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Dawkins' dunks, persona added dynamic to NBA game

POSTED: Aug 28, 2015 9:26 AM ET

By Fran Blinebury

BY Fran Blinebury


NBA TV Update: Darryl Dawkins Passes Away at Age 58

NBA great Darryl Dawkins, also known as 'Chocolate Thunder' has died at age 58.

Nobody had circled the date on the calendar.

Nobody figured that it was anything more than another early season game on the long road of the regular season. Until 38 seconds into the second half when Maurice Cheeks' pass found a wide open Darryl Dawkins on the right side of the basket.

If the Black Eyed Peas were around in those days, they'd surely have immortalized it in song.

Boom, Boom, Pow!

On the scale of great explosions, Dawkins' slam dunk that shattered a backboard and rained twinkling shards of glass onto the court in Kansas City on Nov. 13, 1979, ranked somewhere between the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and the Big Bang that created the universe.

Darryl Dawkins' Top 20 dunks

Check out 20 of the best dunks from Darryl Dawkins' NBA career.

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

Though it wasn't the first time that anyone ever broke a backboard in a professional basketball game, it was the glass-smashing, mind-blowing event that carried the slam dunk across the threshold into a new brand era. It was like art leaping from crude stick figures on a cave wall straight to the Mona Lisa.

The word came Thursday in the manner of everything else these days, as an item that isn't there one moment and then shows up the next time you refresh the homepage:

Darryl Dawkins dead at 58.

Some news makes you feel older, more than a glimpse at gray hairs or lines on a face looking back from the mirror ever can. Because Dawkins was the ultimate man-child, light-hearted and perpetually friendly long after he broke into the NBA in 1975 with the 76ers as an 18-year-old out of Maynard Evans High in Orlando, Fla.

Four decades later, little had changed except the age on his driver's license and when I saw him last February at the All-Star Game in New York, he was still a true original and the most fun person I've ever covered in the NBA.

Stevie Wonder dubbed him "Chocolate Thunder," and no label of sheer power coated in a kid's shell of sweetness and joy was ever more appropriate.

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."

He was a 6-foot-11, 255-pound walking comedy monologue anyplace he went, entertaining everybody, including himself. It was said that contemporary Moses Malone, who also entered the pros as a teen straight out of high school, got the competitive drive and Dawkins got the personality. And if life is for the truly living, Dawkins probably wouldn't have traded.

"It was a different time, a different era, a different league," Dawkins said on the 30th anniversary of his backboard-breaking dunk. "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."

The money is a lot better nowadays, but I'm glad I played when I did because I think we had a lot more fun.

– Darryl Dawkins

By his second year in the NBA, the young phenom found himself in a locker room with a colorful cast that included Julius "Dr. J" Erving, George McGinnis, Doug Collins, World B. Free and Joe "Jellybean" Bryant and quickly developed his image as a way to both survive and to stand out in the flamboyant, headline-grabbing crowd.

"This is the Dawk and I'm ready to talk," he proclaimed.

He named his dunks — Yo Mama, Spine Chiller Supreme, Rim Wrecker, Dunk You Very Much, Hammer of Thor, Flop-a-Dop, Go-Rilla, Sexophonic Turbo Delight — and became an icon in Philadelphia with his occasional bursts of on-court brilliance mixed with his backboard-swayin', alien-portrayin' swagger.

It's easy to imagine Dawkins as a 21st century social media star with his sense of humor and glib one-liners. But the unforgiving maw of Twitter with its searing, constant criticism would have made a bigger target of a big man who teased with his potential, averaging just 12 points and 6.1 rebounds over 14 seasons and holds the top two spots on the all-time list for personal fouls in one season.

"I liked the game and I enjoyed being with my teammates, but I could never see it as life and death," he said. "The money is a lot better nowadays, but I'm glad I played when I did because I think we had a lot more fun."

One season Dawkins had to miss several games with a sore shoulder. He was unable to lift his right arm above his head to shoot or dunk. He was sent to the see the Sixers team doctors and was given a program of rest and therapy and had to undergo treatment from a transcutaneous electronic nerve stimulator. The pain eventually subsided until the next road trip. That's when the late Chuck Daly, then assistant coach, noticed Dawkins boarding a team flight singing aloud. "Do you think?" Daly asked, pointing at a boombox the size of a small house perched on the big man's shoulder.

"NB80s": Darryl Dawkins

Relive moments from the "NB80s" show featuring Darryl Dawkins.

Dawkins was just 21 and I was practically a kid myself as a beat writer covering the Sixers for the Philadelphia Journal in the late '70s when we collaborated on a weekly column called "The Dunkateer Talks Back." Each week after a practice, we'd sit in a corner of the gym floor and 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 rocket ship from his home planet Lovetron and its "interplanetary suburb" Chocolate Paradise, where he ruled as Chocolate Thunder. He was paid $200 per column at the time and thought of it as a small fortune to carry through a weekend of fancy-dressing, high-rolling entertainment.

That was the aura around him when Dawkins and the Sixers arrived at the old Municipal Auditorium in K.C. that night and in the opening minute of the third quarter caught the ball, 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 court.

"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 told myself 'it's time to get the hell out of Dodge. I still crack up when I see the video of (Kings reserve) Mike Green jumping behind the bench like I was coming to kill him."

Ever the loyal journalist, Dawkins refused to publicly name the dunk that night. "Read it in my next column," he said.

Two mornings later as the road trip continued in San Antonio, he stepped off an elevator and handed me a sheet 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."

Though he swears he never planned that to happen — "an accident, an old building, old rims, old glass" -- Dawkins sheepishly admitted it was a flight of fantasy rolling around inside his head since his days in junior high school. Then, three weeks later, he did it again at home in Philly against the Spurs.

That one got Dawkins and Sixers general manager Pat Williams literally called onto the carpet in NBA commissioner Larry O'Brien's office and led to the breakaway rims that are used today.

After his playing career, Dawkins made the transition to coaching, most recently as head coach of Lehigh Carbon Community College's men's basketball team. He traveled as an ambassador for the NBA to various events. But never changed.

When I introduced him to my then 12-year-old grandson at the 2013 All-Star Game in Houston, he cracked the kid up and gave words of advice: "Don't fake the funk."

Even today, Chocolate Thunder can make me smile.

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

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