The incidents will follow him for the rest of his career, marking him as indelibly as the midget pinch hitter did Bill Veeck. By shattering two backboards within 22 days, the Philadelphia 76ers' Darryl Dawkins sprayed Plexiglas, spread destruction and created a lasting image.
It had to happen. Ever since 1975, when he became the first high school player to be drafted by the NBA, Dawkins had maintained that his dream was to destroy a backboard, and at 6'11" and 260 pounds, few doubted he could make it come true. And when it finally occurred during a game in Kansas City last Nov. 13, the result was spectacular. Dawkins soared and jammed the ball with two hands, and the backboard went poof, in a flash disintegrating into a fine spray of slivers. Asked later what he thought as the Plexiglas shards rained down on defender Bill Robinzine and him, Dawkins replied, "It was time to get out of Dodge."
A Kansas City maintenance man gathered up the pieces and announced that he would sell them as souvenirs. "This is going to make me a rich man," he said. However, the value of his collection declined on Dec. 5 when Dawkins splattered another backboard, this time at The Spectrum in Philadelphia. Afterward, Dawkins suggested the pieces of the second board be exhibited in a local museum and explained he had no control over his destructive force. "It was the power," he said. "The Chocolate Thunder. I could feel it surging through my body, fighting to get out." Not everyone was amused. NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien summoned Dawkins to his office, where they discussed the dangers of flying Plexiglas. Meanwhile, a Philly newspaper termed his deed "The Chocolate Blunder" and in its Sunday editions ran an entire page of letters from readers commenting on the wisdom of the Destructo Dunk.
For Dawkins and his deeds to become a subject worthy of an entire page of letters is no minor accomplishment, because pro basketball is a sport where the out of the ordinary is almost commonplace. Everybody dunks. Everybody soars. And yet, despite playing on a team with perhaps as much individual talent as any in history, and performing inconsistently at that, Dawkins has carved himself a special niche and in the process has almost mesmerized the media. He is the only player with a nine-point career scoring average ever to have his own newspaper column, a weekly forum in The Philadelphia Journal called The Dunkateer Talks Back.
Somerset Maugham once said, "Make people laugh, they will think you trivial." Most people figure that Dawkins is all style and no substance. They forget that he is 23 and even after five years in the NBA the second-youngest player on his team. It is almost as if Chocolate Thunder is sort of a surreal makeup that shows basketball fans the Dawkins they crave while allowing him the privacy to be what he wants.
No one, including Dawkins himself, knows what he's going to do or say next. His philosophy is to keep 'em guessing. "People get used to you, they get bored," he says. "You've got to change. Then you got 'em confused. Works every time." Last season he announced that he was going to retire from basketball and become a boxer. The papers dutifully reported this news. Then Dawkins renounced the tale and with a wink told reporters that it "made for a pretty good story, didn't it?"
Dawkins is a publicist's dream. At times he has shaved and oiled his head, and heightened the effect by sticking a gold earring in one lobe. He talks of living on his own planet, Lovetron, recently renamed Chocolate Paradise, speaks of "interplanetary funksmanship" and has developed a rather esoteric vocabulary to categorize his dunks. After he destroyed the backboard in K.C., he grandly designated his effort "The Chocolate Thunder Flying, Robinzine Crying, Teeth Shaking, Glass Breaking, Rump Roasting, Bun Toasting, Wham, Bam, I Am Jam."
This is caviar to the notebook and tape-recorder crowd, and in the locker room the reporters and broadcasters jam around Dawkins. And no matter how inane his comments, how farfetched his observations, his audience eats it up, recording his words as sage and enlightened thinking. To reduce locker-room traffic, the 76ers buffer Dawkins with two seldom-used rookies, Bernard Toone and Jim Spanarkel, who dress on either side of the Dunkateer. Nonetheless, occasionally the media crush is so bad that, Spanarkel says, "I have to dress in the shower."
