[Pete Dexter of the Philadelphia Daily News was one of America’s great newspaper columnists of the 1970s through the 1980s. But in December 1981, Dexter famously got roughed up outside a Center City bar by a band of tough guys wielding baseball bats (or, some say, pool cues) and a grudge over his recent column about a drug deal-gone-wrong. This bloody night put Dexter in the hospital with a broken hip and an assortment of other maladies. It also eventually sent Dexter seeking employment in quieter burgs and turning his pen toward the production of award-winning fiction. Read any of his novels. You won’t be disappointed.
But in 1980, just before the life-altering scrape, Dexter wrote this gripping profile of Darryl Dawkins for the April 30, 1980 edition of the magazine Inside Sports. It serves as a snapshot in time. If you to want to take a more-comprehensive look at Dawkins, consider Charley Rosen’s Chocolate Thunder: The Uncensored Life and Time of Darryl Dawkins.]
Early February, Frank Dawkins is sitting in a second-floor office made of cement and insulated against the noise downstairs in the plant. Exactly what is manufactured in the plant is hard to say, but it has something to do with a lot of guys dropping pipes on a concrete floor.
Dawkins’ sneakers are crossed and resting on Arnold’s desk. Arnold is the business partner, and it is a long, long ways from his desk to Frank Dawkins’ chair. You don’t need to be told who is Darryl Dawkins’ father.
The plant is in Queens. Frank and Arnold bought it four and a half years ago, about the time Darryl was coming out of Maynard Evans High School in Orlando, Florida, and signing a six-year, million-dollar contract with the Philadelphia 76ers.
“Right after we got the place, Darryl just walked in one day,” Arnold says. “He looked around here, smilin’, and told us he was gonna make more money than we did. Just walk right in, remember that, Frank?”
Frank Dawkins smiles, nods. He is on the phone right now with a woman named Ann, sizing her for a raccoon coat. “Was that a 10 or 12 now, honey?” he says.
There is a pause, he holds up his hand to interrupt her. “I only wish I had the words to express my hopeless indebtedness, having been with you even once,” he says. “No, no, I would not let snow fall on New York without you being here to hold my hand . . . Yes, oh yes. There must have been a thousand things my heart forgot to say . . .”
Arnold shakes his head, shuts one eye, and looks at Frank. “That’s one of eight,” he says. “This one’s calling from Florida. Promises every one of them raccoon coats, sends them flowers. Al there has to go charge them with his Sears card.”
Al is Frank’s huge brother. He is spilling over both sides of his chair in the corner also shaking his head. Frank is saying his heart is truly sad when he thinks of all the things that might have been, and Al puts his hands over his ears.
“He gets all that from Bo Diddley,” he says. “You talk like that, too, if you want to spend two years in Sam Goody’s reading the back of record albums . . .”
Frank is cradling the phone now, closer to it, almost blowing into Ann’s Florida ear. He says, “I will show you the true New York. Frank Dawkins’ New York . . . “
Arnold looks at the ceiling. “Burger King, McDonald’s . . .”
Frank puts his hand over the mouthpiece. “This is not a Burger King lady,” he says.
“Ask her about getting’ in bed with you and another chick,” Arnold says.
Dawkins nods. He says, “Darling, Arnold says if you love me, you will do my lifelong thing that I have always wanted . . . You and another lady, yes, at the same time.” There is a long pause. Dawkins says, “A love like you would be wasted if shared anyway.”
He asks once more about what size raccoon she wears, absently scribbling a 10 on the pad in front of him, then says “bye-bye” and, still holding the phone, looks across the desk at Arnold. “She says after I pull that off with her and another chick, I might as well go over to Iran and get them hostages free.”
Until the day that Darryl walked into the office in Queens, Frank Dawkins had seen his second son three, maybe four times since he was a baby. He’d left his family in Orlando and come to the worst part of Harlem in 1962. He’d waited tables, driven trucks, and then finally met Arnold and gotten into some money coating pipes. He moved to a nicer apartment in the worst part of Harlem.
