For Coleman Hawkins, 'it's all worked out'

Mar. 20—Want to purchase today's print edition? Here's a map of single-copy locations.

MINNEAPOLIS — Coleman Hawkins signed as many autographs and posed for as many photos as he possibly could following Illinois' Big Ten tournament championship win Sunday at the Target Center.

Fans ringed the court for the Illini's trophy-hoisting, net-cutting celebration. Hawkins, like he did after Illinois' wins the two previous days made as much time as he could, to recognize their support. He was once that little kid wanting to get an autograph. He knows what even that brief moment of interaction can mean.

The scene was the same at State Farm Center following Illinois' final home game this season. Purdue had just handed the Illini a disappointing 77-71 loss on March 5. But Hawkins made his way around the perimeter of Lou Henson court signing autographs and taking photos with the Orange Krush.

That moment had deeper roots. Recognition from the Krush that Hawkins might have played his final game at State Farm Center (more on that later). Recognition from Hawkins for a fan base that's shown equal loyalty back.

An actual relationship built because Hawkins stayed. The senior forward is the last man standing in Champaign from Illinois' 2020 recruiting class. Adam Miller left after a single season. Andre Curbelo was gone a year later. Brandon Lieb followed them last offseason.

Hawkins stayed.

Even when he didn't factor all that much into Illinois' plans as a freshman in a frontcourt that leaned on Kofi Cockburn and Giorgi Bezhanishvili. Even when he was thrust into a bigger role as a sophomore despite maybe not being totally ready. Even after a junior season that saw growth as more of a go-to player and a leader amidst some frustrations in both.

Hawkins stayed and truly started to thrive this season. The end results of a not-always-easy process that not all players are willing to embrace in this age of college basketball.

"A lot of people try to rush stuff," Hawkins said. "Luckily for me, I have a dad who's a basketball dad. He's not just a dad who has a son that's really good at basketball and he's trying to guide him through stuff. That's not the case. I've always had a dad and a mom — my mom's really good about it, too, I've got to give her credit — good at keeping me humble. Letting me know that my time will come. Trust in the process.

"We're fully aware of all the games and the politics that go around, but we never rushed anything. We let it all come natural. It's all worked out for me. There's a lot of guys that go a different route or try something else, and we don't hear much about them."

A whirlwind journeyHawkins became the first player in Illinois history to accumulate at least 900 points, 500 rebounds, 200 assists, 100 blocks and 100 steals in a career, hitting those marks last week in Minneapolis. It tracks with what Illinois coach Brad Underwood saw from a lanky, 6-foot-10 forward out of Sacramento, Calif., in the recruiting process.

Underwood loved Hawkins' skill set. The length and quick hands to be a menace defensively. The willingness to pass and basketball IQ to whip them into narrow windows others might not see. The shooting to be able to stretch the floor.

Not that it all coalesced early.

Hawkins played in 25 games as a freshman, but sparingly, seeing the court for just 6.3 minutes per game. Then more as a sophomore in a part-time starting role. Then more can't-take-him-off-the-court role the past two seasons.

"Goes through it a little bit as a freshman on a good team," Underwood said. "As a sophomore just gets dealt all kinds of adversity. Starting. Hadn't earned it. Didn't deserve it to be honest, but I gave it to him. To getting benched and playing very little. Just stays with it.

"He comes back and has a really good junior year. Not great, but had a good one. Some ups and downs in that. Responsibility heaved on his shoulders with an all new team — a young, freshmen team basically. He grew with that team. He helped guide that team."

And now his senior season. Hawkins has never been as productive or efficient. He's averaging a career high 12.4 points. Shooting a career best (by a wide margin) 37 percent from three-point range. Plus plenty of rebounds, assists and more steals than anyone else on the team.

"It's always about the process to me," Underwood said. "I don't care what sport you're in. Very, very few are ready as a freshmen to go be successful at the next level. For Coleman to be with us four years, I think speaks to what he thinks of Illinois and what he thinks of our program."

Finding a fit in ChampaignRodney Hawkins wasn't always sure about that process early in his son's Illinois career. Rodney saw Coleman barely dent the rotation in year one and understood some other teams considered in the recruiting process might have yielded a bigger opportunity.

"I wound up respecting the process, but at first I didn't particularly care for it because I knew there were some places he would have went where he would have played right away," Rodney said. "I think it was rare, but I can see the process worked for him. If you look at him, not just statistically but just as a player, he's improved every year he's been there. And he hasn't even scratched the surface on what I think his ability will be."

