UNLV basketball:

Justin Hawkins striving to excel on court — and well beyond

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Sam Morris

Carmen Hawkins and her son, UNLV basketball guard Justin Hawkins, are seen Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012.

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Justin Hawkins talks to students while appearing at an event at Cunningham Elementary School Nov. 1, 2012.

The Rebel Room

The Justin Hawkins Podcast

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UNLV reporter Taylor Bern welcomes in two guests to discuss senior guard Justin Hawkins — Hawkins' mother, Carmen, and author of "Play Their Hearts Out" George Dohrmann. The book features both Justin and Carmen as central figures, and Carmen and George join Taylor to dish out inside stories and discuss UNLV's "glue guy."

Justin Hawkins didn’t want the kids to see him cry.

Hawkins was at an area elementary school, one of several visits he makes through the UNLV athletic department, when he asked a young boy what he wanted to be when he grew up. The boy responded that he wanted to be a veterinarian but changed his mind after his friends said that profession wasn’t cool.

Children change career choices all the time, so that part was hardly revelatory. What hit Hawkins and forced him to fight back tears was that someone so young was willing to abandon his goal because of pressure from the outside world.

“I sat down and told him, ‘Don’t ever let someone tell you you can’t do something. Never let anyone take your dreams from you,’” Hawkins said.

Hawkins, a senior guard on the UNLV’s basketball team, knows about following through on a dream. In his case, the dream involves not only athletics but striving to get the most out of his college experience.

Hawkins had a miniature hoop and basketball next to his crib and started playing organized games at age 4. His mother, Carmen Hawkins, who raised Justin and his younger brother Marcus, 19, mostly as a single mother, could put a game on TV and Justin would fall silent, basking in basketball.

Hawkins is primed to play starters’ minutes for No. 18-ranked UNLV, starting at 7 p.m. today against visiting Northern Arizona in the season opener. He’s one of three seniors and four captains charged with pairing the Rebels’ experience with their newcomers’ potential and is being counted on by coaches and teammates to have a great season.

That’s not the extent of the dream, though.

Basketball always has been a big part of Hawkins’ life, but it’s just that: one part. In May, he completed his hotel administration degree — in just three years — and now he’s working on a master’s in public administration.

No longer content to keep to himself on campus, Hawkins talks to anyone he can because, he said, you never know who’s destined for greatness or what you can learn from those around you. This has given Hawkins a support system of like-minded people, those who strive to be the best in any particular field.

UNLV is getting a lot from Hawkins — stellar defense, toughness, leadership and a very capable ball-handler on the court; a classy ambassador off it — and his aim is to get just as much from the university by the time he’s done. That free education isn’t wasted on him, and neither are the resources in networking through basketball or academics.

That master’s eventually will be completed, though the timetable is anyone’s guess. There’s professional basketball in his future — NBA or abroad — and a possible coaching career. Just as likely, however, is a run for public office.

The goal is not to be ready for one of those things but all of them, to use the system more than it’s using you and to never let anyone stop you from dreaming big.

“We’re going to be the next leaders of the world, so if we feel like we’re in this by ourselves, how can we really lead? Who are we going to be able to lead?” Hawkins said. “We’re all going to have to follow each other, to lead each other and lean on each other. ... We’re going to take our world to the next level.”

‘I’m my mother’s son’

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Justin Hawkins signs a copy of the book "Play Their Hearts Out," in which he is featured, after practice before their second round NCAA Men's Basketball Championship game Wednesday, March 14, 2012 at The Pit in Albuquerque.

To learn a little about Hawkins’ childhood, you don’t have to ask him. You can read about it in 2010’s “Play Their Hearts Out,” Sports Illustrated senior writer George Dohrmann’s unflinching look at the world of grass-roots, or AAU, basketball through the lens of one super team in Southern California.

