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Friday, August 28, 2015

Darryl "Chocolate Thunder" Dawkins Leaves Behind a Legacy of Dunks, Laughter and Love

Dunking a basketball on a regulation hoop is a feat that is fascinating to virtually every child and unattainable to most adults. When I was a child, I marveled at the high-flying acrobatics of my favorite NBA player, Julius Erving, and my favorite college player, Roosevelt Chapman, the University of Dayton star who led the 1984 NCAA Tournament in scoring (105 points in four games for a 26.3 ppg scoring average). I also was thrilled by the antics of Erving's teammate Darryl "Chocolate Thunder" Dawkins, who had the charm and audacity to name his dunks, including two that shattered NBA backboards. I only saw Dawkins play in person once, in a preseason game at the University of Dayton when Dawkins rode the bench for the Detroit Pistons near the end of his 14 year NBA career.

Dawkins passed away on Thursday at the age of 58. When Wilt Chamberlain died at 63 in 1999, it seemed shocking that such an athletic marvel could die so young and I had similar thoughts regarding Dawkins as I first learned of his death via the ESPN ticker while I did my evening workout. We are all mortal and we only occupy a living, physical space on this planet for a brief time, so what matters is how we use that time and what legacy we leave behind. Dawkins' most visible legacy consists of his dunks but his lasting legacy is laughter and love.

When Dawkins jumped to the NBA from high school in 1975, he seemed to have the size and talent to be the next Chamberlain--but Dawkins did not have the necessary desire or focus to live up to those expectations. After Dawkins had a big game one night, Philadelphia owner Harold Katz congratulated him and Dawkins replied that he hoped Katz did not expect that from him every night--not exactly the mindset of Julius Erving, Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. Dawkins worked hard enough, though, to become a very good NBA player,  posting career averages of 12.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg and 1.4 bpg. Dawkins was a key member of three Philadelphia teams that advanced to the NBA Finals (1977, 1980, 1982). After the 76ers acquired Moses Malone prior to the 1982-83 season, Dawkins landed with the New Jersey Nets. The 76ers won the 1983 title but Dawkins received a measure of revenge the next season when the Nets knocked out the 76ers in the first round of the playoffs.

Tom Friend, one of the last remaining masters of long form narrative non-fiction, captured the essence of Dawkins' life and character in a 2010 article titled Old College Try. Here are some telling excerpts, but do yourself a favor and read the entire piece:

If his coaches thought he was a fool or uncouth, it was because they knew nothing about him. They didn't know that, growing up in Orlando, Fla., he hadn't had indoor plumbing until he was in middle school. They didn't know he turned pro to buy homes for his mother and grandmother. They didn't know he was planning to send all seven of his brothers and sisters to college. They didn't know that after a Sixers home game, he saw a disheveled kid standing in the rain and drove the kid home to the slums. They didn't know that after the next game the same kid showed up and invited him back to the slums for dinner. They didn't know Darryl Dawkins had heart--and, problem was, Dawkins didn't either...

When Darryl was a teenager in Orlando, he had a job picking oranges, earning $20 a week, and he siphoned the money to two places. Half of it went to his mother to help pay the phone bill, and of his remaining 10 bucks, $4 went to kids in the neighborhood so they could buy ice cream.

Darryl soon was the king of that neighborhood and a bevy of others. Later, because of the broken backboards and his raps, he'd be mobbed everywhere by kids who would beg him to rhyme. And as an NBA player, he ended up working as many as 85 basketball camps a summer...

He never became Wilt, but he was as popular as any All-Star, and he finished his 14 seasons with a .572 shooting percentage, fifth-best all time. He showed NBA execs it was feasible for a high school kid to go pro, setting the stage for Kevin Garnett, Kobe and LeBron. According to Dunleavy, he was a mini Shaq. But all of that didn't alter the perception of him--fair or unfair--as an underachiever, and he was forced to conclude his career overseas, out of the spotlight.

The most touching part of Friend's article is when he describes Dawkins' devotion to his wife Janice Hoderman and Hoderman's daughter Tabitha, who suffers from Down's Syndrome. Dawkins and Hoderman later had two children of their own together, son Nicholas and daughter Alexis.   

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:15 PM



At Saturday, September 05, 2015 11:18:00 PM, Anonymous Joe Hastin said...

The Sixer's legends have taken a hit this year, Caldwell, Harvey and now Darryl....sad days in Philly but thinking of Darryl always will put a smile on my face!! And yes, that article you mention is a very good read, especially love the end part about DD coaching, you know those kids had to LOVE having him there imparting his wisdom...!!!


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