RALEIGH, N.C. – Jessica Hawkins let her game do the talking during her glory days as a star basketball player at Shaw University.
It spoke volumes.
“Jess made an immediate impact on the court and in our hearts,” former Shaw teammate Latasha Shipman-Ganus said.
Affectionately known as “Hawk”, the Raleigh, N.C., native excelled on the high school and collegiate levels. At Southeast Raleigh High School, she led the Lady Bulldogs to the state 4-A title in 1999, earning MVP honors. Southeast Raleigh was only in its second year of existence.
A phenomenal athlete, Hawkins also captured the state discus and shot put titles in track & field at Southeast.
Hawkins really blossomed as a basketball player at Shaw. She was CIAA Player of the Year and a two-time CIAA Defensive Player of the Year selection during her three-year career with the Lady Bears.
One of the cornerstones of the Shaw dynasty, Hawkins was a key member on the first three CIAA championship teams under current legendary Head Coach Jacques Curtis. The Lady Bears have since captured six more for a total of nine women’s titles during the Curtis era. In 2012, the Lady Bears claimed the school’s first ever NCAA Division II national crown.
Overall, Shaw has 11 CIAA women’s crowns, the most in conference history.
A quiet and laid-back person, Hawkins seldom talks about her basketball exploits. She doesn’t have to.
Even today, her accolades ring loud and clear. On Feb. 24th, Hawkins will be inducted in the CIAA Hall of Fame along with three individuals and one team during basketball tournament week in Baltimore.
The CIAA Hall of Fame includes over 300 honorees but the 2023 class is special. The inductees are all women in honor of the 50th anniversary of Title IX, a federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school or any other education program that receives funding from the federal government.
“I really can’t believe it,” Hawkins said. “I was amazed. I look at my teammates like Ship [Latasha Shipman-Ganus], who was so versatile and one of the leading rebounders at Shaw. Then we had Kiarsha Curtis, who was hard to guard, and you had Nastassia Boucicault. They made me look good. I was like are you sure you didn’t get me mixed up with one of them? It is truly a great honor to be considered among the greats in the CIAA.”
It is fitting that Hawkins is a member of the current Hall of Fame class. Her accomplishments were second to none in the CIAA. Her fervor and passion for the game sparked Shaw to unlimited heights.
Coach Curtis says Hawkins deserves to be in the Hall of Fame for those reasons and more.
“You have some people who have the skill and numbers to be in the Hall of Fame, but they are not good people,” Coach Curtis said. “She is a good person and was a great player. My current team never saw her play but they heard me talk about her before. When they found out she made it, they were elated. Her former teammates are elated because they knew what she stood for when she played.”
Hawkins set the bar high for future CIAA women hoopsters. She may be the only person to win three straight CIAA titles (2003, 2004, 2005). In 2004, the former standout guard earned both CIAA Player of the Year and CIAA Defensive Player of the Year. She is among a handful of players who have captured both awards the same season.
Defense was her calling card. In high school, Hawkins averaged nearly 20 points but Coach Curtis needed her tenacity on a loaded Shaw program featuring players such as Naomi Mobley, Joy Hairston, Curtis, Boucicault, Margiella Mobley and Shipman-Ganus. Most of the players during that era were Division I prospects who eventually landed at Shaw.
“Offense had nothing to do with her game,” Coach Curtis said. “She could change the game strictly from a defensive standpoint.”
Hawkins transferred to Shaw after a short stint at N.C. State University. Athletically gifted and skilled, Hawkins actually attended N.C. State on a track scholarship with the chance to play basketball under the late great Kay Yow. Things didn’t work out there, however, and Hawkins enrolled at Shaw, which turned out to be a blessing for the Lady Bears’ program and a curse for their opponents.
Back in the early 2000s, the Shaw women’s program was feared like Mike Tyson. Shaw rolled through the CIAA during Hawkins career, posting a 58-1 conference mark in three years. She is the only women’s basketball player under Coach Curtis to be inducted individually in the Shaw Athletic Hall of Fame.
“It was fun,” Hawkins said. “When we had 15 people, I was wondering how we were going to gel. The Mobley sisters, they were great because they could rebound, shoot, and post. Patrice Hearns was already there and earned All-CIAA honors. Probably one of the best teams that [Coach Curtis] had was the 2002-2003 team. The following year, we were able to do the same thing [win the CIAA title]. My senior year, I think we had the best record ever at Shaw. We made it to the regional finals and were ranked No. 1. It was a great ride.”
Most wins were by lopsided scores. Many teams, intimidated by the Lady Bears’ immense talent and Curtis’ coaching, were overwhelmed from the start.