To further enhance his image, Dawkins wears two gold necklaces that swing and glitter as he runs up and down the court. Gold type spelling out one of his nicknames, Sir Slam, dangles from the first; from the other hangs a gold cross. And he drives something called the Dawkmobile, which, to paraphrase Tom Wolfe, is a metallic blue-kolored, gold-flake, streamline baby—a customized Corvette replete with pinstriping, huge chrome wheel covers, an undersized steering wheel, two chrome lion figurines atop the fenders, special tail fins and mirrors built into the hood. When the Dawk stands on it, really pushes down on the accelerator, the tires squeal and a cloud of exhaust shoots out the back, and the kids in The Spectrum's parking lot yell, "Hey, Dawk! Hey, Dawk! Do it, Dawk!"
And of course he can do it. Why, the man tears down backboards! And the nicknames. No one has more nicknames than Dawkins; he wears them like his necklaces. In the NBA everyone is given a nickname, but Dawkins has taken the ritual a step further, creating appellations for himself. One (Sir Slam) imparts noble rank, another (Dr. Dunk) bestows a medical degree on him. The rest are simply pure whimsy: Chocolate Thunder, Double D, Candy Slam, Squawkin' Dawkins, Pure Pleasure, Cool Breeze, Zandokan and Mad Dunker, with more to come.
It is in the dunk that Dawkins has discovered the perfect expression of his personality. Basketball is an ego game, one-on-one, you against your opponent, and the ultimate way to humiliate your man is the dunk. Dawkins doesn't let anyone forget his dunks, commemorating them with these descriptions: the Go-Rilla, the Cover Your Head, the Look Out Below, the Spine-Chiller Supreme. And—for those moments when he almost brings down the house, or at least the backboard—the No Playin', Get Out of the Wayin', Backboard Swayin', Game Delayin'. The odd thing is, Dawkins doesn't even lead the 76ers in dunks. Julius Erving does. But Erving doesn't name his.
Rising above the ordinary seems to be Dawkins' prime consideration. On occasion he wears one blue and one red sneaker because "I don't like to blend in with the crowd." And last month he announced that he wanted to be a vampire. He claimed they are cool because they have neat names like Dracula, wear capes and get to hang out at night chasing girls.
The fans love Darryl. When he is introduced, the noise level in The Spectrum rises appreciably. This is Dawkins' first season as a full-time starter, and he is still learning the game, but he is second among the 76ers to Erving in scoring, with a 15-point average, and the depth of his fan support can be illustrated by the fact that he almost made the All-Star team, finishing second behind Moses Malone for center and ahead of Dave Cowens in the voting.
So it's working, isn't it? "I'm an entertainer," says Dawkins. "I got a wild imagination. I do whatever I think is going to make me known, to make me marketable so that I can do commercials, appearances, whatever. If you're interesting, people come to you."
Thus, in 1977 when he showed up for preseason workouts, he had a shaved head. "I got in a bad accident and broke all my hairs," explained Dawkins. Then he invented his own planet, where newspapers and television are not allowed and everyone is cool and funky. They eat candy called the Dunk A Crunch bar and exist on funk, which is, says Dawkins, "a universal force, something that is unknown to man."
To understand how far Dawkins has taken his brand of showmanship, consider that he kept coming on even after he fell into a mood approximating the dictionary's version of funk, rather than his own, and took a vow of silence during the 1978 playoffs. Explaining his no-talk stance, he said, in one of his more noted quotes, "Nothing means nothing. But it isn't really nothing, because nothing is something that isn't."
Dawkins has come a long way to Chocolate Paradise. When he signed a million-dollar contract in 1975, he was an 18-year-old whose knowledge of the world, to say nothing of other worlds, ended at the boundaries of an impoverished section of Orlando, Fla. officially called Ivy Lane but known as The Projects. His mother, Harriet, worked as a maid and sewed many of his clothes, and there were four other children and no father in the house. Dawkins helped support the family by working as a janitor at Maynard Evans High School, sweeping out classrooms and patching holes in the football field, and on weekends he changed tires in a shop owned by Charlie Caperilla. But when he signed the contract, Dawkins went from being a kid with nothing to a man with everything. More important, he was out of excuses. People expected the spectacular from him.
