Darryl Dawkins was one of the most physical players to ever hit the hardwood. His dunks, his defense and his sheer size made him an intimidating player for anyone to go up against. One of the League’s great characters, as well, Dawkins talked in SLAM 45 about what he brought to the NBA. –Ed.
by Alan Paul
“If some guy tries to block your shot and you throw it down on him, you just look him in the eye and say, ‘Your mama.’ Simple but effective. Really, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
Sacrilege? Like them, Double Dee was a pioneer, the first baller to do many things we now hold near and dear to our hearts. He was the first to shatter a backboard. The first to name his jams. The first to go from high school to the NBA. Chocolate Thunder was also the first NBA player we know of to claim he was actually an alien from the planet Lovetron. It all added up to him recently being named “Man of the Millennium” by Saturday Night Live, edging out William Shakespeare and Albert Einstein.
But to explore that avenue any further would be to propagate the idea that Dawkins is some kind of joke, a hoops freak show to be both laughed at and with. Remember that something can be funny without being a joke, and that’s exactly the case with The Master of Disaster, Darryl Dawkins.
In ’75, Dawkins, then a senior at Maynard Evans High School in Orlando, FL, announced-to the snickers of many-that he would go directly to the NBA. Drafted fifth by the 76ers, Dawk didn’t set the League on fire his rookie year, averaging just 2.4 ppg. Still, he quickly developed into a solid low-post contributor, and by his second season, the Sixers were in the Finals, where they lost to Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas’s Trail Blazers. Dawkins and the Sixers returned to the Finals twice more only to lose. Fact is, they coulda-shoulda won either (or both) of the ’81 and ’82 series against Magic’s Lakers, which would have radically rewritten both the history of 80’s hoops and Dawkins’ place in the basketball cosmos.
“Dawkins was an incredible physical specimen,” recalls Bob Costas. “He was 6-11 and 275 pounds and no one had seen anything like him to that point. He was a manchild and everyone was actually terrified of him.”
Including the refs, who never gave the benefit of the doubt to the bad-ass guy swatting shots, glaring at opponents and occasionally delaying games for hours while new backboards were installed. Dawkins led the League in fouls three times and still holds the record for most fouls in a season (386). By the end of his 14-year career, Dawkins relied largely on his muscle and ferociousness, a natural evolution for a guy who never met a confrontation he didn’t like. But Dawk was no mere thug. He’s the fifth most accurate shooter in NBA history with a fg percentage of .572.
Post-NBA, Dawk spent five years playing in Italy and one as a Harlem Globetrotter. Now he has defied virtually all expectations by becoming a successful minor league coach. The last two years, he coached both the Pennsylvania ValleyDawgs of the U.S. Basketball League and the Winnipeg Cyclones of the International Basketball Association, for whom he also played last year. He has been Coach of the Year in both leagues.
Prowling the sidelines at a recent ValleyDawgs game, Dawkins cuts an imposing figure in his mustard suit, gold hoops dangling from both ears, his chocolate dome shaved smooth. On the court, his squad runs and presses mercilessly, driving their opponent into submission. Despite an easy win, Dawkins is stern in the postgame locker room, saying, “If the big guys can’t get it done, I’ll go out and find me some who can.” The 43-year-old Lovetronian doesn’t rule out suiting up himself to show how it’s done.
Afterwards, in between flirting with departing dancers and making friendly, funny small talk with everyone from the ValleyDawgs owner to their ball boy, Dawkins gave some love to the only magazine that could ever truly appreciate his brilliance.
SLAM: You have a lot of nicknames, but the most enduring is Chocolate Thunder. Where did it come from?
DAWKINS: A kid I visited at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia said I was like a mass of chocolate, so I started calling myself Chocolate. Then Stevie Wonder wrote a song that said, “I’m bad like Stevie Wonder and strong like Chocolate Thunder” and I loved that. So I’ve been the Chocolate Thunder ever since.
SLAM: When did you start naming your slams?
