  He knew a lot of NBA players and wanted me to be around them, so he invited me up to UCLA to train with him.  I didn’t know this at the time, but Magic Johnson, Eddie Jones, Derek Fisher, Tracy Murray were all training at UCLA to help prepare for the upcoming season.  Ivory knew all of these guys and he put together a summer league team with me, Baron Davis, Lamond Murray, Cedric Ceballos and Damon Stoudamire.  I was the only player on that team who wasn’t in the NBA.  It was crazy because these were all guys I watched on TV, and here I was, playing against them, and playing really well too.  I had breakout games of 20 and 25 points.  There were tons of NBA and overseas scouts there as well, which was great exposure for me. 

One week, Magic Johnson was conducting a workout at UCLA with strictly NBA players.  Ivory invited me up there, and coincidentally, Eddie Jones ended up getting hurt.  Magic talked to Ivory, and decided to let me play in one of the pickup games that day.  I ended up playing really well, and after the scrimmage, Magic was asking me who I was and invited me to come back to play the remainder of the week against all of the NBA players.  Towards the end of the week, Mitch Kupchak and Jerry West from the Lakers came to watch us play because they were looking for a couple of additional players to join the team for training camp in Hawaii.  A few days later, my agent called me and said, "You’re never going to believe it, but the Lakers want to sign you!"  Magic Johnson had put in a word with Mitch and Jerry, and two weeks later, I signed a free agent contract with the Lakers and it was all because of those pick up games at UCLA. 

Kee: So you head to Hawaii for training camp with the Lakers. Shaq was just recently signed and Kobe was a rookie.  What do you remember most from that experience? 

Hawkins: For one, the excitement of being around superstar players like Kobe and Shaq was a great experience in itself.  But also, just being a part of such a prestigious organization like the Lakers and being able to wear the purple and gold was an amazing feeling.  At Lynwood High, our colors were purple and gold as well, so when I threw on the Lakers jersey it felt like destiny. 

Although I didn’t play a lot during those preseason games, I was able to practice and learn everyday from some of the greatest players to ever play in the NBA.  I saw the extra work that Kobe and Derek Fisher put in everyday before and after practice.  I was how Shaq would conduct himself on the court, and how he tried to dominate every time he stepped on the floor.  Even guys like Eddie Jones and Cedric Ceballos; these are guys that I admired and I was around them every single day as their teammate.  That was surreal to me, so when I was cut, I wasn’t as disappointed as you'd think because, initially, I didn't expect to be there for more than a week.  Instead, I ended up staying about a month and had the opportunity to play in 5 or 6 preseason games.  That experience taught me that if I continued to work hard, success would follow and that I'd eventually make it to the NBA. 

Kee: At that time, Kobe was 17 years old and fresh out of high school.  What do you remember about him?         

Hawkins: Kobe was very quiet off the court, but when he played, he was pure fire.  Even at that young of an age, he was unstoppable.  He didn’t talk a lot of trash, but he was very confident in his abilities.  He wasn’t afraid to battle against the older guys and always thought he had something to prove.  I'm about 4 or 5 years older than he is, but from guarding him in practice, I could tell he was going to be a great player. 

Kee: After the Lakers, you began a lengthy 7 year journey that included multiple overseas stops throughout Asia (China, Taiwan, Japan and the Philippines).  What was the international experience like for you?        

Hawkins: I was only 21 when I signed my first contract to play in Taiwan.  That was a very eye opening experience for me because I had never been away from home before.  Being away from my family and friends, I actually became home sick and was close to leaving, but I talked myself out of it, knowing that it was a sacrifice I had to make if I eventually wanted to play in the NBA.

Also, being from the United States, I often took things for granted, but playing in third world countries, I remember seeing a lot of homeless people; people would walk around the streets without clothes or shoes.  It was a big reality check.  Seeing these types of things humbled me and it really motivated me to be a better person and to be thankful for what I had. 

Kee: During that 7 year stretch, did you ever lose sight of your NBA dream?      

