By Neil Beldock
When you stand 6 feet 11 inches tall, weigh 250 pounds, have muscles layered upon muscles, super-human strength, incredible athletic ability for someone of your size, huge hands, the speed and quickness of players a foot shorter than you, draw comparisons because of your size, strength and athletic ability to none other than Wilt Chamberlain, and become the 5th overall pick in the NBA draft, you are not expected to be a good or even very good player, but a great player who perhaps should reach Hall-of-Fame status.
The adjectives above were all used to describe Darryl Dawkins as a high school basketball phenom from Orlando, Florida. And these adjectives were put forth by no less than NBA coaches and general managers.
The question to ask however as it relates to Darryl Dawkins is simple; Is it fair to place such high expectations, and ultimately the burdens which accompany such high expectations on someone who is just 18 years old?
Jack McMahon, Philadelphia 76ers assistant coach and scout saw Dawkins play in high school and, after watching the high school game said the following: “Out came a few little guys. Like normal high school kids. Then out comes Darryl. He has his head shaved. But hey, no way this kid could be in high school! He’s got to be 25 years old”.
But of course, Dawkins was not 25 years old.
McMahon then presented a glowing recommendation to General Manager Pat Williams and team coach Gene Shue.
Once Shue had the opportunity to actually see Dawkins play he was amazed by how big Dawkins was and was quoted as saying “he did unbelievable things on the court for someone that size”.
After seeing Dawkins play, the 76ers decided to make him their 1st round pick in the 1975 NBA draft. He was the 5th overall pick in that years draft.
He was also the very first player ever to go directly from high school to the NBA. In essence, a boy entering a man’s world.
The 76ers saw Dawkins as the second-coming of Wilt Chamberlain, a heavy burden to place upon an 18 year old who had not even walked in his high school graduation ceremonies yet.
Years later when asked about the comparison to Wilt Chamberlain, Dawkins said, “It made me mad. Damn mad, really. Because everyone wanted to compare me to Chamberlain. I ain’t got nothing to do with him. I’m just Darryl Dawkins, and that was never good enough”.
There are certainly lessons to be learned from the Darryl Dawkins saga and the importance of understanding maturity, or the lack thereof, regardless of how big or manly someone appears.
Said Hall-of-Fame basketball player Bob Lanier, a huge man in his own right at 6 feet 11 inches tall and 250 pounds: “Everyone always thinks that because you are big for your age you can handle things better or you are more mature when in reality nothing is further from the truth”.
And this from all-time great Julius “Dr. J” Erving, a teammate of Dawkins: “When they see a 7-footer everyone thinks – The Franchise. How many players could handle that at 18 (years old)”.
So here we have Darryl Dawkins, all of 18 years old, a man-child from a physical standpoint, but really just a boy from a maturity standpoint, entering the man’s world of the NBA.
And the NBA of the mid-to-late 1970’s was a world, not unlike society as a whole, rife with drinking, drug use and womanizing.
Perhaps if he joined an NBA team during the 1960’s where veteran leadership and maturity was more evident, Dawkins would have had a much better indoctrination. But “veteran leadership and maturity” are not words which would be used to describe the Philadelphia 76ers of the mid-to-late 1970’s.
The 76ers team which Dawkins joined has been described as being “A Wild West Show”. The team was loaded with talented players who were at the same time individualistic, flamboyant and controversial. Indeed not the stable, mature environment which would be best suited to guide and develop a young, impressionable boy into a man.
Dawkins was born January 11, 1957 in Orlando, Florida. He was mostly raised by his grandmother who offered the guidance necessary to develop a boy into a man. By the time he was nine years old she had taught Darryl to clean, cook, iron and sew. Said Dawkins, “She said I might never get married so I’d better learn to do these things for myself”.
But a grandmother’s leadership will only extend so far as a boy is turning into a man. It was originally Dawkins’s plan to go to college, and he had his choice of many. If he followed that original blueprint, the future might have been much different.
Most associated with the NBA agree that going to college and maturing before entering the NBA would have been the best thing for Darryl.
Said Hall-of-Fame basketball player Billy Cunningham who coached Dawkins for five years with the 76ers: “The extra time you can spend with a player (in college) and the daily structure would have been beneficial”.
Cunningham also said,”It was hard to be mad at Darryl Dawkins. I mean he would drive you crazy, but then he was a little boy inside. A little boy”.
And Julius Erving added the following: “Just the repetitive drills you do in college. If you do something a thousand times more, it instinctively becomes part of your game. What he also missed was just the fun you have during those college years. It’s a great time for self-discovery and laughter without a lot of pressure on you to be great. A lot of the time that coaches thought Darryl should be working harder on basketball he was out having fun like any other 18 or 19 year old kid. Life was still just fun for him. It wasn’t a business”.