Dawkins puts the dead phone back on the desk and the words come harder. “I am proud of Darryl,” he says. “Proud because he made it when I wasn’t there to help. The NBA don’t mean nothin’ to me. I never liked basketball anyway. But he proved he could do what he had to do. It was inevitable, I think. Just as it was inevitable that I would do what I had to do. One of the times I did see him, we had what I would call very strong words. It showed me right there, I didn’t have to worry about him, he had character.”
Frank Dawkins studies his hands. “Of course, I regret not being there when he was growing up. Darryl and Mitchell and Chico, too. If any of them needed anything I had, all they’d have to do was ask. Maybe a father who was there wouldn’t feel that way. You compensate, but the family is a basic thing.”
Arnold says, “You’re not going to say you’d give up all the leg you’ve had for a family?”
Dawkins thinks. “Well, all the ladies I had back when I left, it wasn’t that much back then.”
“I want to hear you say it: I would give up all the leg I had to raise my family.”
Frank Dawkins smiles, runs his fingers through long, gray hair. He can’t make that come out of his mouth.
The two suburban New York sportswriters are sitting in the press box at the Spectrum, analyzing what is wrong with Darryl Dawkins. “Ever since all the pub with the backboards, he got a big head,” one of them says.
The other one just nods toward the court. “Lovetron, Chocolate Paradise. Look at him, talking to ushers, laughing . . .” The sportswriters are so disgusted they cannot continue.
It is three minutes into the second quarter, and Darryl is on the bench in early foul trouble. And just now he is saying something to an usher. It is unprofessional, of course, and offensive to suburban New York sportswriters everywhere, but Darryl Dawkins still talks to anybody he wants to talk to. He also picks his own friends.
Some of them are across the Delaware River in New Jersey, and if they don’t care much about basketball, they don’t hold it against Darryl that he does. One owns a record store, another one has spent some time in jail.
“That one,” Dawkins says, “Jack McMahon keeps tellin’ me to stay away, stay away. He says he is going to hurt me. A long time ago, he got in some gang trouble. He was doin’ a gang thing, and they got him on speed. Sellin’ speed and something else. Yeah, murder. But that was a long time ago, and I don’t go look at what you did 10 years ago. I told him, ‘If you still doin’ anything like that, don’t bring it with you when you are around me.’”
McMahon is an assistant coach with the 76ers, the man who brought Darryl to Philadelphia. He scouted him, he recommended him. And after he got to Philly, he helped him at a time when head coach Gene Shue wouldn’t. You will never hear Jack McMahon say a bad word about Darryl Dawkins.
“I go down to Orlando one weekend when Darryl is a senior,” he says. “Cost me $20 to get in the back door, and I just stand there, watching Darryl. He’s leading breaks, shooting from the perimeter, rebounding. He’s so strong. It is hard to believe I was watching a 17-year-old kid.
“Everybody in the stands is screaming and beating each other on the back and, of course, I’m just watching Darryl. Finally, the guy next to me looks over and says, ‘Don’t you care who wins?’ I tell him nope. He says, ‘Where are you from?’ and I tell him Philadelphia. The guy says, ‘Philly? I told him, ‘I don’t know, I just like basketball . . .’”
Back on the court, Caldwell Jones picks up his third foul and Darryl goes back into the game. For three minutes, he is everything a center can be. He blocks a shot, fills the lane for fastbreaks, rebounds at both ends of the court. As he slams home a dunk, the visiting sportswriters start screaming for a technical foul. “He’s hanging from the rim, look at that shit. They’re afraid to call it on him.”
Dawkins is also playing defense, which means he is using his hands. All players in the NBA use their hands to play defense, but Darryl seems to have more talent for it than the others. When he doesn’t want somebody to be somewhere, he moves them. When he doesn’t want somebody to leave, he holds them. With Bob Lanier and Artis Gilmore, Dawkins, at 6-foot-11, 260 pounds, is one of the three strongest people in basketball. He is the only one still getting stronger.