Hawkins: Surprisingly, I never did. After playing in Taiwan, I tried out for the Clippers and was the last player cut.  That was the second time I had tried out for an NBA team and didn’t make it, even though I thought I had played well enough to earn a roster spot.  Despite that, it didn’t discourage me.  If anything, it showed me that I was very close to my goal.  From then on, the most important thing I did was prepare; that was the most important thing for me.  I worked out twice a day, and was religiously in the weight room or watching film.  I knew that the NBA could call at any time, and when they did, I wanted to make sure that I was ready. 

Kee: You also played in the ABA (American Basketball Association), where [former Houston Rocket and current Wizards head coach] Scott Brooks was a coach of yours.  What role did he play in you getting invited to Rockets training camp?      

Hawkins: Scott and [former Houston Rocket] Earl Cureton are probably the main reasons why I made it to the NBA.  During the 2001-02 season, I was playing in the ABA.  I had recently gotten engaged and my wife was pregnant with my oldest child, so I decided not to play overseas because I wanted to be home to see the birth of my baby.  By doing that, I ended up sacrificing a lot of money.  I think I only made about $900 a month playing in the ABA, but it was still a great opportunity for me because Scott and Earl were both former NBA players and still had great connections in the league. 

On that team, I had the opportunity to play with a lot of NBA guys like, Fred Vinson, Derrick Dial and Corey Benjamin.  I knew scouts would be at all our games watching them.  We had an awesome season, but ended up losing in the championship.  That year, I averaged about 17 points and shot 40% from three.  I remember towards the end of that season, I had a conversation with Scott and he told me, "Man, someone needs to give you an NBA contract."  I remember it like it was yesterday.  I looked at him and said, "Well, you played in the NBA.  You and Earl need to make a call to somebody."  Sure enough, they ended up calling the Rockets.  Carroll Dawson [former Rockets GM] called me the next week and told me that Scott and Earl had spoken very highly of me and that he wanted to invite me to training camp.

The confusing part was that even though he invited me to camp, he said he only needed me for two weeks as a fill in for Cuttino Mobley who had gotten injured.  I then asked him if there was any way I could make the team, and he told me there were four other guys competing for one spot and that the only way I'd make it is if I beat out all four of them.  That little glimpse of hope is all I needed.  In the following weeks, one by one, each of those players were cut, and I ended up being the last man standing.  It was unbelievable.  It was like something you see in the movies. 

Kee: Take me back through the moment when you, at age 29, learned that you finally going to be an NBA player.               

Hawkins: The crazy thing is that no one from the Rockets came to me and told me I had made the team.  The way I found out was that my paycheck came in and it was a lot bigger than the paycheck I was receiving for being part of the training camp roster.  As soon as I saw the number on my check, I realized I had made the NBA. 

Kee: What was that phone call to your family like?            

Hawkins: It was one of the best moments in my life.  I remember it like it was yesterday.  I was in my car.  I was just sitting there looking at the sun.  I picked up the phone to call my mom and when she answered, I just screamed, "Mom, I made it!  I made it!"  It was very emotional.  I was crying like a baby and my mom was crying as well.  For years, I had put so much pressure on myself to make the NBA and to have that weight lifted off of my shoulders was one of the greatest feelings in the world. 

Kee: Even though you were a rookie, at age 29, you were probably older than a lot of the “veterans” on the team.  Did you still receive rookie hazing?                    

Hawkins: Yes, of course.  It wasn’t anything disrespectful, but I had to carry bags and suitcases to and from the bus or the plane, and was forced to run errands for the veterans.  The vets were always calling me "rookie."  I just embraced it because I had been through so much.  Two NBA teams told me I wasn’t good enough.  I played overseas for almost eight years, so I embraced being a rookie and all the hazing that came with it.                      

Kee: Talk about your relationship with Yao Ming. You guys were the two rookies on the team.  Since you played in China and were familiar with Chinese culture, did you two connect at all? 