The book’s main protagonist is Demetrius Walker, now a junior at New Mexico. Walker was discovered at age 9 by Joe Keller, a former car stereo installer with little basketball knowledge, who wanted to get a piece of the money flowing from shoe companies to elite youth teams.

Keller formed the Inland Stars — named for the Inland Empire region in Southern California — and Dohrmann started tagging along with the idea of following the team all the way through high school. In 2000, Hawkins was playing for a team called, coincidentally, the Runnin’ Rebels, which was one of the only teams that could really battle the Inland Stars. Keller fixed that by adding Hawkins and another player to his team with the promise of bettering their chance to get a scholarship and play professionally.

“To me, it was so obvious that he was a BS artist, but so many of these parents had the ‘Hoop Dreams’ syndrome and couldn’t get over the fact that maybe this guy could help their kid,” Dohrmann said.

Carmen Hawkins was a notable exception.

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Justin Hawkins' mother, Carmen, hugs to Chace Stanback after practice before UNLV's second round NCAA Tournament game Wednesday, March 14, 2012 at The Pit in Albuquerque. Carmen, who is often at games despite living in Los Angeles, said she considers all of the Rebels players her sons by another mother.

Now a fixture at many UNLV games, she knew nothing about the cutthroat world of youth basketball when her son started going to camps and playing on teams throughout California. Unlike most single parents in her position, though, she did research and asked questions, constantly challenging Keller’s claims of being able to ensure players received a basketball scholarship and eventually a professional contract.

Dennis Young, Hawkins’ father, who works in Washington, D.C., as a legal counsel for the FDIC, wasn’t around for much of this. With age, Hawkins began to accept the situation. Young has been to both of Justin’s graduations and sees his son five or six times a year. He plans to make it to a few games this season.

His absence, though, highlighted Carmen Hawkins’ importance in molding her son and protecting him from getting chewed up and spit out — the unfortunate reality for many of the other youth players featured in the book who didn’t achieve the greatness Keller sold them on.

“She told me, ‘The system is always going to use you, no matter what,’” Hawkins said. “‘Whether you’re an athlete, whether you’re a scholar, someone’s always going to use you to their advantage. So while they’re using you, you might as well use them and get what you need out of it.’”

‘Coach Rice gave that feeling back to me’

Hawkins committed to UNLV before his junior year at Taft High School near Los Angeles.

At the time, the Rebels were looking for two guards out of a group of three that included Hawkins and two locals, fellow senior Anthony Marshall and Kansas’ Elijah Johnson. After visiting with then-coach Lon Kruger, Hawkins and his mother went to the PF Chang’s just northwest of campus and discussed his future over chicken. They returned to Kruger’s office after lunch and committed on the spot.

“I feel like after I committed I reached my goal. It hindered my development,” Hawkins said. “I didn’t really practice as hard as I should have because I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve got a scholarship, what else do I need to go for?’ I really didn’t maximize my skills and maximize high school the way I should have. I should have won more city titles, I should have won a state championship, but I didn’t do it because I was so focused on, ‘I’ve already got mine, so let me help someone else get theirs.’”

UNLV Runnin' Rebel Justin Hawkins

UNLV's Justin Hawkins adds to his story. Launch slideshow »

Hawkins wasn’t able to look back and realize the time he had lost until he was about two years into college. At that point, he was considering starting fresh somewhere new. Kruger’s departure to Oklahoma in 2011 solved that issue, though.

Hawkins can’t help thinking about how different this year could have been if Dave Rice hadn’t come to Las Vegas.

“If (Kruger) didn’t leave, I probably would have left because I wasn’t happy,” Hawkins said. “Don’t get me wrong, I love the school, I love the community, I love everything off the court, but on the court, I wasn’t happy. I didn’t feel like I was wanted.”

Hawkins saw himself as a character piece in his first two years at UNLV, a defensive specialist who would never reach his full potential because the system wouldn’t allow it to happen. He had done that to himself once before, in high school, and he didn’t want to sit by and let someone else do it to him again.

