T.J. Hawkins’ day doesn’t get started until someone else says it does.
If it were up to him, he would arrive at Lansing’s Westside YMCA precisely at noon, but the daily trip doesn’t happen until a CATA bus comes rolling through his neighborhood near Everett High School. Depending on the day, he may make a call to Spec-Tran — CATA’s curb-to-curb paratransit service for people unable to use CATA’s fixed-route system — to speed up the process or avoid rugged weather.
Hawkins stands about six feet. He comes across as able bodied. The only noticeable deficiency is masked by his prescription glasses. He often gets crooked looks when he steps foot on the bus meant for people with disabilities.
“When I get on there, people are looking at me like, ‘What are you on here for?'” Hawkins said. “I’m not getting on there with a walker, I’m not getting on there with a wheelchair. I look like a regular guy. If I don’t tell you my story, you have no idea what happened.”
Hawkins suffered a stroke two years ago, just weeks after finishing his second full season as the Waverly varsity girls basketball coach. He can’t drive due to the limited vision in his left eye.
He had been working much of his adult life to have a basketball program he could call his own. But, when pounding headaches turned into a life-changing trip to Ingham Regional Medical Center, he stepped away from the sidelines.
At 40, he’s no longer the youthful and exuberant coach he was just two years ago. He can’t be, not right now. The energy for the day-to-day grind isn’t there yet. Not all the time.
“My whole time I had always been an energy coach,” Hawkins said. “Bring energy to the floor, bring energy to the sidelines, bring energy to practice … I need to see you bring the energy or you won’t be on the team.
“And, so, how could a coach that stands for that not bring the energy?”
Mentally, he’s there. He nearly took a job this season as an assistant coach with the Eastern High School varsity boys basketball team, a program headed by Julius Edwards, Hawkins’ former roommate at Michigan State. He quickly learned that he couldn’t devote the energy he could before.
He’s not done trying.
“It was the ideal situation,” he said about being at Waverly. “I’m in the district where my kids are. I’m at the highest level of high school basketball, my own program. It’s a disappointment, yes. But the reality of the situation is that I could not be here right now.”
It’s disappointing. He knows it might have been worse.
“I’m lucky to be here to see my daughters graduate, get good grades, participate. I still have a loving wife. She didn’t want to leave me. I still have a lot of things to be happy about.”
Owning a program
Hawkins came from Kalamazoo, where he played three years of varsity basketball at Kalamazoo Central in the early ’90s. Edwards, a Detroit native, played at Cass Tech.
“We had a large group of friends (at MSU), and we’d go play outside and at the IM,” Edwards said. “We found a common interest in basketball. We both played it in high school. We played quite a bit while we were in college.”
Shortly after they graduated in 1999, they started up their own AAU program, Mid-Michigan Basketball Club, hoping to build relationships in the Lansing area.
The AAU program eventually fizzled, but, in 2006, after a couple of years working at Lansing Community College, Hawkins took a junior varsity coaching position for the Eastern High School boys team. Edwards got a similar position at East Lansing around the same time.
In 2007, Hawkins and Edwards linked back up at Eastern, where both men served as varsity assistants under head coach Rod Watts, who became the varsity coach that year. They also ran the junior varsity team.
“One of the reasons I got into coaching was to help some of the inner-city youth,” Edwards said. “I thought Eastern would be a good fit, plus, I knew TJ was over there. It was a stepping stone to get in the door.”
When Watts became head coach, he had the right to chose a new staff. He kept both Hawkins and Edwards.
“I think they both had applied for the job as well, so I wanted to make sure there wasn’t going to be any hidden agendas,” said Watts, who coached the Quakers from 2007 to 2014. “We laid everything out. We all had the same common goal, which was to make the program and the kids better.”
Hawkins was forward thinking, Watts said, “and his input in the program was important. One of the the things I explained to the guys is that I didn’t want any yes men. T.J. is definitely not a yes man.”
Hawkins’ three daughters attended school in the Waverly Community Schools. In 2011, with them in mind, he took a job coaching the girls junior varsity team at Waverly High School. It was a lateral move, but one that allowed him to be more involved with his family.
“I didn’t just want to coach junior varsity my whole life…” Hawkins said. “As a junior varsity coach, there’s only so much that you can do. You’re implementing other people’s stuff. If I’m going to be doing this, I wanted to get to the point where I run my own program and see if I can be successful doing that.”
It came quicker than he imagined. Five games into the season, the varsity coach, Dan Carr stepped down for medical reasons. Hawkins was asked to be the interim coach and was offered the full-time job the following year.
Carr and Hawkins had built a solid friendship over their short time together.
