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Community pays tribute to small-town giant Dawkins

Friends and Pennsylvania neighbors come out to remember Darryl Dawkins and his larger-than-life personality

POSTED: Sep 1, 2015 11:32 PM ET

By Fran Blinebury

BY Fran Blinebury


Darryl Dawkins Remembered looks back at the man we knew as ''Chocolate Thunder,'' Darryl Dawkins.

— Sitting on top of a hill, not far off the main road, the 60-foot red brick steeple of St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church has probably been the tallest structure in town since it was built in 1962.

Darryl Dawkins was a close second.

To most of the world he was Chocolate Thunder, the larger-than-life part-basketball player, part-cartoon character from the planet Lovetron, who flexed his muscles and shattered backboards.

To the friends, relatives and people on the streets of this Lehigh Valley community of less than 7,000, he was a 6-foot-11, 255-pound neighbor who held open the door when your arms were full on the way out of the supermarket and always cracked smiles.

Since word first spread that the 58-year-old Dawkins died of an apparent heart attack last week and the NBA world looked back and reflected on the sometimes hard to believe physical exploits, the people that knew him or just knew of him because he became one of them were touched in a different way.

Dawkins' funeral and burial Wednesday will be private, for family only. But Tuesday afternoon was a public viewing and for four hours in 95-degree heat a steady stream arrived by shuttle bus or walked up the hill from the parking lot at the Catasauqua Park to pay their respects.

Ex-76ers teammate Maurice Cheeks filed through the line and then sat in a pew about halfway back in the church. Former heavyweight boxing champion Larry Holmes, a resident of Easton, stopped at the gold-colored casket, where the flamboyant Dawkins wore, of course, a bright red suit with silver pinstripes.

"I'm so happy to see so many people here for Darryl," said Dawkins' wife Janice. "Not just the people from the world of basketball, but the people who knew him away from the game, just for who he was."

Remembering Darryl Dawkins

The NBA family lost a valued member when Darryl Dawkins passed away suddenly on Thursday at the age of 58. Known as much for his powerful game as his creative, offbeat personality, "Chocolate Thunder" became a fan favorite -- and when his career ended, he continued to generously give back to the game through his work in the community. Jared Greenberg looks back on Darryl Dawkins, a player we'll never forget.

Small town, big man.

Charlie and Natalie Lewis moved in on their street in nearby South Whitehall Township 10 years ago and it was only a matter of days before they discovered a huge man living three houses down.

"I came out of the house one morning and looked down and there is this giant guy," Charlie said. "I went in and told my wife, 'We have Chocolate Thunder for a neighbor!'

"We got to chatting and became friends over the years. He was always so friendly, always so happy. He'd be out walking his dog and stop to talk with anybody he met."

"We have four boys," said Natalie, "and they're taking this hard. The second one says, 'Who's going to play ball with us? Who's going to give us T-shirts? Who's going to give us rides to the gym on the cold days in winter?"

Dawkins has been living in the area for the better part of two decades, first as coach of the Pennsylvania ValleyDawgs of the old CBA and then as head coach of the Lehigh Carbon Community College men's basketball team. His wife is a native of the area.

"I grew up with a poster of Chocolate Thunder on my bedroom wall," said Scott Toth, 45, a native of Bethlehem and now a Catasauqua resident. "I grew up as a real big Sixers fans. We could drive down to Philly and go to games when I was a kid and we could never get close enough. Now I'm an adult and one day I'm coming out of the mini-mart and here's Darryl Dawkins holding the door open for me.

"I saw him one summer down at the community pool and just walked right up and talked to him like we were old friends. I was wearing a Dirk Nowitzki jersey at the time and he told me I had to get rid of that thing. What a special guy. I live just down the street from the church, so I had to come here to see him and wish him off."

The vestibule of the church is filled with photo boards that have dozens and dozens of photos. An old black and white head shot from grade school. Dawkins throwing down a thunderbolt dunk on the head of the Celtics' Robert Parish. Darryl with Sixers owner Fitz Dixon, general manager Pat Williams and coach Gene Shue on the day he officially he signed his first NBA contract at age 18. A retired Dawkins shaking hands with Shaquille O'Neal. A classic color shot of Dawkins wearing white satin Marilyn Monroe type shorts, a jersey that says "Lovetron" and pair of white wings sticking out from his shoulders.

Tears are shed, hugs are shed, but then like most conversations that involved Dawkins, the laughter finds a way in. The stories come in bunches, like an endless steam of fast breaks:

-- Do you remember the time he jumped into the pool and chased all of the kids around?

-- Do you remember the day at soccer practice when the kids were hiding from him up in a tree and he reached up and shook a big limb and they all started squealing?

-- Do you remember how he showed up at every New Year's dinner with his married and extended family and greeted everybody with a kiss or a hug?

-- Do you remember all those times when he wouldn't leave a ball field or the church until he signed an autograph or took a picture with anybody who wanted one?

I don't think Darryl ever met anyone that he couldn't make smile. You were better for knowing him.

– Betty Knauss

"He was the ultimate people person," said Betty Knauss. "I don't think Darryl ever met anyone that he couldn't make smile. You were better for knowing him."

Kathryn Hart drove 45 miles from her home in Warwick, Pa. to see Dawkins. They attended high school together at Maynard Evans in Orlando, Fla., class of 1975.

"We didn't run in the same circles and weren't best of friends or anything like that," Hart said. "But everybody at Evans knew Darryl. He was the big kid, the great basketball player. Mostly though, he was the peacemaker at a school that was about 50/50 black and white. We had problems back in those days and Darryl was always the guy in the middle telling everybody to calm down and get along.

"Funny thing is, I was working as a waitress in Colorado one night in 1979 and I heard some guys who were watching the TV saying that this guy broke a backboard in a game. I asked them who it was. They said, 'A kid who plays for the Sixers -- Dawkins.'

"When I laughed out loud, they asked why and I told them I knew Darryl. I'm not sure they believed me. I'm not sure my daughter really did either until we went to a ValleyDawgs game when he was coaching. We met up with him after the game and he kept saying how great it was to make contact all those years later from somebody from Evans.

"So when I heard on TV this morning that they were having this service, I called my husband at work and told him I'd be home late tonight. When he asked what was in Catasauqua, I told him, 'Darryl' and he just said, 'Of course.' "

Kelvin Santana, 24, wasn't even born when Dawkins retired from the NBA, but knows all about the broken backboards and Lovetron and Chocolate Thunder.

"Man, my Dad is a great fan and he raised me on all that classic stuff," said Santana. "He showed me the old videos and taught me about the real greats of the game that played in the '70s and '80s. I loved his power. I loved his game. I loved his style."

In his arms was Santana's daughter Audriana, 1 1/2.

"She won't remember this," he said. "But one day I'll tell her she got to say goodbye to Chocolate Thunder. And you know what is great? I'll be able to tell her that this world famous star was happy living here."

Small town, big man.

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

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