“We took care of business on the court,” said Hawkins, a 2006 Shaw graduate. “[Coach Curtis] would give us certain goals, like who would get the most steals. Kiarsha and Nastassia got more steals than me one game. I was leading the league in steals at the time so I was upset. It was a lot of battles. One day, I got kicked out of practice. One of my teammates was fouling me and none of my coaches were calling foul so I took matters in my own hands. I felt bad about it and later apologized.”
Added Hawkins: “What I remember most about playing at Shaw was winning – we won a lot. Some teams did put up a fight, some didn’t. Sometimes you could sense the fear. When I saw that fear in their eyes, it was like a shark smelling blood – we would go for it. We had a 1-3-1 press. I remember one time Virginia Union kept turning the ball over. Their coach just threw up his hands as if he gave up.”
Hawkins epitomized the legendary squads. She was gritty, tenacious on both ends of the floor, especially on the defensive end. She was a ball-hawking stopper who terrorized opposing guards.
“One of my most memorable stories would have to be the day we were scheduled to play Virginia Union in 2003, I believe,” Shipman-Ganus said. “We were all on the court warming up before the game. Hawk shows up limping, with bandages wrapped around her entire head. She honestly looked like a walking mummy.”
“The opposing team was so excited in knowing that Jess was potentially injured,” Shipman-Ganus added. “This meant they might actually have a small chance at trying to win or at least come close. Minutes before tipoff, Hawk shows up on the court in full uniform, right before the PA announcer calls out her name. The opposing team looked like they were going to cry! Their slim chance at keeping the game close suddenly diminished and they knew it! Jess is a natural prankster who just so happened to love the game of basketball and we love her dearly.”
Her banner year was 2004 when she swept both CIAA Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards.
“She might have averaged under 10 points a game,” Coach Curtis said. “All the coaches knew she was the key to the game. A lot of times, somebody averaging 10 points a game will not be player of the year. They are looking for somebody to average 18 or 20 points. They knew the impact she had on the floor defensively would disrupt the other team. She had superior defense, footwork, high IQ and knew where to be. Everyone still talks about the game against Cassie King.”
During the 2005 CIAA Tournament, Cassie King, who is now in the CIAA Hall of Fame, scored a tournament-record 59 points to spark N.C. Central University to a quarterfinal victory. Coach Curtis was asked during a press conference was he worried about King and N.C. Central, whom the Lady Bears were set to face in the semifinals. His response was “No. We have Jessica Hawkins.”
Hawkins locked down King, holding her to 14 points on 5 of 19 shooting. The Lady Bears won easily and later went on to capture their third straight CIAA crown.
“She took pride in defense. She wasn’t worrying about scoring,” Coach Curtis said. “If Jessica scored, it was off a steal, a layup. She was one of the best defensive players, if not the best defensive player, the conference has ever had. If you are starting a program, you can start it with a Jessica Hawkins because she plays both sides of the ball. Have I had better rebounders? Absolutely. Have I had better shooters? Absolutely. But I’ve never had a better two-way player. She will create offense out of her defense and she is very, very unselfish.”
Her game caught the attention of basketball fans and players outside the CIAA. When Hawkins was named conference player of the year in 2004, a big picture of her was in the local paper The News & Observer. Some of the N.C. State players slid the article under the coach’s door and said, “see what you let get away?”.
You will never hear Hawkins talk about her career achievements unless it is brought up. Her focus is on this year’s team at Shaw, where she is a strength and conditioning coach under Curtis.
“If a player needs something, she will be there,” Coach Curtis said. “It just so happens she lives in downtown Raleigh [where Shaw is located]. The other day, we had a kid who wanted to shoot. Jessica opened the gym and stayed until that kid finished shooting. If a player has a doctor’s appointment and doesn’t have a car, she is right there taking them to the appointment. She is going to give the players all of her time to get where they need to be academically and athletically.”
Still in great shape, the Lady Bears’ legend has no trouble working out with the current team. In her spare time, she plays in a flag football league.
“She works out every day, runs with her dog every day,” Coach Curtis said. “She would start for me right now if she had some eligibility.”
Her presence inspires the current players.
“She has always been that extra ear,” Shaw forward Tanayja London said. “You can’t go to your assistant coach or head coach for everything. She cares about our feelings and stuff like that. We are all super proud of her and glad that she is getting her flowers now. We go up against her in practice so we know how tough she is. Coach Curtis has preached to us that she was that player for him. She was dominating defensively, so we are trying to build on the legacy she left.”
By the way, the Lady Bears are among the top defensive teams in the CIAA.
Her induction in the CIAA Hall of Fame on the 50th anniversary of Title IX will likely motivate other young girls and women as well.
“I think back to my mom telling me about the limited opportunities that women had before Title IX,” said Hawkins, one of the few black females who is an NCAA certified strength and conditioning coach. “Women have come a long way. I am honored to be inducted on the anniversary of Title IX.”