When Hawkins saw the list of candidates to succeed Kruger, he liked the opportunity to play for either of the finalists — former players Reggie Theus and Dave Rice. He immediately started working on his offensive game, and it paid off when Rice was selected as the head coach.

“Our first conversation, I told him, ‘I know what a good defensive player you are, but I also think you can be a terrific shooter for us, so I value what you do at both ends of the floor,’” Rice said.

After that, Hawkins was all in.

Last season, Hawkins set new single-game career highs in every category except blocks. For the season, he shot nearly the exact same percentage from the field — 41.7 as a sophomore, 41.8 as a junior — but took 93 more shots. He also made more 3-pointers (40) than he had attempted in either of his first two years, shooting 32.3 percent behind the arc. That has to get better this year, as does his 62 percent free-throw shooting from last season.

Those things are easy to see, though. Where he wants to improve the most also is where he excelled last year: handling the ball. Hawkins had nearly a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio as a junior and ranked seventh in the country in turnover percentage at 8.1, according to kenpom.com. That means for every 100 possessions he took, Hawkins had only eight of them end in turnovers; the rest were shots or passes.

“I know where my teammates should and shouldn’t get the ball,” Hawkins said.

That type of knowledge shows up more in coaches’ tape than it does in box scores, which is just fine with Hawkins. Outsiders likely will know him as an improved shooter and leader on defense, and that’s not wrong. It’s just incomplete.

“He almost is our point guard defensively, especially with these young guys,” junior Mike Moser said. “He’s been passing along so much knowledge. ... In the areas where you think we need leadership, that’s where people look to, is Hawk. He’s more than just what people would call the glue guy; he’s way more than that.

“We go as Hawk goes.”

‘We can’t let our potential go to waste’

Wednesday’s narrow exhibition victory against Dixie State, which included familiar problems such as a bad second half and too many 3-pointers, put the team on notice. The Rebels survived 81-80 in overtime, winning on the last shot of the game in what would have been an embarrassing loss to a lower-level opponent.

Hawkins was visibly upset during a lot of the game, particularly as the Rebels failed to rotate properly on defense or close out with their hands up on outside shooters.

Justin Hawkins Pep Rally

Justin Hawkins and other UNLV students appear at an event at Cunningham Elementary School Nov. 1, 2012. Launch slideshow »

He’s determined to help make the team stronger this season after living through the disappointments of last year, when a fast start ended with a thud against Colorado in the Round of 64 at the NCAA Tournament.

The Rebels started the season with eight straight victories, including topping then-No. 1 North Carolina and beating a quality UC Santa Barbara team in two overtimes on the road. Soon, the players started believing the hype.

“No one knew how to deal with it,” Hawkins said of the attention last season. “The coaching staff, players, no one. We’d never been that highly talked about. There were times throughout the day all of our phones would be going off nonstop, people saying, ‘Congratulations,’ ‘You’re doing so well,’ ‘Oh, you guys are so good,’ everyone just feeding us all this stuff.”

Last year’s team never figured it out. The pieces look like they fit together and complement each other better this season, though right now it’s just a look.

“(Justin) came with the commitment to get UNLV back to its glory years and to win a national championship before he leaves,” Carmen Hawkins said. “He won’t admit that to you.”

Hawkins’ impact at UNLV is felt far beyond the Thomas & Mack Center. He’s the face people most often see out in the community, the same one that may be on a campaign poster some day. He’s the guy most likely to make a game-winning steal, like he did last year at home against San Diego State, or read some poetry to schoolchildren.

A deep thinker with ideas of bringing success to UNLV and the Las Vegas community on and off the court, Hawkins has a few more months to use the system, to follow and lead, and to lean on his teammates in their pursuit of big dreams.

And don’t dare tell them they can’t do it.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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  1. Great post, Taylor. I enjoyed the podcast as well.