"Big Chocolate, how are you, my brother!" This was the
heartfelt, half-right greeting tendered by Manute Bol to Darryl
Dawkins when they ran into each other at the West Palm Beach
Auditorium last week. Dawkins's nickname is Chocolate Thunder,
but no one corrected Bol. Dawkins was the only 6'11", 280-pound
black guy in the vicinity, so you had a pretty good idea whom
Bol was addressing.
Nowadays these eccentric former NBA centers are marking time in
the Continental Basketball Association: Bol, 33, for the Florida
Beachdogs; the 38-year-old Dawkins for the Sioux Falls (S.Dak.)
Skyforce. While they wait for some pivotman on the next level to
tweak a knee, they are eating on $25 a day and drifting off to
sleep at Days Inns and Travelodges.
On Dec. 6 the Skyforce visited the upside-down wok that houses
the Beachdogs' home court, and Bol and Dawkins, whose NBA
careers overlapped from the 1985-86 season through '88-89, made
small talk at the pregame shootaround. When they parted company,
both were smiling--and why not? When times are tough, it's
comforting to know that you're not the only one who has come
down in the world.
"Chocolate Thunder vs. the Seven-Foot Wonder" was how the
Beachdogs billed the game. Although the come-on shortchanged the
7'7" Bol by more than half a foot, it did capture the exotic
possibilities of the rematch between the self-proclaimed time
traveler from the Planet Lovetron and the erstwhile Sudanese
December 18, 1995
It was a mild disappointment that neither Chocolate Thunder nor
the Seven-Foot Wonder started the game. When they did get in,
Dawkins and Bol spent a total of only 11 1/2 minutes on the court
together, because Bol ran into early foul trouble. Upon being
whistled for his fourth personal of the second quarter, the
Dinka tribesman vented his frustration by repeating two
profanities over and over. Neither his arsenal of shots nor his
repertoire of epithets has expanded since November 1994, when he
was last seen in the NBA, with the Golden State Warriors.
Dawkins, meanwhile, has been out of our horizon nearly as long
as Amelia Earhart. After 14 NBA seasons with four teams (the
Philadelphia 76ers, New Jersey Nets, Utah Jazz and Detroit
Pistons), Sir Slam packed his bags and headed overseas in 1989.
He played five seasons in the Italian League and one with the
Harlem Globetrotters. Dawkins found his experience in Italy to
be culturally and gastronomically enriching. He and his wife,
Robbie, learned Italian, and Darryl took up cooking. "Once you
get back from Italy, you can't eat pasta," he says. "Over there,
they make it fresh every day. After that, the stuff we have over
here tastes like cardboard."
This passion for cooking probably contributed to Dawkins's being
25 pounds overweight when he showed up at the Boston Celtics'
training camp in September. After the Celtics cut him, citing
his corpulence, he put in a call to the Skyforce, whose training
camp he had attended in 1994 and who this year offered him a
Playing 22 minutes in the rubber pants and waistband that he
says have helped him drop those 25 pounds, Dawkins had 17
points--including one dunk over Bol--six rebounds and only two
fouls in his team's 112-99 loss to the Beachdogs. Bol's line: no
shots, no points, two boards, six blocks and six fouls in 13
Truth be told, there were long stretches of play when the 2,800
spectators forgot both the Dunkateer and the Human Erector Set.
The best player on the court was Florida guard Stanley Jackson,
who scored 31 points and played terrific defense. Jackson's 25
first-half points included the evening's most savage dunk--a
reverse, double-pump jam off a stolen in-bounds pass. (It almost
certainly did not occur to Jackson, as he hung on the
collapsible rim, that he was sharing the court with the serial
backboard shatterer who inspired the widespread use of such rims.)
As old big men, Bol and Dawkins are doubly anomalous in the CBA,
a guard's league in which the average player is barely 26. Since
he arrived in Florida for his CBA stint, the usually cheerful
Bol has been less than ecstatic. He is angered and puzzled that
Beachdog coach Eric Musselman plays him, in Bol's words,
"twenty-five minutes one night, four minutes the next." He
misses his wife, Atong, and four children, who stayed behind in
Washington, D.C. He also misses the comfort of first-class NBA
travel. Now, like Ned, the Dr. Seuss character whose "feet stick
out of bed," Bol must pull a cot up to the foot of his bed to
keep his legs from dangling off the end. Air travel, during
which he is scrunched up in the coach section, is torture for
him, as the Beachdogs cannot afford to fly him first-class.
"It's killing me," says Bol. "Sometimes I ask myself, Why did I
come to the CBA?"
The answer: To use it as a springboard back to the Show, where
he played 10 seasons with the Washington Bullets, the Warriors,
the 76ers and the Miami Heat, and blocked more than 2,000
shots. "The thing about Manute is that he's very competitive,
very proud," says Musselman. "He's also the funniest player I've
ever been around."
Musselman is not talking about Bol's funny-looking offensive
weapon of choice--a signature three-point shot, in which the ball
is flung from behind his right ear and approaches the basket
like a volleyball serve, spinning on a vertical axis. In the
shootaround he drained an astonishing number of these grotesque
If Bol gets the NBA call-up he so covets, however, it will not
be because of his marksmanship but because he ranks seventh
alltime in the NBA in blocked shots. "I've always seen him as a
kind of relief pitcher," says 76er director of player personnel
Gene Shue, who was Philadelphia's general manager when Bol
played there. "He can come in and have an immediate impact on
After practice, at the restaurant of the hotel he calls home, a
waitress asks, "What'll it be, Bol?" and then recommends the
navy-bean soup. Bol demurs. "Back home, I grew beans," he says.