In the dressing room after the 76ers have beaten them, one of the Nets will say, “Darryl? Strong? He holds your hand to your side, you think it’s nailed there.”
“The hand check rule hurt my game,” Darryl will say later. “When they took that out, it meant all you could do was push and release, push and release. You couldn’t grab no more.” He thinks a minute. “It hurt Henry (Bibby), too. Henry’ll bite you to keep you getting’ past. . .”
Just now though, Darryl feels someone in behind him, under the basket. He reaches back, without looking, and his hand finds one of the Nets’ guards who has come loose underneath on a pick. To be more specific, he has found the head of one of the Nets’ guards who has come loose on a pick. The legs move, the head stays right where Darryl is holding it. The guard screams, Nets coach Kevin Loughery screams, the referee misses it.
A minute later, at the other end, the same referee calls Dawkins on a loose ball foul that involves almost no contact and doesn’t mean anything to the play itself. Referees in the NBA do that sometimes when they know they have missed something earlier.
The call stops Darryl. He stands with his hands on his hips, his feet crossed and both flat on the floor, looking confused, and maybe insulted. He opens his mouth, shakes his head, and walks away.
“You don’t come right into the referee’s face,” he says. “You embarrass ‘em, and they’ll get you back. George (McGinnis) called one of them a racist in the newspaper, and for weeks they called him for stuff you couldn’t believe. Finally, he had to apologize, so they’d let him alone. I don’t say nothin’ to them, except maybe if I’m getting’ held a lot, I might say, ‘Please take a look.’ Mostly, though, somebody do something to me, I just do it back.”
Suddenly, Darryl changes. You have to be watching him to notice it, but he is a shade slower, he loses track of his man underneath the boards and gives up a cheap basket on an offensive rebound, he isn’t in the offense. After a basket, he half-runs to the other end of the court, stops when he gets there like Roger Bannister at the end of his mile.
A week later, during a morning practice, a janitor will stop at the door of the Widener College fieldhouse, lean on his broom, and watch the 76ers go four-on-four up and down the court, and this is what he’ll say: “It sure don’t take Darryl long to stop runnin’, do it?”
Dawkins says, “Whatever happens on the court, I try not to let it bother me. I know sometimes I’m going to look like a million dollars, and sometimes I’m going to look like 55 dollars. When I’m 55 dollars, I try to do other things—pass, rebound, concentrate on defense. I used to get my feelings hurt 40 times a game. When I’d ask to bring the ball around to me, and they didn’t. I thought they were doubtin’ my talent. But then I finally realized there was other things goin’ on. If Julius (Erving) can give up part of his game (for the team), well. . . “
After the game, Dawkins sits in sunset-colored underwear and gold necklaces, drinking a beer in front of his locker, talking to a dozen reporters about the game, about Lovetron and Chocolate Paradise—the two planets Darryl invented—about shattered glass. He has had something close to an average night—15 points, nine or 10 rebounds. Dr. J is sitting on the floor with ice bags over each knee, Steve Mix is on a table with ice on his knees, too. Bobby Jones, the third forward and the player Dawkins looks up to more than anybody else on the team (“He actually works hard at practice, man”), has already dressed and left.
A seven- or eight-year-old kid, somebody’s nephew, works his way toward Dawkins, too shy to say anything when he gets there. He is holding a picture of Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski that he got with a pack of bubble gum.
Dawkins hands the kid his beer and takes the card. “Hey . . . a sissy.” He reaches for his beer, the kid reaches for the sissy. Dawkins presses a fist into the boy’s cheek. They stare at each other a second, and suddenly the kid hugs the hand against his face, and then he’s gone.
Darryl is still watching him through the crowd when one of the suburban New York sportswriters suddenly is in front of him, telling him he wants an interview. That’s the way he puts it. “I want to talk to you.” Something comes across Dawkins’ face that you wouldn’t want to see if you were alone with him. He starts to dress.
The sportswriter sits down in front of Darryl and searches his eyes. He puts a tape recorder in front of Dawkins’ mouth and says, “Do you feel not going to college has hurt you, in overall fundamentals?”
