IT MAY BE impossible to enlarge someone who stood 6'11" and weighed 252 pounds, but in the case of Darryl Dawkins, it's worth a try. That's because Chocolate Thunder, who died of a heart attack last Thursday at age 58, begs to be put in a context that would never have occurred to us in 1975 when Philadelphia drafted him, at 18, out of Orlando's Evans High with the No. 5 pick.
By the time he retired from the league in 1989, after playing for four teams, the man also known as Double D—or Sir Slam, or Dr. Dunkenstein, depending on how the stars aligned with the planet Lovetron, from which he said he came—was many things. He was the jovial big man before Shaquille O'Neal. He was the bard of the outrageous utterance before Charles Barkley. He was the bling-is-the-thing Philadelphia 76er before Allen Iverson. And he was the over-the-top dandy—the day he signed his first contract with the Sixers, he wore a red suit and top hat—before anyone heard of the NBA draft green room.
Dawkins compelled you to watch him play because, when you did, you couldn't help but take the measure of how good he might someday be. Every time he attacked the basket to dunk was a promise spoken; every time he settled for that fadeaway jumper was a promise broken. "There were times when he teased us with a hint of how he could dominate a game," wrote one of his coaches, Dave Wohl, in these pages in 1988. "And we went home in awe and yet sad because we knew of no spell to make it happen more frequently. But few players could make us feel that way even once."
Dawkins defiantly lugged his adolescence with him. He wore a single stud earring, spoke of a spouse back on Lovetron named Juicy Lucy and told of off-seasons practicing "interplanetary funkmanship." But a sweet innocence was impossible to miss. Dawkins's epitaph will be, as he once said, ALL THE LADIES ARE INVITED.
It wasn't enough to nickname himself, even if Dawkins did, often (though it was Stevie Wonder who hung Chocolate Thunder on him). He also branded every dunk in his repertoire, from the Look Out Below to the Cover Your Head; from the Go-Rilla to the Yo-Mama; from the Rim Wrecker to the Spine-Chiller Supreme; from the In-Your-Face Disgrace to the Greyhound Special, which involved Dawkins's collecting a rebound, rumbling coast-to-coast and consummating matters himself.
But Double D's most purplish coinages came in 1979, after he shattered a couple of backboards. On Nov. 13, he rained down shards of glass on the Kansas City Kings' Bill Robinzine with the If-You-Ain't-Groovin'-Best-Get-Movin', Chocolate-Thunder-Flyin', Robinzine-Cryin', Teeth-Shakin', Glass-Breakin', Rump-Roastin', Bun-Toastin', Glass-Still-Flyin', Wham-Bam-I-Am Jam. Then, on Dec. 5 against the Spurs, he obliged the home folks with an encore: the Chocolate-Thunder-Ain't-Playin', Get-Out-of-the-Wayin', Backboard-Swayin', Game-Delayin' Super Spike.
All of which made him, when the NBA introduced the breakaway rim for the 1981--82 season, one big mother of invention. That he never entirely became the dominant post player his coaches hoped—he finished his career with averages of 12.0 points and 6.1 rebounds—made his later-in-life gigs leading minor league and junior college teams an ironic vocational turn. Yet even then he showed his way with people, insisting that players perform community service and, at Pennsylvania's Lehigh Carbon Community College, show up to cheer for fellow students who played other sports.
Last week, after Dawkins slipped the surly bonds of Lovetron, the headline in the Philadelphia Daily News read WE'RE SHATTERED. They're apt words. The man had generated such goodwill that all of us drawn to him served, throughout his many teasings and nonstop entertainments, as part of Chocolate Thunder's own, larger backboard.
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