Hawkins: Yeah we did, especially with the food.  Living in China, I became very familiar with the Chinese cuisine, so Yao and I were able to connect on that.  One time, Yao and his parents invited my wife and I over to their house for dinner.  Some of the dishes that his mother cooked, I remembered eating while I was playing in China.  More than that, Yao and I were able to connect over the fact that we were both rookies.  We had a mutual understanding that we both had to prove ourselves and prove that we belonged in the league.  With me being a journeyman, I wanted to show that I was a legitimate NBA player, and with Yao being the number one overall pick, he wanted to show that he was deserving of all the hype. 

Kee: What was it like being coached by a legend like Rudy Tomjanovich?                      

Hawkins: Rudy was by far the best coach that I've ever played for.  I respect him so much and consider him to be one of the greatest coaches in NBA history.  I wasn’t a big name player or anything like that.  I never put up crazy stats and never racked up a bunch of accolades, but even still, he saw value in me and took a chance on me when no one else would.  I now apply the things I learned from Rudy to my own coaching philosophies with my youth basketball program. 

Kee: That season, you posted a [career high] 14 point, eight rebound and five assist game against Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards.  What was it like going head to head against MJ?                                      

Hawkins: First and foremost, I couldn’t believe that I had the opportunity to play on the same court as him.  Of course, since he was "Mr. Superstar", Jordan didn’t really respect my game and didn’t guard me closely for the most part.  Even when I had the ball, he'd be standing three or four feet away, daring me to shoot.  He thought I was scared, but with my background, if I get an opportunity, I'm going to take it, so I knocked down a bunch of shots and stole the ball from him three times as well.

Later that season, I actually had another good game against him.  I scored 10, but Jordan ended up getting the last laugh because he hit the game winning shot over me that night.  Even though we lost, playing well against M.J. gave me so much confidence and on my resume I can always say I scored my career high against Michael Jordan. 

Kee: Did Jordan trash talk you at all?                 

Hawkins: Yes, he did.  He kept saying things like, "you're not going to shoot the ball" and "don’t guard him"; little things to try and get in my head.

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Kee: After playing for the Rockets, you continued your career overseas in Australia.  You’re making good money and playing well.  Then on New Year’s Day in 2008, you inexplicably suffered a stroke at the age of 34.  What exactly happened that day?    

Hawkins: My team had just played a name that night.  My wife and three daughters had just recently arrived on Christmas day.  Up until then, I hadn't seen them for five months, so I was very excited for the opportunity to spend time with them.  It was New Year's Eve and my team had just won, so a lot of the guys went out to celebrate that night.  I was 34, and my partying days were behind me, so I just went back to the hotel to relax before our flight in the morning.  When I woke up the next day, I went to brush my teeth, and when I turned on the faucet, I got a tingly feeling in my right fingertips and up my palm.  All of a sudden, I got a headache and my entire right arm went numb. 

I had no idea what was happening.  I was in the hotel room by myself.  Since I was feeling nauseated, I went to lie down thinking that my body was just tired from the game the previous night.  After a little while, I stood back up to look in the mirror, and when I smiled in the mirror the entire right side of my face was disfigured.  I couldn’t move it whatsoever and that really scared me. I went to lay back down thinking that it was going to go away, and when I went to stand up again, I lost feeling in the entire right side of my body and fell onto the floor.  I could hear people talking outside of my hotel room, so I tried dragging myself to the door.  Once I finally got there, I opened the door, but no one was there, which made me freak out even more. 

I felt delusional and felt myself getting weaker and weaker, but I had enough power to drag myself back over to the bed.  My roommate finally came back to the room and found me lying down.  I tried telling him what was happening, but when I talked, nothing came out of my mouth.  I tried telling him that I needed a doctor, but when I said it, my speech was so broken that it was hard to understand what I was saying.  Thankfully, he was able to make out the word "doctor" and rushed to get our massage therapist.  Not too long after, the feeling on my right side came back a little bit, so the team officials didn’t think it was necessary that I go to the hospital.  The team also didn’t want me to miss the flight that day because it was the last flight out of town before our next game, so I boarded a plane and flew out of town that say despite having a stroke just a few hours earlier.