Of course, he couldn't deliver. His first season (1975-76) he played only 165 minutes, and little more the next. He claimed he wanted to be traded. He was not performing up to his potential, and, worse, he was on a team with the same rap against it. Then, in the 1977 playoffs, he was involved in a fight with Portland's Maurice Lucas. During the melee Dawkins clumsily hit his own teammate, Doug Collins, opening a cut over Collins' eye, but he did his real damage in the locker room, tearing down a steel partition, raging that the other 76ers hadn't come to his aid and claiming that his ineffectual showing as a fighter wasn't indicative of his pugilistic skills because his uncle, Candy McDaniels, "once fought Joe Louis." Actually, Dawkins was simply embarrassed. The next season he showed up again with a shaved head, an earring and far-out monologues.
Reporters began writing about his strength and macho image. Dawkins looks as if he could tear down the Empire State Building. But so do a whole bunch of other athletes. Once when then-teammate Lloyd Free's car was stuck in a snowdrift, Dawkins supposedly lifted up its rear end and put it down on bare earth. And when he cut his hand in 1977—doing the dishes, he said—the rumor spread that he had been involved in a playful sword fight with one of his relatives. "I don't even have a sword," said Dawkins. But he did let slip that he used to be something of a fighter in Orlando and told of a brawl at the city train station. "I got tired of hitting him," Dawkins said. "So I told him, 'If I stop hitting you, will you catch the next train out of town?' He said, 'Mr. Dawkins, I'll catch yesterday's train.' "
Actually, no one in Orlando remembers Dawkins fighting. Because he was such an imposing player at Maynard Evans, the opposition often taunted him and threw bananas and animal crackers at him. His coach, Fred Pennington, recalls a night in Tampa when Dawkins' uniform was torn from all the holding. Through it all, Dawkins was stoic. He never got a technical foul in high school, and only once did he threaten anyone—when an opponent made a disparaging remark about his mother and Dawkins chased him into the stands.
Dick Hulette, the team's assistant coach, cites the time Dawkins stopped several kids from bullying a smaller fellow at Hankins Park, the playground where he played street ball, often until 2 a.m. "If you gang up on him," Dawkins told them, "then you're going to have to get both of us." There was a similar incident at the high school one day when a group of whites and blacks were on the verge of brawling in a hallway. Dawkins stepped between them and said, "There'll be no trouble because the first that starts something, I'll deal with him."
This is how the people in Orlando remember Dawkins: when he was a sophomore, Pennington had him write down his long-term goals. Dawkins said he wanted to buy his mother a house, and at practice Pennington would remind him, "Darryl, you're getting closer." When Dawkins signed his contract he bought his mother a four-bedroom house and then had the home of his grandmother, Amanda Jones, remodeled and a heating system installed because she didn't want to move to a new place. He also bought himself a king-sized bed and a Lincoln Continental. His mother got a Cadillac, which meant she didn't have to take the bus anymore. To this day, Dawkins supports a string of relatives.
Clearly, when you get behind the bombast, it develops that Dawkins is thinking about more things than his own planet. Teammate Bobby Jones calls him "a solid guy." Erving points out that Dawkins has a lot of personal problems. "More than most of us," he says. "Because he's a target, such a vulnerable target. The problem is that he makes himself so accessible."
Erving feels that the 76ers made a mistake in not playing Dawkins more in his first two years. "A lot of time was wasted," Dr. J says. "He didn't learn sitting on the bench. It made him very defensive and very insecure, and it stymied him as a basketball player. Now anytime he makes a mistake, it's hard for him to accept it. He gets mad. That's his offense being his defense. He's like Ali. So much of what he says is a smoke screen. I can tell you that Darryl cares, very much. He cares about the team."
"I don't open up to a lot of people," Dawkins says. "In the past people have taken advantage of me, and I don't intend to let that happen anymore. Nobody has a chance to get in and hurt me from within. Hey, I'm human. And the human things upset me in the same way they do others. It might take a little more to get to me, but they do. So I try not to let myself get close to anybody. I can get over physical hurt more easily than emotional hurt. Emotionally—you carry that pain around with you for years."
What it comes down to is that people expect too much of big people. A little guy is a spark plug. He hustles. But a big man like Dawkins, well, he should be great. After all, he can dunk. Erving thinks that Dawkins will be remembered less and less for his dunks and broken backboards and Chocolate Paradise. "He can be the best," says Dr. J. "He can do things that just haven't been done. He's the most coordinated player of his size that I've ever seen, and he has the physical skills and the mental capabilities. It's happening through evolution. He's been given the responsibility of being our man in the pivot. That's a lot of responsibility right there."
