Remembering 'Dr. Dunk' Hillman a True Legend to Fans of ABA Years
by Chris Pike
Darnell Hillman, better known to ABA and NBA fans as “Dr. Dunk,” was well known for his dunking ability, his incredible leap, and great defense. Perhaps what comes to fans’ minds, however, is his incredible Afro. This was rewarded at the 1997 ABA reunion where Darnell was presented with the Biggest Afro Award.
“After being in the Army I hated having to have my head bald, and when I got out I saw Angela Davis who was wearing a beautiful afro, and decided I wanted one just like it,” said Hillman. “So I grew it out, and it just kept on growing. To keep it how I wanted it I had to brush it at least seven times a day. But I was very proud of it, and it was definitely the best around, and it was certainly bigger than a basketball.”
While growing up in San Francisco, Darnell's first love was always football, but he was recruited to join the basketball at Hiram Johnson high school, where he enjoyed instant success and earned a basketball scholarship to San Jose State. He spent two years in college during the Vietnam War, and then was drafted into the military. In 2000, despite not graduating after only completing his freshman and sophomore years, Darnell was inducted into San Jose State’s Hall of fame.
“I was very surprised to be inducted, especially since I didn’t finish there,” he said. “But I was definitely very proud that they even remembered me. It made me extremely proud of what I had accomplished, and I was very honoured and it was one of the greatest moments of my life.”
Darnell was recruited into military service after completing his junior and sophomore years at San Jose State college. He played more than 300 games for the military basketball team, and they only ever lost two matches. They played games against all the top colleges, and a variety of other games. Darnell’s best performance was to score 47 points, and was also named MVP of the World Military Games in 1970.
In 1970, Darnell was also a member of the United States World Championship team. The trip to Yugoslavia provided a great learning experience for Hillman.
“I remember doing my usual warm up, showing off my leaping ability and array of dunks,” he said. “This is when I shattered the first backboard of my career. The crowd then all began to whistle at me, which is the equivalent to booing over here. It really got to me, and I ended up running right out of the facility. Not just the arena, the whole facility. I was lucky that a staff member recognized I was a player, and took me back to the court, where the game eventually started 45 minutes late, but I do remember playing a pretty good game.”
While coming back on the bus from practice with the military basketball team, Darnell was informed that the Indiana Pacers of the ABA had drafted him.
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to Indiana, it was a long way from San Francisco, but I talked to them and we worked out a deal, but asked them to wait until after the upcoming NBA draft,” he said.
The Golden State Warriors, in his hometown of San Francisco, picked Darnell No. 8 in the NBA draft.
“It would have been great to be able to play so close to home,” he said. “When I asked (the Warriors) if they could simply match the deal I had with the Pacers, they said they couldn’t, if they did they would be giving me more than their number one player.”
The Warriors’ top player at the time was future Hall of Famer Nate Thurmond. Darnell then accepted the deal with Indiana, was very pleased, and went back to finish his remaining time in the service, and then moved to Indiana with his high school sweetheart, whom he soon married.
Darnell had a tremendous natural jumping ability, even managing to clear 7-feet at high jump. While on the high school track team, Darnell travelled with the stars of the 1968 Olympics, Tommy Smith, Lee Evans and John Carlos.
“It was a great experience being on the team with those guys, and seeing how hard they worked, and seeing them perform, it was incredible, those guys were unbelievable,” he said. “They set the benchmark for training and in performance that I then set out to achieve myself, and I like to think by seeing them guys in action, it really helped me to learn and achieve a lot.”
Darnell began his rookie season alongside good friend George McGinnis, and in the same season as future great, Julius “Dr. J” Erving. Both of which remain good friends to this day with Hillman.
Indiana was the most dominant team in the 10 years of the ABA, between 1967 and 1976, with Hillman being one of the most popular players. Hillman always performed a wide variety of dunks to attract the kids, and to give them someone to look up to. He was also a super leaper, who could out leap any player in the league, and was a great rebounder and very effective shot blocker.
“The rookie season was a great learning process and a great experience,” he said. “Me and George learned a lot from it, and played in our first championship.”
Indiana also won the ABA championship the previous season, as well as the next.
After his rookie season of 1971-72, Hillman remained with the Pacers in the ABA until the NBA-ABA merger in 1977. In his five years with the Pacers he had played in two championships, was very popular, and earned a reputation due to his leaping of being able to bring down a rebound, or block a shot from anywhere, no matter how out of position he was. Hillman also set a record of making 10 blocks in a game, which still stands to this day, only being equalled this past season by Jermaine O’Neal.
The favorite series of games in Darnell’s career came in his rookie season, where he matched up with fellow rookie, future Hall-of-Famer, Erving.
“Julius was playing with Virginia at the time, and we were on the road playing back to back games,” he said. “The first night, Julius was hot, and scored 44 on me. The next night I really played hard, tight defense on him, and held him to 13 points. I was really proud of that game, considering how well he played the night before, I think my defense did a great job, he took the same amount of shots in both games, but due to my hard defence he only managed 13 points the second night.”
Julius and Darnell still remain good friends, and the nicknames of both are definitely strongly tied, with Julius being “Dr. J,” and Darnell, “Dr. Dunk.” Julius had already been crowned by the time the two matched up again in New York in their rookie season. It was the first time New York had seen the two on the court at the same time.
“Julius and I were just dominating that game, at one end Julius would do big moves, then I would match him at the other,” he said. “The New York press had already dubbed Julius ‘Dr. J,’ and they began calling me ‘Dr. Dunk.’”
Hillman played the first NBA season with the Pacers but moved on the following season due to the two being unable to work out a deal. Over the next two seasons, Hillman played for New Jersey, Denver and the Kansas City Kings. Then in the 1979-80 season returned home to San Francisco, and played with the Golden State Warriors. Then in his final professional season played with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1980-81.
“My goal was to play professionally for 10 year, and I was very happy and proud to achieve that after my 80-81 season,” says Hillman.
After taking two to three months off, Darnell was lured to Europe to play for an Italian club. Hillman spent 10 days in Europe, playing in two games, which he dominated.
“After the second game my decision was easy to make to not play there,” he said. “We were up by 22 points with three minutes to go when I got fouled out of the game. Somehow, without me, the team managed to lose. The coach came up to me, said I didn’t do enough, and was to blame, and so did the local press. They said this despite me getting 29 points, 22 rebounds and making five to six blocks, if that wasn’t enough, then nothing would be, so I returned home and hung up my boots.”
After retiring, Darnell took up another passion of his, golf, and is no slouch at that either, with his best round being a 78. Hillman returned home and worked with his father in the family chrome plating business in San Francisco.
“I woke up one morning and decided I wanted another white Christmas this year, so I packed my things up, and headed back to Indiana,” he said.
Darnell came returned to Indiana in 1995, and worked as a car salesman before being offered a position as Director of Community relations in 1999. A year later, he became the Director of camps and clinics, a position, which he still holds today. His job involves giving motivational speeches to kids, and is working hard at providing a year long camp for the kids.
“This position has helped me realise how much work goes on behind the scenes to make the players look good,” he said. “I can truly appreciate what the working class people do. I never understood how much went into everything back here as a player, it is a real eye-opener.”
A native of Geelong, Victoria, who now lives in Perth, Western Australia. Chris Pike is a 19-year-old journalism student at Edith Cowan University.