Kee: When did you go to the hospital?                                                                              

Hawkins: Once we got to the next city.  It was about a two hour flight.  Once we got to the next city, my coach and I took a taxi to a local hospital.  I told the doctors about what happened and they thought I was just dehydrated, so they gave me an IV of fluids and sent me on my way.  I didn’t have any blood or neurological testing done.  I got back to my hotel room at about midnight, went to sleep and the next morning I woke up feeling extremely nauseated and couldn’t hear out of my right ear. 

I told my coach that I needed to go back to the hospital, but he didn’t realize how sick I actually was, so he said we'd go after our team meeting.  I got so irritated with him that I decided to catch a taxi myself.  The problem, though, was that I was so nauseated that I ended up walking out into the middle of the street and was almost hit by a car.  Eventually, my assistant coach took me back to the same hospital where doctors performed a CT scan, which revealed that I had suffered a stroke and had bleeding in the brain.  The doctors also told me that I probably wouldn’t be able to play basketball anymore. 

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Kee: What was the recovery process like?                                  

Hawkins: It was really tough. I was in the hospital for about a week and my symptoms actually became worse.  I developed a really bad stuttering problem and lost hearing in both of my ears.  I lost my ability to read.  It was terrible.  I felt like a newborn baby trying to learn life all over again. 

Overtime, things got better, but even after I left the hospital; I had to take physical and speech therapy 2-3 times every week.  It was basically like going to school.  I had a speech therapist who would teach me how to talk again and how to pronounce certain words.  I had memory issues as well, so I had to do exercises to improve my memory.  I felt helpless. 

Kee: I think the amazing part of this whole story is that despite doctors telling you that you wouldn’t ever play again, you eventually returned to the court.  How long after your stroke did you start playing?                                                              

Hawkins: It was about nine months afterwards.  Even when I returned, I still hadn't regained full strength and feeling on the right side of my body.  I had a two year contract with my team in Australia, so they honored my second year.  I played really well in our first preseason game.  I had like 25 points, but unfortunately, I hurt my foot and for the next three months I was barely able to practice or play.  My coach believed that I was having lasting effects from my stroke.  He said I had memory issues and couldn’t remember the plays.  At the same time, our team was losing a lot, so I became paranoid that management was blaming me for the fact that they weren't winning.  I was afraid I was going to be cut, but wasn’t sure as to whether it would be because of my stroke or my foot injury. 

Well, as it turned out, it was because of both.  When I got the results back for my foot, the doctor told me I had bone spurs and recommended that I sit out for an extended period of time.  I also had taken a neurological test that same week, and from those results, the team couldn’t decide whether or not it was safe for me to play, so they ended up releasing me.  Obviously, when I found out, I went ballistic because the reason why I was having issues from my stroke is because the team refused to take me to the hospital in the first place. 

Kee: In your book, you discuss how you went through depression and financial problems after you were released.  Talk about that a little bit.                          

Hawkins: So for a while, I had a lot of resentment towards the team because things in my personal life started to spiral downwards after I was released.  I was no longer playing and it was hard for me to find work.  I became very depressed.  Financially, I struggled and for a period of time my family became homeless.  Looking back, all of those hardships made me a better man and helped shape me into the person that I am today.  Having been through all of that, it has made me confident that I can overcome anything. 

Kee: Your recovery process was featured on the show “Breakthrough with Tony Robbins.” During that time, you had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with Tony, who is a worldly renowned motivational speaker and life coach.  How influential was he in your recovery?

Hawkins: Tony was the reality check that I needed.  I had spent so much time sulking and mad at my coach in Australia for cutting me, when I instead should have been thankful for the fact that I was alive and healthy enough to support my family.  He helped me realize that I needed to stop feeling sorry for myself, and needed to move past that incident.  I still had so much life to live, and without basketball I lost sight of that.  Because of him, I was able to finally come to terms with the fact that wasn’t going back to the NBA and probably wouldn't play professionally again.  That phase of my life was over.  My kids needed their father and my wife needed her husband, and that's where my priorities should have been. 