Echoing Erving’s sentiments years later was Pat Williams, who was the General Manager of the 76ers while Dawkins played there: “Darryl has always thought life was a big lark. He never realized how serious this business is to most of us who make a living at it”.
Ultimately, Dawkins decided to forgo college for the money and riches of the NBA.
In explaining his decision to go directly from high school to the NBA, thus skipping college, Dawkins said, “I knew when I saw my grandmother working two jobs just to barely make ends meet, and she gave me her last $10.00 just so I could buy some sneakers, that I had to do something”.
To many, the career of Darryl Dawkins is seen as being as huge a disappointment as the man was huge himself.
But assessing the career of Darryl Dawkins as a huge disappointment may not be totally accurate.
Though it is true that his achievements on the court never reached the (perhaps unrealistic) lofty expectations projected when he entered the NBA as a gigantic and gifted 18 year old, Dawkins did have his moments and became one of the more iconic and loveable characters to ever play in the NBA renowned for his monstrous, backboard-shattering dunks on the court, and his friendly, approachable demeanor off the court.
It may not be an inaccurate statement to say that had Dawkins gone to college and matured properly, given his combination of size, strength and athleticism together with his outgoing and gregarious personality, he might have been the precursor to and of what Shaquille O’Neal turned out to be.
Fans both young and old loved Dawkins. In many ways his personality, especially with kids, was not unlike that of Babe Ruth.
Nicknamed “Chocolate Thunder” (by none other than Stevie Wonder), never were both his infectious, fun-loving personality and physical gift of super-human strength more on display than on a November evening in 1979.
With the 76ers playing the Kansas City Kings, while performing one of his monstrous dunks over Kings player Bill Robinzine, Dawkins shattered the backboard, dislodging the rim from the backboard itself and causing the game to be delayed for about 90 minutes.
The world, extending past just the basketball universe, was amazed by this show of sheer force and strength. But Dawkins went further, combining his tremendous physical strength with his infectious and fun-loving personality.
After the game, when asked about the dunk which shattered the backboard, Dawkins gave the dunk a name calling it “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”………. Fans loved it!!!
Amazing as it may seem, Dawkins repeated the event just a few games later when he once again shattered a backboard while dunking. This one he named “The-Chocolate-Thunder-Ain’t-Playin’, Get-Out-Of-The-Wayin’, Backboard-Swayin’, Game-Delayin’, Super-Spike”.
Once again the fans loved it!!!……….But the NBA, not-so-much.
Realizing that his super-human strength would allow Dawkins to shatter a backboard whenever he chose to, the NBA warned Dawkins that he would be fined if he shattered another backboard, and made it illegal to hang on the rim. It became known as the “Dawkins Rule” and ultimately led to retractable rims being utilized throughout both college and professional basketball.
Dawkins played 14 seasons in the NBA and was an integral part of three Philadelphia 76ers teams which reached the NBA Finals. He posted career numbers of 12.0 points per game, 6.1 rebounds per game, 1.4 blocks per game and 1.3 assists per game. He also posted an impressive career field goal percentage of 57.2%.
Though his numbers are far from legendary, his persona and personality were legendary.
The saga of Darryl Dawkins is one of unrequited potential, stunted perhaps by the miscalculation(s) of adult professionals.
There are truly lessons to be learned from the Darryl Dawkins story when it comes to understanding the nurturing necessity to allow for the proper progression of maturity within young people.
Unfortunately, the NBA would repeat the same mistake numerous times before showing a true aptitude for what it means, what is necessary, and the ramifications of bringing a boy into a man’s world.
To be fair, there have been numerous players who were able to handle the adjustment from High School to the NBA, but the landscape is littered with far too many who couldn’t.
(The NBA now, in my opinion, for the most part does an outstanding job when bringing younger players into the league. An important change in the rules governing a player entering the NBA has helped. Now, players must have completed at least 1 year of college.)
Alas, the Darryl Dawkins story becomes a sad story as Dawkins left us way to early having passed away on August 27, 2015 at the age of 58. Said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver:
“The NBA family is heartbroken by the sudden and tragic passing of Darryl Dawkins. We will always remember Darryl for his incredible talent, his infectious enthusiasm and his boundless generosity. He played the game with passion, integrity and joy, never forgetting how great an influence he had on his legion of fans, young and old. Darryl was beloved around the league and he will be deeply missed by his friends, family, teammates and coaches, as well as the millions of fans who witnessed the high flying brilliance of the one and only Chocolate Thunder”.