But aside from Dawkins' size and strength, it is his shooting touch that separates him from most men his size. College coaches were so overwhelmed at the sight of him swishing corner jump shots in high school they literally set up a stake-out in Orlando. The University of Florida bought season tickets to his games—one on each side of his mother—and when he arrived to open his tire shop on Saturdays, Caperilla knew that at least one college recruiter would be waiting. Says Dawkins, "One night a coach called: 'We'll give you a Cadillac. We'll take care of your mother, and we'll give you all the clothes you want.' I told the man I wanted to go back to sleep. It was four in the morning."
The 76ers' Jack McMahon arrived to scout him and found the gymnasium packed, so he paid a man $20 to be let in a back door. It was money well spent. "Players with this kind of talent are meant to be basketball players, not students," Mac told the press in explaining why Philly nabbed Dawkins right out of high school. For his pro signing Dawkins bought a white suit in Orlando, and his preacher, the Rev. W. P. Judge, pastor of the Antioch Primitive Baptist Church, accompanied him to Philadelphia. In the back of the room, unnoticed by reporters, stood Darryl's father, Frank. He didn't speak to anyone.
Dawkins won't divulge anything about his relationship with his father, who left the family when Dawkins was a child. But there are several men in Orlando who served as Dawkins' surrogate father while he was growing up, among them Pennington and Caperilla. "He needed somebody who would ride herd on him," says Pennington. Dawkins appreciated those who did. He was slow in reading, so a teacher, Judy Brown, tutored him. Dawkins would bring her flowers. And after his first pro season he called Caperilla and asked if his job changing tires was still available. Two days later he was at the shop at 8 a.m., and he worked most of the summer for $2.50 an hour, giving Caperilla a kind of free promotion and advertising he never could buy. "When someone helps you out, you shouldn't forget it," says Dawkins. Caperilla says, "If my children grow up to be like him, I'd be proud."
Told of Caperilla's statement, Dawkins says softly, "People took an interest in me while I was growing up because I was a good person, not a good basketball player. Basketball always comes second. Your family and your religion come ahead of basketball, and I don't care who you are or what you do, you need both of those things. I know what kind of person I am, so I don't care as much what people say about me. They can't hurt me as easily, because they don't know me. They say, 'Big and dumb. Big and a bully, hot dog....' They can call me whatever they want to."
Dawkins lives in Somerdale, N.J., a suburb about 20 minutes from The Spectrum. He cuts the grass, washes and irons his clothes, cooks the recipes his grandmother taught him and wants to raise a patch of vegetables in the back. Besides the Corvette, he drives a Jeep, likes to fish and hunt and knows that several years from now, when he finishes with pro basketball, he will go back home to Orlando, where the pace is slow and satisfying.
For relaxation, he bowls a little or goes to a movie. There are few books in his house; he finds his equivalent of literature in music. "Most people just go by the beat, but every song has a story," says Dawkins. "I didn't go to college, but I'm a little more advanced than a lot of people think."
The other side of Dawkins comes through in his poetry. He writes about love, about his family, about his day. Recently he wrote a poem to a girl friend and was happy that she had it framed. He was even more pleased that she didn't hang it on a wall, but kept it in a drawer. "That meant it was something special just between us," says Dawkins.
He doesn't talk like this in the locker room. There he is Chocolate Thunder, the man who bagged two backboards in a month. There he has his audience and his greasepaint, and there he can break down what he calls "the frown barrier." There people listen to his beat, not his story. After a game a writer asks what gifts he received upon his recent birthday. Dawkins answers, "Four girls. Beer, babes and basketball, that's my life." The reporters crowd around. Tape recorders hum. Fred Carter, once a Philadelphia player, now a television commentator, walks up and says, "Hey, man, what're you flying through the air for so much tonight? You keep it up, pretty soon they'll be giving you a cape."
"Hey, little man," snorts Dawkins. "I'll knock you down." He takes a few open-handed swipes at Carter. In the locker room, eyebrows arch. Is the big fellow serious? Then Dawkins gathers up his gym bag, puts on his coat and heads for the door. Outside, his fans are waiting. "Hey, Dawk!" they yell. "You did it tonight, Dawk! Hey, Dawk!..."