“It was clear in my mind from Day 1 that it wasn’t my program, it was our program,” said Carr, a longtime teacher at Waverly. “We did everything together. The first act of business when I took the job was taking the girls to the Central Michigan overnight camp. We roomed together and talked the whole time. We talked about what we wanted the program to stand for.”
By the end of that first year, it was clear that the girls had bonded with Hawkins, Carr said.
“The reason I applied for the job was because I wanted the girls to have the best possible experience, not because I (had) to coach or needed to be the coach…” he said. “When he moved in, it made it clear. It made sense for him to run with this.”
Hawkins had finally received the keys. It was his program. But it came with mixed emotions.
“I was happy I was in that position, but I didn’t enjoy how it came together,” Hawkins said. “Someone had to get sick for that to happen. You don’t want to see someone hurt or in an ailing condition and that’s how you get it. Carr is a great guy, and to this day we’re still really good friends. He supported me through that transition.”
Hawkins was barely a month removed from his second full season when the headaches kicked in. One afternoon in late April of 2015, his oldest daughter, Deja, could sense something was wrong. Hawkins had spent the whole day in bed, texting his daughter, who was downstairs, the same questions over and over.
He was fading in and out, she said. She knew he wasn’t right.
“I took his blood pressure, and it was super high. I looked it up,” said Deja, who is now 20. “I told him we had to go the urgent care. He didn’t want to go.”
The doctor explained that Hawkins had suffered a stroke.
“I was absolutely floored,” Hawkins said.
“I didn’t have any people in my family (who had suffered a stroke), but I had always seen people or heard of people at church or in the community where one side of their body is paralyzed, they can’t move their arm or leg, slurred speech. And it was always someone older, never someone my age.”
Hawkins was in the hospital for two weeks. He suffered short-term memory loss for several weeks. He wouldn’t recognize acquaintances. He’s started carrying a notebook to jot down reminders of the things he needs to do each day.
Hawkins was on short-term disability with the Greater Lansing Sports Authority, where he was a full-time sports coordinator. That turned into long-term disability. Eventually, he resigned because he felt he was holding the organization back.
He tried to coach after being released from the hospital, but realized after a few off-season workouts that he didn’t have the energy to give his team the attention it deserved.
“It was kind of weird having him come back and not be the coach I knew him to be,” said Waverly senior Alisia Smith, who is committed to Penn State and played her first two seasons under Hawkins. “Everything was a little different. He talked a lot to us, helped us out. But, some days, he couldn’t really help me do certain stuff.”
He resigned from that position, too, a couple of months after the stroke to not “handcuff the girls or the school.”
“T.J. really changed his career trajectory to become a coach,” said his wife, Veda, who is an academic adviser and coordinator of student success at MSU. Hawkins left his administrative job at Lansing Community College to work for the Greater Lansing Sports Authority, which would allow him more time to coach.
“We really changed our life for him to pursue that career,” Veda said. “It was very devastating for our family when that happened.”
Returning to form
Hawkins starts his workouts with basketball. He’ll get some shots up, pass the ball off the wall, and do dribbling drills, trying to fill the hoops void in his life. He’ll spend hours doing cardio and light weightlifting, though he takes time out to read.
He spends much of his time trying to stay fit these days. It’s part of his recovery, something to fill the hours that he can’t spend working.
Around 3 p.m. each day, Hawkins stops his workout to grab his two youngest daughters off the school bus across the street from the YMCA. The three of them work out together until his wife picks them up on her way home from work a few hours later.
“I don’t let them just play games on my phone,” he said.
Hawkins is easing his way back.
Around this time last season, Edwards reached out to him about rejoining the sideline. Hawkins was reluctant. He thought his doctor wouldn’t approve, but decided that he would do it until someone told him he couldn’t.
Hawkins spent some of this past summer and fall with the Eastern boys basketball team. He was beginning to think that he was back to form, but after consecutive days of doing his workouts and going to practice, he saw that he wasn’t.
“It was physically demanding,” he said. “I’m not going to practice just sitting in the chair. I’m jumping in a drill, helping do this and do that.
“I didn’t need anyone to tell me. I could see that I wasn’t where I needed to be right now.”
Hawkins called his longtime friend and told him that he couldn’t commit.
“I consider him to be one of my best friends on Earth. I know what he’s been going through the past few years, and I know how much he enjoys coaching and giving back and helping Lansing Eastern,” said Edwards. “It really hurt me from that standpoint.”
One day, Hawkins will be back to coaching. He’s sure of that.
“I just didn’t want to be out there doing it. If I was going to do it, I just wanted to give the effort that I was used to giving,” he said.
“I didn’t want to give the kids 60 or 70 percent of a coach.”