Any doubts Rodney had in the process were his alone. He saw his role as dad — even a dad that had two successful seasons at San Diego State and a professional career overseas — as support only. He let Coleman chart his own college basketball path, never wanting his son to think he was trying to relive his experience.

"If the dad is putting pressure on their child, it's worse because they can never live up to a person that's looking at them for perfection," Rodney said. "I chose to let him take his lumps, be there as a backbone for him and let him try. Then when he has success, you can't say, 'I told you so. This was because of me.' Now that he's having success, I can enjoy the success because I didn't hinder him in any way. I recognize it's him playing for the University of Illinois and not me."

That approach by Rodney and his wife, Tonia, and all three of Coleman's sisters who played college basketball — Ashley, Taylor and Bailey — was a part of Coleman's success at Illinois. He understood that they made their own way just like he would have to and could.

"You can't make excuses for yourself," Coleman said. "I can't sit on the phone and say, 'This is happening and this is happening and I want to go home.' That's never going to fly with my dad. He said he's done it. My sisters have all done it.

"It's been good to be held accountable and know if they can do it, I can do it. They all understand where I'm coming from, too. They have consideration. They respect me, respect what I'm doing and respect my time. They love me and support me throughout the way."

That was the gist of Rodney's message to his son. It was Coleman's journey. A journey that might not always be smooth, but one he could handle.

"I always told him, 'As long as you feel good about where you're at, then my job is to feel good about that, too,'" Rodney said.

That started with Coleman's official visit to Illinois. All the typical official visit norms were hit. A campus tour. Meetings with the coaches to discuss fit and how they could improve his game. It all resonated.

But Illinois had a wild card. The Illini staff knew Coleman had played football growing up. Was a quarterback before shooting up to 6-10. They also knew he was a Chicago Bears fan and arranged a sit-down with then-Illinois football coach Lovie Smith on the visit.

"They sat there for about an hour and 15 minutes running football plays and talking about life in general," Rod said. "That was a major piece for Coleman. He was literally all ears."

The decision was made. Illinois was the choice. The Hawkins family had other visits set up, but they weren't going to be necessary.

"When you take your child on a visit, you're trying to feel it out yourself," Rod said. "I knew Illinois was stacked as far as the roster. I knew they were going to be better the next year. Coleman never once voiced any fear or apprehension about coming to Illinois. We went up to the room and we were going out to dinner. He said, 'Dad, I really want to come here.'

"I was the one saying we've got some other visits to do. After we came back from dinner he said, 'Why would I waste those coaches' time when this is where I want to be.'"

Rodney knew there would be some pressure with that decision. He grew up in Chicago. Still has family there and took his own back to the city multiple times a year.

"I told him we're going to be under pressure," Rodney said. "All the people I know in Chicago, my family, people are going to want you to play quicker. They'll put pressure on you when you don't do those things or it doesn't happen."

Trusting the processColeman opted for another year at Illinois this season after going through the NBA pre-draft process and realizing he could continue to develop his game while also benefitting from his name, image and likeness in Champaign.

"I'm kind of well-known here in Champaign now," Coleman said. "It means a lot to be here for four years and be in a community that shows a lot of respect with a fan base that really cares about you. It's been a quick, but great, four years.

"I didn't quit. I didn't quit on my coaches. I didn't quit on my teammates. I always had my trust in Illinois."

Rodney grew up watching Illinois in the 1970s and '80s. Knows some players from the Flyin' Illini era. Understood what basketball at Illinois meant and feels like his son "embodies everything it's about."

"He took ownership in the University of Illinois," Rodney said. "It sounds corny, but I think everybody grew together. They grew to like Coleman, and he grew to like him We can't go anywhere in Champaign without somebody stopping him for a photo or talking to him."

Will he return? Stay tunedWhether there's one more year for that relationship to deepen is the question. There's a bonus season of eligibility on the table, with Coleman in the last class of players to get one back because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether to use it or not is a decision that's not top of mind for the Illinois senior, who said as much last week in Minneapolis. The NCAA tournament has his attention.

But it will be discussed.

"We're going to talk about everything," Rodney said. "We're going to explore every option. It isn't just one is an absolute. We'll look at everything that's provided to us and make a decision."