Darryl says, “I have answered that question 34 times tonight, and I forgot what I said the first time, so I ain’t going to answer it again.”
“Some newspaper people,” he says later, “they act like they own you. They got one like that at the (Philadelphia) Inquirer, too, when I first came to Philadelphia, a lot of them treated me like I was ignorant because I didn’t go to college. I had reasons for that—I didn’t take no money under the table, I had to consider my family—but they talked to me way down, like a child. Finally, one day I told one, ‘I wished if you had somethin’ to ask me, you’d just go ahead and ask it so I can answer it and get out of here.’”
Then he pulls on his shoes, puts two Lite beers in a travel bag a school kid back in Florida painted for him, and walks out of the building. Outside, half a hundred women are waiting for him, they all want to ride in his Corvette.
The suburban New York writer shakes his head. “Do you believe that?” he says. “Do you believe what you just saw?
Around the league, a lot of people look at Darryl Dawkins and don’t believe what they see. The strength, the quickness, the touch. People say he has more ability than he knows what to do with.
On the other hand, there is the complaint that Dawkins hasn’t developed as fast as he should have. The plays he is in, he dominates, but he isn’t in enough plays. He doesn’t set many picks, he is still prone to early foul trouble. And his best games are consistently against the league’s weak teams.
Some of that you can hand to Gene Shue, and some of it goes to the situation Darryl walked into in Philadelphia in 1975. The team then had George McGinnis, Lloyd Free, Joe Bryant. A year later, they added Julius Erving. it was a team of egos, of one-on-one basketball, led by a coach who was a substituter, not a teacher.
Five years later in Darryl’s first year as a starter, the complexion of the team has changed—the 76ers are one of the least selfish teams in basketball. McGinnis, Free, and Bryant are gone, Erving, an absolutely professional athlete, has adjusted his game to fit Billy Cunningham’s.
But while Cunningham has more time for Dawkins, and more interest, he’s still a young coach and not a teacher in the sense that Jack Ramsay, Red Holzman, or Hubie Brown is.
The fairest and most basic measure of an NBA center is how much better he makes the rest of his team play—think of Willis Reed and the Knicks—and so far Darryl Dawkins, who has similar tools, hasn’t approached that. But it is early, Dawkins is still only 23 years old.
Cunningham says, “He’s getting better all the time,” and Darryl has all the time in the world.
When a student enters Maynard Evans High School in Orlando, he is required to fill out a sheet that asks him, among other things, what he wants to do with his life.
“I remember when I found out I had Darryl, I went in and looked up his entrance sheet. He wrote down that he wanted to take care of his family on the first line. Then he’d skipped the next line, and down on the bottom there was something about bein’ a disc jockey.”
Fred Pennington was Darryl Dawkins’ high school coach at Evans, a series of one-story buildings that spreads out, an afterthought at a time, over several acres. He is the vice-principal now, but the sign on the door still says “Coach Pennington.”
Inside the door are walls covered with pictures of Darryl Dawkins and his 1975 state championship basketball team, a desk that belongs to somebody neat, a small man with sideburns and new ulcers.
“I coached basketball 24 years,” Pennington says. “Always the dream I had was a state championship. You got to understand how it was, I went 10 years without a player over six foot and then suddenly I had Darryl and two other kids 6-foot-8 and 6-foot-5. The three of them would go into a Crystal Hamburger joint, and the bill’d be $24.”
“Darryl was probably the best high school player who ever lived, and he was one of the best people I ever met, you’d forget sometimes you were talkin’ to a kid.
“He worked sweepin’ up after school, and Saturdays he worked over to Charlie’s tire place. He’d come to class every day, except when he’d leave to pick oranges to give his mother a nice Christmas. There was always somethin’ . . . peaceful between us.
