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Darryl Dawkins, against Robert Parish in 1981, didn't want anyone messing with his dunks.
Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

Thirty years ago, Dawkins dunked his way into immortality

Posted Nov 13 2009 8:05AM

It was the first minute of the third quarter, just one more possession for the Philadelphia 76ers, when Maurice Cheeks made the entry pass to his cutting big man on the low right block.

Darryl Dawkins caught it and turned in one motion, never taking a dribble, never hesitating.

When Dawkins rose up, the house came down. Or at least that's what it felt like when he powered the ball through the hoop with such force that the Plexiglas backboard exploded and rained down in thousands of pieces all over the floor of the Kansas City Municipal Auditorium.

"Chocolate Thunder Flyin', Robinzine Cryin', Teeth Shakin', Glass-Breakin', Rump Roastin', Bun Toastin, Wham, Bam, Glass Breaker I Am Jam."

It was Nov. 13, 1979, a high holy day for those who worship at the Church of the Sacred Slam, and Friday, exactly 30 years later, the slam is still a staple on ESPN Classic and YouTube; the dunk heard 'round the world.

"I don't go anywhere, to a basketball camp, to a speaking engagement, just walking through the mall, that somebody doesn't come up several times a week and ask me about breaking the backboards," said Dawkins, now 52 and the coach at Lehigh Carbon Community College in Schnecksville, Pa. "To tell you the truth, it keeps me feeling young to have all these kids who never saw me play coming up and saying, 'Man, you was a beast!' ''

What today's kids never saw was the 6-foot-11, 255-pound man-child who went straight from Evans High School in Orlando, Fla., to the 76ers at age 18 and became a cult hero for his flashes of on-court ability and his off-the-court, larger-than-life flamboyance.

Long before Dwight Howard tied on the Superman cape or Shaquille O'Neal gave himself an arm's length of nicknames, Dawkins had created an entire persona as an outer space alien from the planet Lovetron, who frolicked with his girlfriend Juicy Lucy and spread the gospel of "interplanetary funkmanship."

I was inside the Delta Center on the night that Michael Jordan hit the walk-off jumper over Bryon Russell. I heard the roar of the crowd at Super Bowl XXIII when Joe Montana fired the TD pass to John Taylor with 34 seconds left. I felt the crackling of electricity when a limping Kirk Gibson cracked Dennis Eckersley's ninth-inning pitch over the right field wall.

And then there was Dawkins.

I saw Magic's baby hook to beat the Celtics, Christian Laettner's turnaround to beat Kentucky, Larry Mize's chip shot to beat Greg Norman, Mike Powell's leap to beat Bob Beamon and John Elway's drive to beat the Browns.

None of those events had the impact, literally and figuratively of Dawkins.

The dunk was so overpowering that it left Kansas City forward Bill Robinzine standing in the lane covering his head from the shards of falling glass, sent the Sixers' Doug Collins fleeing down the court and got Kings reserve Mike Green to rocket out of his seat and climb over the bench in fear. Even Dawkins admits he scared himself.

"I was surprised more than anybody else," he said. "I could have joined the U.S. Olympic track team. I ran like a scalded cat to get out from under that stuff. When I hit the rim it just felt like rubber and felt like it was coming down. I still crack up when I see the video of Mike Green jumping behind the bench like I was coming to kill him. Hey, he was wacky anyhow."

Though he swears he never planned that to happen -- "an accident, an old building, old rims, old glass" -- Dawkins sheepishly admits that it was a flight of fantasy rolling around inside his head since his days in junior high school.

He had already named dunks --- Yo Mama, Spine Chiller Supreme, Rim Wrecker, Dunk You Very Much, Sexophonic Turbo Delight --- and had become an icon in Philadelphia with his occasional bursts of on-court brilliance mixed with his backboard-swayin', alien-portrayin' swagger.

As a young beat reporter with just a few birthdays on the then-22-year-old prodigy, I had been co-writing a weekly column with Dawkins in the Philadelphia Journal called "The Dunkateer Talks Back." Each week Dawkins would leave me practically in tears laughing as he'd answer questions from readers and also tell off-the-wall tales of flying in for games on his rocketship from his home planet Lovetron and its "interplanetary suburb" Chocolate Paradise, where he ruled as Chocolate Thunder.

