Hawkins’s path to the N.B.A. was buoyed in part by a 1969 article in Life magazine by David Wolf. “Evidence recently uncovered,” Mr. Wolf wrote, “indicates that Connie Hawkins never knowingly associated with gamblers, that he never introduced a player to a fixer, and that the only damaging statements about his involvement were made by Hawkins himself — as a terrified, semiliterate teenager who thought he’d go to jail unless he said what the D.A.’s detectives pressed him to say.”
This sort of coercive questioning of vulnerable suspects matches the story of dozens of documented false convictions from the DNA era. It's a brand of interrogation nearly unique to American law enforcement known as the Reid technique (see here, here, here, here, and here), which earlier this year was finally abandoned by the company that had originated and popularized it.
Because interrogations happen in secret - meaning abusive tactics taught by the Reid method were almost never documented (particularly in the 1960s before recording equipment was cheap and common), much less made public and rectified - they also represent thousands of additional false convictions we'll never know about. Thanks his basketball skills, however, Hawkins' case received greater attention:
On Hawkins’s behalf, Roslyn Litman, a civil liberties activist, along with her husband and law partner, S. David Litman, and another lawyer, Howard Specter, sued the N.B.A. on antitrust grounds, arguing that the league had in effect illegally banned Hawkins and deprived him of the “opportunity to earn a livelihood.”
They won. The league paid Hawkins a settlement of nearly $1.3 million and dropped the ban. Hawkins joined the N.B.A. in 1969 and became an instant star with the Suns.
To recap: 50+ years ago a black kid was questioned intensely by authorities without an attorney, and like so many others before and after him, he told them what they wanted to hear. He didn't do so because he was guilty, just to get out of the room and make the pressure relent. But it was a false confession which matched no other evidence the investigators had uncovered, so in this case he was never prosecuted. Still, the professional damage lingered for a decade. And others similarly situated likely suffered their fates in silent ignominy, with no obituary featured in the Grey Lady to set the record straight on history's behalf.
These are not new problems, for the most part; the broader public has only become newly aware of them.