“I saw people throw bananas at him, animal crackers. Once, in a game up in Winter Park, somebody said somethin’ about his mother and he chased the kid right up into the stands. He came back to the bench and began to tell me what happened, and I hit him right in the chest with the ball. It was the only time anything like that ever happened between us. I looked at him and thought he was going to cry. Inside, I said, ‘My God,’ Outside, I said, ‘Don’t you ever alibi to me.’
“Later I told him, ‘What good are you going to be if you get thrown out of a game every time somebody says somethin’ about your mother?’ He was a coachable kid. You could get on Darryl’s frame without him showin’ you his press clippings.”
Fred Pennington looks around his office at the pictures. “I don’t know, I coached another year after he left. But all of a sudden, I saw where I had gone so long at it, I felt tired. I could see it in myself that I wasn’t eager anymore . . .”
He shakes his head. “I loved him,” he says. “I still do. People expect him to be exactly the same when he comes back, they don’t understand you can’t go to places like Las Vegas and Bourbon Street and L.A. and not change some.”
“You know, though, when Charlie and I went up to the NCAA’s in Philly, Darryl [in his rookie year] met us at the plane, he gave us his car to use, he carried our bags right into the hotel. You imagine that? He carried our bags right into the hotel . . .”
Half a mile away, Charlie Caperilla sits in his tire store, where Darryl worked Saturdays and holidays while he was in high school. He also worked there at $2.50 an hour the first two summers after he’d signed his million-dollar contract with the 76ers.
“I’ll always feel like I owe Charlie,” Darryl says.
Charlie says, “The reason I got interested in him like I did was basketball, but the reason I treated him like I did was because I liked him. Never had to tell him to work, he’d always find something to do. He tried hard. I advised him, I lent him my car. I told him what I thought when the college coaches came by Saturdays to offer him cars and money.”
There are pictures of Darryl on Charlie Caperilla’s walls, too. He takes the cigar out of his mouth and carefully lifts one of them down, turns it around. On the back, Darryl has written, “To the coolest white dad a black dude ever had.”
He looks at it a minute, puts it back on the wall, and gets his cigar out of the ashtray. “At dinner the other night, my daughter Kelly—just turned eight years old—suddenly she puts her fork down and right out of the blue she says, ‘Damn, I miss Darryl.’ Don’t know where she picked up that kind of language.”
Caperilla is still looking at the picture of Darryl. “Did I tell you the time when me and Fred went to Philly for the NCAA finals? Come got us right at the airport and carried our bags right into the hotel . . .”
As soon as he signed with the 76ers, Darryl Dawkins bought a house for his mother. It’s a yellow house on the bend of a quiet street, about two miles from the project where the Dawkins family lived. There are flowers in the yard, and Darryl’s mother and his brothers Mitchell and Chico or just back from church.
In the living room are half a hundred trophies—one of them for the state discus risk record Darryl set in junior high school—a line of black dolls sitting in ruffled dresses on the floor, a life-sized cardboard Darryl standing in the corner.
Harriet Dawkins moves the dolls, gently, to make a place to sit on the sofa. “Let me get my babies out of the way,” she says.
Mitchell and Chico walk through, bare-chested, eating chicken. Neither of them is quite as tall as Darryl, but they look about as strong. Mitchell is a year older than Darryl, and Darryl is a year older than Chico. “Them boys used to fight, I turned the hose on ‘em.” Mrs. Dawkins says. “Darryl come home, they still go outside and tussle sometimes.”
Mitchell says it wasn’t really fighting. “It was testin’ each other. He called it the Mandingo Drop, you go til you can’t go no more. . . No,” he says, “ the neighbors didn’t come outside to watch. They always go inside and watch.”
Harriet Dawkins says, “Darryl was the longest baby you ever seen. When everybody else wearin’ five and six shoe, Darryl was wearin’ nines. He went up past Mitchell, and he jus’ never stopped. Everybody was always sayin’ when he fill out, that boy’s going to be something’.” She smiles. “And they was right.”
She looks at the cardboard Darryl and sighs. “Sometimes I look at him and ask, ”Lord, how could it be?”