Kee: Talk about your book, “The Stroke of Grace” (http://www.strokeofgrace.org).  What inspired you to write it?  Was writing about your life and your story therapeutic for you?

Hawkins: The unfortunate thing about strokes is that people who have them are very likely to have another one.  I knew that after my stroke, my health would be a huge question mark moving forward.  I was having memory issues and I didn't want to forget all of the experiences I've had in my life, so I started writing, which was definitely therapeutic for me.   I also wanted my kids to know about their father's life and to have something to help guide them through adversity.

As I started to write more and more, I realized that I was writing about life experiences that anyone can learn from, not just my kids.  For example, I talk about the time my grandmother passed away in my arms as a 16 year old.  She was my best friend and for her to pass away like that was very traumatic for me.  Someone reading my book, who shares a similar experience like that, could find inspiration in my story.  It brings me a lot of joy knowing that my life can have an impact on people and can inspire people to persevere through whatever it is that they're going through in their lives. 

Kee: The summer following your season with the Rockets, you founded Hawk Hoops Basketball Camp (http://hawkhoops.org).  Talk about what led you to start this program.

Hawkins: I started Hawks Hoops because as a kid, I always wanted to be taught by an NBA player.  I always wanted the opportunity to learn from someone who has played basketball at the highest level.  Unfortunately, that never happened, but I promised myself that if I was fortunate enough to make the NBA, I'd never forget about the youth.  The year I played for the Rockets, I could not wait for the opportunity to go home and start my own program.  Coming from a single parent household, not having much growing up, and then fighting my way to the NBA, I knew I had so many valuable experiences and lessons I could teach these kids. 

Kee:  How has Hawks Hoops grown over the years?                                                         

Hawkins: It's grown so much.  My first few camps were three days long and I had maybe 40-50 kids sign up.  Now, my camps are throughout the entire week and I have over 100 kids who participate.  My program has also expanded to a travel team now.  We practice twice a week and play locally twice per month.  We also travel for games as well.  I'm up to twelve youth basketball teams and have a staff of six coaches. Every Monday and Wednesday we have the kids in the gym working on all of the fundamentals.  All of them want to play in college and want to play professionally, so I try to teach them what it takes physically and emotionally to play at that level. 

Moving forward, my plan is to add more teams in different cities.  The program operates in Orange County, but I would like to have teams in Los Angeles as well.  I also want to do collaborations with different clubs because helping other teams grow is very important to me.  My goal isn't to have 100 teams or anything like that, but I want to make sure that I'm able to lend my experiences to as many kids as I possibly can.

Kee: In addition to Hawk Hoops, you’re also a national ambassador for the American Stroke Association – where you travel the country spreading awareness and talking about your story.  Talk about the work you’re doing with them.                              

Hawkins: May is American Stroke Month, so I do a lot of charity work with them during that time to help educate people who don’t know too much about strokes.  I recently received the Power Award from the American Stroke Association for my efforts to create more stroke awareness.  I always tell people that strokes can happen to anybody.  It doesn't matter about your age or your race.  I'm the perfect example of that.  I also teach people about the warning signs, so that if they are experiencing symptoms, they'll be able to get help sooner than later. 

Kee: You overcame so many odds growing up, played in the NBA, survived a stroke and have mentored thousands of kids through Hawks Hoops.  What do you want your legacy to be?

Hawkins: I want to be remembered as someone who persevered and didn’t use obstacles as a reason to quit.  There were a lot of times in my career that I could have quit, but when times got tough, I adapted to my situation.  Most of the time, things are never going work out the way you wanted them to, but if it's meant to be then you'll find a way to make it happen.  I also want to be known as someone who helped others.  I've been blessed with a lot of resources that have given me the opportunity to inspire and help others achieve their dreams. 

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