DAWKINS: In ’76. I wound up on the Sixers team with George McGinnis, Dr. J, World B. Free and Doug Collins. That was a great, great group of players and I needed to do something so people would know I was on the team, too. So I decided to name my dunks and have a calling card. My first one was “Your Mama,” then came “The Heartstopper,” “The Cake Shaker,” “The Baby Maker,” “The Turbo Sexaphonic Delight” and “The Left Handed Slam Chiller’s Delight.” Then “The Chocolate Thunder, Flying-Glass, Babies-Crying, Rump-Roasting, Bun-Toasting, Teeth-Shaking, Babies-Still-Crying, Wham-Bam-Thank-You-Ma’am, Yes-I-Am Jam.”
SLAM: What was the best one ever-not the name, but the slam?
DAWKINS: “Your Mama” [laughs]. I liked that because if some guy tries to block your shot and you throw it down on him, you just look him in the eye and say, “Your Mama.” Simple but effective. It doesn’t get better than that.
SLAM: Were your backboard smashings intentional?
DAWKINS: The first one was accidental. Then I had to see if I could do it again, so the second was quite intentional. Once I found out I could, I was actually going to do it some more, but they said they were going to fine me $5,000 every time I broke one after that. And that put an end to that.
SLAM: Besides, they made the breakaway rims, which is one of your great contributions to the game.
DAWKINS: They can still be broken! I broke two in Italy. You have to dunk from the side. It collapses from the front, but not the side. If you hit it hard enough from the side, it will go.
SLAM: Do you see any current players following in your large footsteps?
DAWKINS: Take the strength of Shaquille O’Neal and put it together with the freedom of Dennis Rodman, and you have the Chocolate Thunder. Like Rodman, I was going to do what I wanted to and I wasn’t going to let anyone control me.
SLAM: Is that part of the reason you decided to not go to college?
DAWKINS: No, I wanted to go, but my family was in financial difficulty. I was able to help. I’d seen my mother and grandmother work their fingers to their bones and I could end that. I put brothers, sisters and cousins through college, instead of just going myself. That’s why I took that route. As far as not wanting to be controlled, let me make this clear: I wanted to make my own decisions and not have someone dictate to me: “You’re going to do this because we want you to.” That’s not a good reason.
SLAM: When you went pro right out of college, could you ever have imagined that it would be a common occurrence 25 years later?
DAWKINS: No, it was unheard of at the time. People thought I was crazy. Moses [Malone] went to the ABA the year before, but that was different. The only reason to go to college is to get an education to support your family. If you can make money and get an education on your own schedule, go for it. What happens if you get in an accident? If you blow out your knee? If you have the skills and it’s your dream, you got to go for it.
SLAM: But what gave you the confidence to think you could play against Artis Gilmore and Kareem just because you dominated in high school?
DAWKINS: I believed in myself. I had six brothers and four sisters. Growing up in a big family I learned that there’s nothing that can’t be done if you work hard enough. It had never been done before in the NBA but I really believed I could do it. I had a lot of confidence and my pastor, Rev. W.D. George, believed in me, as did my mother. They were about the only ones. People I grew up with said, “You’ll be back home standing around here in a year or two.” Well, it’s 25 years later and I’m still not back in Florida.
SLAM: That Sixers team you came on to was loaded with great players.
DAWKINS: We had so much talent, we forgot we had to play some nights. Look who we had: Julius Erving, who was Michael Jordan before Michael Jordan; George McGinnis, an incredible player. Doug Collins, a super talented, super guy, and World B. Free, one of the best shooters ever.
SLAM: As good as the team was, that group never won a title [The Sixers did win it all in ’83, but that was Dawkins first year on the Nets].
DAWKINS: I just think when we played Portland and L.A., they were better teams. You just have to realize that. Everyone thought we should have won a championship, but we met our match. They also had great talent but played more unselfishly, with more of a team concept.
SLAM: Were you surprised when Maurice Lucas took you on in the middle of a scuffle with Bobby Gross, another Portland player?
DAWKINS: No. I was surprised that my teammates let him approach me from behind. He hit me, then we squared off but never got a chance to go because everyone separated us. Then I turn around and Julius is sitting on the ground and George McGinnis is picking his nose. If someone’s running up behind my teammate, I’m going to grab him or do something to stop him. But I don’t carry grudges about that. It was a long time ago.
