The basketball gods were shining on the Connie Hawkins Summer Basketball League as it returned to the indoor facilities of The Club 4-life in Monroeville to celebrate its 35th anniversary.

For nearly four decades the league was the gold standard in which Pittsburgh’s great basketball players were tested. The league has been nationally recognized and was once named one of the top 10 best summer leagues by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It is the fifth-longest running league in the country.

‘TEAM HAWK’—From left: John Krchmar, Terry Smith, Munz Abdulla, Devante Goudy, Bill Neal, B B Flenory, Kevin Corlew, and Karlton Griffin.

For many years, the league’s games were played outside in various Pittsburgh neighborhoods.

“In 1975, I was the program director at the Homewood Brushton YMCA and we wanted to do something to help out the area because Homewood was down after the burnout from the rioting after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” said Bill Neal, the league’s co-organizer and president and CEO of Champion Enterprises. “The great Connie Hawkins was working out at the YMCA and I asked him could we use his name to introduce a new league and he said just don’t mess up my name.”

Hawkins is an NBA Hall of Famer and voted one of the NBA 50 all-time greatest players. Better known as the “Hawk,” he led the Pittsburgh Pipers to a world championship in the ABA.

This seem like a odd matchup: Hawkins a famous NBA veteran from the mean streets of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Neal the young college graduate who grew up in the posh suburbs of the Lincoln Park section of Penn Hills.

“Back in the ’70s the area’s most successful league was the 5th Avenue League run by Dew Brown and for some reason in 1975 the league didn’t run on the Hill and all their players came and played in the Connie Hawkins League,” said Neal. “It all started with Connie Hawkins. His name meant everything, but in 1976 we would not have been able to survive if it wasn’t for Jose Champagne, Eddie Jefferies and the Rankin Gangsters. Jose and Eddie said that they were going to play in the Connie Hawkins league and everybody followed.”

Neal is a real champion for the people; his workingman’s approach to basketball and work ethic carries over into the league. From 1975 to 1979 Homewood averaged 500 people per night and from 1980 to 1990 the league moved to East Hills and averaged 1,000 fans per night.

“We outgrew East Hills. The buses couldn’t run, no place to park. Fans were parking on the grass standing on top of their cars trying to watch the games,” said Neal. “In 1991 we moved to Penley Park in East Liberty and they renamed the park Champions Park and redesigned the court especially for the Connie Hawkins games.”

The league is best known for matching NCAA, NBA and NFL players with lawyers, businessmen and the average Joe. The league welcomes the area’s premier Division I players from Pitt, Duquesne and Robert Morris.

“I played basketball and football all my life,” said Todd Thomas, former All-State basketball player from Beaver Falls High School. “I’m playing receiver for the Pitt football team and playing in the Connie Hawkins gives me a chance to continuing playing basketball at the highest level.”

Players in the league range from those heading into their senior year in high school to recent high school graduates, players in college and former professional players, such as Pittsburgh natives Myron Brown and Armon Gilliam, who earned millions of dollars during his 14-year NBA career.

League Director Debra Coleman said the league is pretty competitive, with talented players from colleges such as California University of Pennsylvania, Slippery Rock, Edinboro, Geneva, Seton Hill, Bethany and Penn State-Greater Allegheny.

In 2007, the league decided to move from outside to inside “The House.” The league went through renovations and in an “Extreme Makeover: Connie Hawkins Edition—a retooled league found new life at the Club 4-life in Monroeville better known as God’s country.

The indoor facility provides a more controlled environment and a surface that wouldn’t take its toll on the players’ knees. Pittsburgh playground legend and former Duquesne University superstar Bryant McAllister is drawing oohs and ahhs from the crowd on a nightly basis.

“It’s a great privilege for us to come and play our games here. It’s a chance for people to come down and watch some great basketball and check out what The Club has offer,” said Neal. “What we are most proud about is in 35 years we never had a major injury to anybody. No broken leg, no concussion. We never had a major incident of any kind and it speaks to the quality of the program. We have assisted over 350 kids get into college.

“We had 50 go to the NBA and over 100 play professionally overseas.” After being served up lemons after 2006, Neal went about the business of turning them into lemonade! Neal has not missed a game in 35 years and it is this kind of enthusiasm and love for the game that have turned the Connie Hawkins into one of the best in the world.

The Club 4-life, Monroeville, Bill Neal and the Connie Hawkins League is a match made in heaven.

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