“Even when he was little, he was always tryin’ to look out for his family. His sister gets sick, you could hardly get him to talk. There was so much pain in that boy. Still is. If somethin’s wrong in the family, it just tear him apart.
“We got to the place now, we don’t let him know if somethin’s happened, if we can help it. He called home, oh yes. And we call him. And sometime at three o’clock in the morning on the same day, he’ll call up again, just ask what we’re doin’.”
The phone rings then. Darryl from Denver. His mother says, “Hello, baby, how are you?”
Darryl has the flu. She asks if he wants her to send up some of his grandmother’s concoction.
Amanda Jones is 74 years old and she still lives in the house across the street from the project, the house where she and her daughter raised Darryl and his brothers and sister, brought them up to be Christians under the guidance of the Rev. William Davis Judge and his Antioch Primitive Baptist Church.
The church is about four blocks away. A block or two farther than that is the cemetery where her side of the family is buried. She did not want a new house when Darryl signed his contract, so Darryl had the old house remodeled.
She gave up maid work six years ago because she got sick. “Stomach troubles,” she says, “and I limp so bad. You know doctors, they don’t never turn you loose.”
She is sitting in her chair now, watching a golf tournament on the television set. A cane leans beside her against the doorway. On the wall is a picture of The Last Supper in black velvet, and on the table are school pictures of some of her grandchildren.
“I know that boy,” she says. “I know him better’n anybody. I raised him right here in this house. It used to rain in the kitchen, but Darryl fix that.” She looks up at the ceiling around the room. “He fix everything . . . You say you seen Darryl?”
She settles into the chair and listens to the news that Darryl has the flu. “He need some of grandma’s salve,” she says finally. “Snake livers, lizard tongue, alligator lip, olive oil, and Vicks mentholatum. Cook it all til it go together, and it do you all the good in the world.”
She watches while that settles, she begins to smile. “Darryl learned to play right out there in the yard,” she says. An old wooden backboard stands out there, leaning to the right. The rim is gone, Darryl’s 11-year-old cousin climbed a ladder and took it down with a two-handed dunk. The ground around the backboard is smooth, but, here and there, the grass is beginning to grow back. She says, “They was always a yard full of children playin’. I don’t know where they come from. I don’t know where they all gone to now.
“On the television sometime I see Darryl breakin’ them boards. I’d like to fell out of my chair. I say, ‘It’s terrible.’ That child don’t know his own strength. . . No, I never been to one of the games. I couldn’t stand it. Airplanes, they fall too much.
“I see him on the television, though. I get so nervous, and then everybody get to yellin’ at him, oh, I could hardly stand it. . .” She reaches out for her cane, and shakes it at the set. “I yell too,” she says. “I say, ‘Don’t you hurt that boy.’”
It’s a Wednesday, a couple of days after Darryl’s 23rd birthday, and there is a lot on his mind.
He is the 11th and last 76er on the floor for practice. He comes out wearing black Paul Revere pants, white stockings, a black sweatshirt. By the time he walks out of the dressing room, Henry Bibby is already sweating, Julius and Steve Mix are jogging laps around the gym together. Erving runs without effort, Mix seems to concentrate to make his legs work. You wonder how they would take it tomorrow morning if they woke up with each other’s talent.
Dawkins picks up a ball, puts it behind his back, throws it up over his head toward the basket. He moved slowly—toes pointed toward each other as he walks—over to rookie guard Clint Richardson and grabs him by the back of the neck.
“I’m tight with Clint,” he says. “He came in here with no friends, he jus’ tried to do his thing. Didn’t come around braggin’ or cocky, but he was here to play. I’ve seen what he was about right then . . .”
He lets Richardson go and moves to another basket to shoot some jump shots with Henry Bibby. Darryl stands about 18 feet from the basket, Bibby jumps in his face every other time he puts the ball up. Darryl hits six straight, throws up the ball behind us back again.
Practice lasts an hour and a half, and, at the end, Dawkins is preoccupied. He goes to a diner, orders lunch. Five fried eggs, sunny-side up. Three scrambled eggs on the side. Double toast, pancakes, double bacon, double sausage, orange juice, and two glasses of chocolate milk.
