Ailene Voisin

Opinion: Corey Hawkins leads Aggies’ pursuit of NCAA Tournament

UC Davis guard Corey Hawkins (3) celebrates with Darius Graham (2) after the Aggie’s 61-59 win against UC Riverside earlier this month. Hawkins, the son of former NBA player Hersey Hawkins, has made his own way as the Aggies pursue their first berth in the NCAA Division I Tournament.
UC Davis guard Corey Hawkins (3) celebrates with Darius Graham (2) after the Aggie’s 61-59 win against UC Riverside earlier this month. Hawkins, the son of former NBA player Hersey Hawkins, has made his own way as the Aggies pursue their first berth in the NCAA Division I Tournament. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Corey Hawkins considers himself fortunate. He escaped the pushy parent syndrome common in youth sports. Though his father, Hersey, enjoyed a 13-year NBA career, he offers guidance only when approached, and even then speaks in measured, thoughtful phrases.

But Corey? There is nothing measured or stoic about Corey. He inherited his feisty temperament and aggressive presence from his mother, Jennifer. In his final home game for UC Davis on Saturday, with his parents in attendance, the 6-foot-3 senior was a passion play for 94 feet and the better part of 40 minutes.

Trash talking opponents. Absorbing physical hits and leaping back to his feet. Imploring teammates to push harder, jump higher. Having animated conversations with the referees. Gesturing and urging the fans at the packed Pavilion to give his Aggies some hometown love one last time.

“Corey didn’t get any of that from me,” said Hersey Hawkins, laughing. “I coached him for a while in high school, and I was always having to calm him down. He was born in Philadelphia, so maybe he thinks he’s got some Philly in him. You know these kids today.”

But the younger Hawkins is much more than all swag and show. Like his father, the son is a winner. The son has game. On a team that plays with the savvy familiarity of an enduring rock band, Corey is the lead singer, the best player, the most important instrument. His aggressive, infectious personality and physical abilities have taken UCD from the Division I teething stages to within three victories of an NCAA Tournament berth.

And how poetic that the Big West Conference tournament will be Thursday through Saturday at Honda Center in Anaheim, just a few blocks from Disneyland.

Small, small world, indeed. The top-seeded Aggies, coached by former Kings guard and Monarchs assistant Jim Les, open the tournament Thursday against Cal State Northridge, coached by former Kings guard and head coach Reggie Theus. Hersey Hawkins played on George Karl’s Seattle SuperSonics team that reached the 1996 NBA Finals. But the most important relationships, as they pertain to the current Aggies, features fathers and sons.

Les and Hersey Hawkins were teammates at Bradley, and throughout their NBA careers, they ran basketball camps in the offseason. Their sons Tyler Les and Corey have been friends since elementary school. When Corey decided to transfer after one season at Arizona State, he called his friend Tyler, a UCD guard, Hersey contacted his friend Jim, and the families reunited in Davis.

“It’s hard to trust your children with just anyone,” Jennifer Hawkins said. “All three of our sons had gone through some coaches. But the Les family were friends of ours for so long, and we knew Jim would care a little deeper than most. It wasn’t just about basketball.”

In his other life, the one pertaining to textbooks and potential career paths outside professional basketball, Corey graduates in June with a degree in communications. His long-term goal is to become an ESPN anchor or perhaps supplant one of the superstars on TNT’s Emmy Award-winning NBA show.

But, for now, Corey plans to continue his talking on the court. A slimmer, more wiry version of his 6-3 father, who was known for his lethal midrange game and ability to finish at the basket, the younger Hawkins is driven to extend a senior season that already has been one for the record books.

The Big West Player of the Year led the nation in three-point field-goal percentage (49.7) and the Big West in scoring (20.6) and is No. 2 on the Aggies’ all-time scoring list. He also made the basket that clinched the program’s first Big West title and two nights later, in his homecourt finale, was even more impressive.

Hawkins was a blur, stealing passes, finding teammates for layups, rising for jumpers, pulling up for three-pointers, slipping inside taller opponents for rebounds, and scoring on a variety of left- or right-handed floaters – a lost art in today’s NBA.

When he forces himself to analyze his son’s skills objectively, the elder Hawkins, who heads the Portland Trail Blazers’ player development department, sees an intriguing prospect who needs to continue improving his ballhandling and playmaking and adjust to the NBA’s deeper three-point line.

“I think playing for Jim, with him being a guard, has really paid off,” Hersey said. “Corey has become a much better passer than I was and a much better ballhandler than I was. And while he doesn’t have burner speed, he has a change of pace that can throw defenders off balance. I don’t think he gets enough credit for his ability to get to the basket.”

Hawkins’ hesitation, stutter-step dribble is somewhat reminiscent of a young Mike Bibby or Chauncey Billups. Neither had overwhelming quickness, but they understood angles, saw the floor and slithered through openings.

“What I am most proud of,” Les said, “is how Corey took the challenge to become a better defender, a better playmaker. He was already a good rebounder. He’s just a terrific ambassador for our program and university. He has a 3.4 grade-point average, is a 20-point scorer who is well liked by his teammates. How often do you see that? And he accelerated our ascent because of his talent, but also because his swagger, his confidence, is contagious. His personality has elevated our team to where we are now.”

Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.

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