SLAM: Talk about what made those guys so good, starting with McGinnis.
DAWKINS: He was big, strong and quick. And he knew the game. He had a great one-handed shot.
SLAM: What was Doug Collins’ game like?
DAWKINS: He was great, a very underrated player. Doug was a tremendous force in college and would have been as good as Bird if it weren’t for injuries. He had a bum arch in his foot and kept getting hurt, but he was a Bird type of player. He could run, jump, shoot, pass and rebound.
SLAM: What about World B. Free?
DAWKINS: World B. Free is still my brother. He was the original Boston Strangler. I hear people say Andrew Toney is the best shooter they ever saw, but World was better, man. He and I played one-on-one every day and he helped me with my ballhandling skills because he would take it from me every time I put it down. He also showed me one of the great keys to my game. One night, he took it down the middle and dunked on Bill Walton, a great shot blocker, and I said, “Damn, how’d you do that?” He said, “You can, too.” I went out and dunked on Walton myself. After that I dunked on everyone, with no fear. It was just a matter of having confidence, and World showed me. For that, I am forever grateful.
SLAM: How good was Walton in his prime?
DAWKINS: Bill was a great player, but his supporting cast was also strong, which made him better. He was surrounded by guys who wanted to win and didn’t care who scored. That’s why they won. L.A. was the same-only a few guys had to have the ball. Everyone else played a role. Everyone on our Sixers team wanted the ball, and that hurt us. We had guys who had to score to be happy. And that makes a big difference.
SLAM: Was that frustrating?
DAWKINS: At times, very much so. You had to do what the stars didn’t, and you didn’t know what that might be. One night somebody’s shot’s not falling so you have to score. Another night, you need to rebound.
SLAM: You were briefly with the Pistons.
DAWKINS: Yeah, I played with Rodman and Isiah for a bit. I thought they got rid of the most talented guy on the team, Adrian Dantley. He did it all, but if you didn’t get along with Isiah, you didn’t stay in Detroit. That’s a fact. Rodman was a force on the boards, and John Salley was also talented. And Rick Mahorn and I were good buddies and still are.
SLAM: I know you’re buddies with Rick, but was he a cheap player?
DAWKINS: He was a nice guy. Honestly. Everyone misunderstood him. We always had a good time. In fact, I always used to call his mother, God rest her dead, “Mama Mae Mahorn” after a DJ on Kiss FM and we always joked about that on the court. I never thought he was cheap. I thought he did what he had to do to be where he wanted to be.
SLAM: What about Laimbeer?
SLAM: Would he hit you from behind before you could turn around?
DAWKINS: I used to get him before he could get me. When I was with the Nets, I gave him a kidney punch and he went down. [Referee] Jake O’Donnell said, “Darryl, if you hit the white boy again, you’re out of the game.” After that, Bill was a little afraid of me. But there was more to him than that stuff. He was a good, heads-up player. He knew how to get in someone’s head, but I never let him get to me. Look at Rodman. He wouldn’t bother me, ’cause he knew we’d brawl. Other guys would want to stay in the game but we didn’t give a fuck. If you have that going for you, no one’s starting anything, believe me.
SLAM: Were there any guys you knew not to mess with?
DAWKINS: I don’t fear anyone. I never did. Even now, I don’t fear a saber-toothed tiger; I just don’t fuck with one. There are guys who’ve never been scared. You just take care of yourself. Guys who play today want to shoot each other if there’s trouble on the court. That’s crazy. We fought hard, but in the end, we got together and had a beer. That’s a big difference.
SLAM: You’re still suiting up in the IBA. Do you think you could still play eight minutes a night somewhere in the NBA?
DAWKINS: I have no desire to play. I have a desire to coach in the NBA or the WNBA. I’m not trying to relive my youthful days; they’re done. I enjoy what I’m doing now and I’m pretty good. Coaching is a chance to stay around the guys and basketball, which I love to death. It’s given me a lot, and I think I have a lot to offer back.