"I am tired of beans."
On a TV mounted above the table, CNN is on. Sadly, Bol says he
can't get CNN or Headline News in his room. "I must have news,"
he says. "It's killing me." Bol is starved in particular for
news of his homeland, where a 12-year-old civil war continues to
rage. He is head of the Manute Bol Sudan Relief Fund, which has
raised tens of thousands of dollars--much of it coming directly
out of his own pocket--for refugees in southern Sudan. During the
1993 off-season, Bol met with 58 congressmen and senators to
publicize the plight of his countrymen.
He has paid a price for his commitment to that cause. Shortly
after the Warriors released him last season, the Phoenix Suns
invited Bol for a tryout. They wanted him to come on a Friday,
but Bol had promised to be at a Sudan-related fund-raiser in New
York that weekend. He told the Suns he could be there Monday or
Tuesday. "It ticked them off," says Bol's agent, Frank Catapano.
"They didn't bring him in. Some of his problems he's brought
Some, but not all. While the best CBA referees were off filling
in for striking NBA officials, poor saps like Bol suffered at
the hands of college and high school refs hired to work CBA
games. When Florida had the ball, Dawkins swatted Bol around
like a crash-test dummy and got away with it. At the other end,
Bol couldn't touch Dawkins without getting whistled.
"Quit protecting him!" Musselman screamed at the officials.
"He's 50 ---- years old, and you're treating him like he's in
Dawkins had a prime? Sort of. During his NBA career he averaged
12 points a game, played in three NBA Finals and had the
fourth-best field goal percentage (.572) in NBA history. Yet so
vast was his promise upon signing with the 76ers directly out of
Orlando's Maynard Evans High in 1975 that by the time he left
for Italy, he was widely considered one of the greatest
disappointments in league history.
He would like to change the ending of that story--literally: In
his free time Dawkins works on his autobiography. Inspired by
the example of boxer George Foreman, Dawkins would like to make
one of the greatest comebacks in NBA history. "If I can get back
into the league," he says, "I'd have a hell of a last chapter."
His chances for a happy ending are better than fair. While he
can't jump as high or dunk as spectacularly as he once could,
Dawkins is, in many ways, a more effective player than he was in
the NBA. "It will take patience and fortitude," says Washington
Bullet general manager John Nash, "because Darryl carries some
baggage. But if he shows he is sincere about the profession, I
can see him finding his way back to the NBA." (Dawkins's
patience may be waning. He flew to his home in New Jersey over
the weekend to talk with his agent about offers he has received
from European teams.)
Last Thursday the Skyforce traveled to play the Shreveport (La.)
Storm in front of roughly 500 people in the 8,400-seat Hirsch
Coliseum. Dawkins entered the game with his team trailing 12-6,
but by the time he dropped in a finger roll, swished a 17-foot
turnaround jumper and then hit a teammate with a
three-quarter-court football pass for a layup after a steal,
Florida was up 18-16. The Skyforce went on to win 107-101, and
Dawkins finished with 14 points, five rebounds and three assists
in 35 minutes. In the third quarter, after Dawkins fed a
teammate with a blind, behind-the-head, crosscourt pass, two NBA
scouts sitting at courtside looked at each other, their eyebrows
raised. One of them was Larry Wright, a former NBA guard who
played against Dawkins and who now scouts for the Nets. "The
young Darryl Dawkins was always in a hurry to make something
happen," says Wright. "He's smarter now. He's not in as much of
a hurry, and he's seeing things."
An hour after the game, Dawkins sits at the counter of a nearby
Waffle House, where he has come for a late, light dinner. An
elderly man to his left politely asks, "Excuse me, but who are
"I'm Darryl Dawkins. I'm a basketball player."
"I've heard of you," says the old-timer.
"Well, I've been around for 20 years," says Dawkins, whose
professional longevity is a source of amazement even to himself.
"I've had fewer injuries than guys who have played six or seven
years." He attributes his good fortune "to the prayers of my
family." When his dinner arrives--three eggs, lightly scrambled,
with American cheese and white toast--he says grace, then covers
the dish with pepper.
"When people think of Darryl Dawkins, they think about the
dunks," he says. "But I've always been able to hit the 15- to
17-foot jump shot."
People also remember the attention-starved man-child who came
into the league without benefit of college in 1975, expounding
on such topics as "interplanetary funksmanship" and claimed to
have arrived from the planet Lovetron. They think of custodians
sweeping up Plexiglas fragments from the two backboards he
shattered within 22 days in 1979. And they think of the
elaborate names he made up for his most memorable dunks. (Our
favorite: "Chocolate Thunder Flying, Robinzine Crying, Teeth
Shaking, Glass Breaking, Rump Roasting, Bun Toasting, Wham, Bam,
I Am Jam," which commemorates a backboard-breaking slam over
Kansas City King Bill Robinzine.)
What fans do not think of when they reflect on Dawkins is a man
who says grace in public. They would be surprised to learn that
their perceptions of him are as outmoded as a Bee Gees
eight-track tape. But the passing of his days as the Dunkateer
saddens Dawkins not in the least. Monster dunks are not part of
the description of the job he seeks in the NBA. "These teams
aren't looking for a guy to take over the game," he says.
"They're looking for someone to give you three, four, five
minutes a quarter, bump and bang, get a few rebounds." Dawkins
sends this message to NBA general managers who are afraid he
might upset the chemistry of their team: "Nobody in the world
can go 20 years and not change at all. I can get the job done."
Chocolate Thunder could not be more serious. No offense to the
good people of Sioux Falls--"They've been great to me," he
says--but he does not want his book to end in South Dakota.