"It was a different time, a different era, a different league," Dawkins said. "I wasn't snarling or spitting at anybody. I was never trying to hurt anybody or be mean. I was just having fun and, yes, I knew all about marketing."

Several weeks earlier, following a game against Houston, teammate Caldwell Jones and team trainer Al Domenico had asked Dawkins why he felt the need to dunk the ball so hard.

"I told them because I didn't want anybody to even think about blocking one," Dawkins said. "I wanted guys like Tree Rollins to think twice about sticking their hands in there or they'd become famous for losing one."

It was, of course, the late Robinzine, who took his own life in 1982, that became infamously immortalized in Dawkins' 20 words of slam dunking poetry. What's often forgotten is that he did not name the dunk that night in Kansas City. Ever the good journalist and slick self-promoter, Dawkins told the assembled media horde they could "read about it in my next column." I stood off to the side giggling at his audacity and three days later on a road trip to San Antonio, he stepped off a hotel elevator, grinned and handed me a slip of paper with his handwriting:

"Chocolate Thunder Flyin', Robinzine Cryin', Teeth Shakin', Glass-Breakin', Rump Roastin', Bun Toastin', Wham, Bam, Glass Breaker I Am Jam."

Dawkins wasn't the first famous dunker and this was not even the first time a backboard had been broken in an NBA game. Renowned power dunker Gus Johnson had done it in two different games with the Baltimore Bullets and Chuck Connors, The Rifleman, had broken one in warm-ups as a member of the Boston Celtics back in 1946.

But Dawkins had done his number on TV and so it has lived on in the age of YouTube and ESPN and in many ways was ground zero for the era when dunking became a celebrated art form and a staple for the nightly TV highlights.

Of course, the first reaction was so great that Dawkins had to do it again.

"As soon as I got back home to Philly, all of the kids who would stand outside the Spectrum and wait for our cars to pass would be yelling, 'Dawk, you got to get us one here,' " he said. "And the fans at the home games were all begging me."

So just over three weeks later, on Dec. 5 against the San Antonio Spurs, with 6:32 left in the game, Dawkins took a baseline feed from Collins, slammed in the ball and ripped the entire basket right out of the backboard. This time the glass shattered, but did not explode, and the rim fell to the floor leaving a gaping hole.

The very next day, Dawkins and Sixers general manager Pat Williams were summoned to the New York office of then-NBA commissioner Larry O'Brien.

"It was a different time," recalled Williams, now senior vice president of the Orlando Magic. "Daryl and I met at the station in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey and took the Greyhound bus to New York. We got off at the Port Authority and then walked to the NBA office. All along the way, there were construction workers, taxi drivers, all kinds of people yelling and cheering for Darryl. It's like he was the king of the basketball world."

Williams had coached Dawkins to be properly contrite. O'Brien told them that any future broken backboards would draw a $5,000 fine and a suspension. The pair almost got away with merely a stern lecture. That is until Williams, a promotional genius, informed O'Brien that the Sixers were planning on handing out pieces of broken glass --- labeled Darryl's Diamonds --- to fans at a future game.

"Oh brother," Williams said. "O'Brien's face turned red and purple and he went through the roof. He started yelling that I was making fun of a situation where somebody could have gotten hurt. I think Darryl was shell-shocked. I guess the good news for Darryl was that I ended up taking the heat and we kind of tip-toed out of there and went home. But I'll never forget those times."

Thirty years later and the experience lives on, even for a middle-aged Dunkateer.

"I've got three daughters now and a wife, so I had to close Lovetron down for a little while," he said with a chuckle. "I just peek in every once in a while to see what's happening."

And if the coach happened to one day see a member of his college basketball team tear down a backboard in a game?

"I'd be the first guy over there to pat him on the back," Dawkins said. "I sure wouldn't go reprimanding him because, hey, accidents happen. It just seems like, dunk you very much, they happened for me more often."

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here.

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