“I got things to do today,” he says. “Got to pick up the four-wheel drive I bought, got to take my lady to the doctor’s. Thinks she’s pregnant.”
The next night, after a game with Portland, he is still bothered. “Things didn’t work out yesterday, Darryl?”
He shakes his head. “They had to move the speaker so they could get an extra rail in, give me room for my legs. Another two days, at least.”
Five years ago, when the 76ers took Dawkins instead of waiting for him to go to college, Jack McMahon, whose 27 years pro experience includes two head coaching jobs and an NBA championship as a player, explained it to the press this way: “People like Darryl Dawkins are meant to play basketball.”
Dawkins was picked fifth in the NBA’s 1975 draft, behind David Thompson, Dave Meyers, Marvin Webster, and Alvan Adams. A year earlier, Moses Malone had come out of Petersburg (Virginia) High School and became one of the dominant centers in basketball. Malone’s transition into the pros probably had something to do with the 76ers being willing to take a chance on Dawkins. Malone averaged 19 points and 15 rebounds per game his first year with Utah.
Steve Mix and Doug Collins are the only active 76ers who were on that team. “I had my doubts about a high school kid being able to come in and play with professionals,” Mix said. “No, I didn’t feel protective of him, hell, he’s bigger than me. Everybody in this league knows there’s a time when they won’t be able to play anymore, and, when you come in, you better be ready to take care of yourself.”
At the time of the signing, coach Gene Shue had this to say: “He should be able to play somewhere if he can’t play here.” And for two years, Darryl sat on Shue’s bench (playing only 165 minutes his first year), getting little pieces of playing time in the blowouts and, after the first summer, very little of the coach’s attention. In his second year, he asked to be traded.
He had come from a high school that played an all-zone defense, where he’d lead breaks, shot from the outside, done everything there is to do on a basketball court. When he got into games in the NBA, he tended to lose concentration playing man-to-man defense. On offense, he would get frustrated without the ball and float out to a high post looking for it.
Jack McMahon says, “He was an 18-year-old kid, close to his family. He didn’t know anything about checking accounts or getting an apartment or people who would try to take advantage of him. All the things you learn little by little as you grow up, Darryl had to learn all at once. What kept him here is that he’s a smart kid. He needed to be reassured because none of it was easy . . .”
And Darryl says, “It still gets me down, somebody come by and say he need $200 for his mother’s house payment, and he’ll get it back to me in two weeks. Then the two weeks never come around, and I know somebody’s got advantage of me again.”
One of the hardest times came in the 1977 playoffs against Portland, when Dawkins was ambushed by Maurice Lucas and punched in the back of the head. Nobody was hurt in the scuffle except 76er guard Doug Collins, who Dawkins himself accidentally popped over the eye, but after the game Dawkins tore up a toilet stall.
Dick Weiss, who covers the 76ers for the Philadelphia Daily News and knows Dawkins as well as any writer in the city, says the reason Darryl took out the toilet didn’t have anything to do with being embarrassed about not having taken out Lucas.
“Darryl’s a bigger person than that,” Weiss says. “What it was, right or wrong, he felt he’d been abandoned, and that goes back a long time . . .”
Darryl Dawkins was in eighth grade the first time he dunked a basketball. He was playing in Hankins Park in Orlando, with Snake and Jessie and Pete—all of them four or five years older. It was about midnight, and there was a light rain, so every now and then they’d stop playing to sweep off the court.
“I didn’t know what the hell I’d done,” he says. “All I knew was all of a sudden everybody stopped playin’ and their eyes got big. Somebody says, “My God, you dunked it, man.’ I remember that feeling when it hit me. That feeling was, ‘Hey, I want to do that some more.’”
Dawkins is sitting in his bedroom, and the talk about dunks gets around to the two that shattered backboards earlier this season. He named the one in Kansas City the “Chocolate Thunder Flying, (Bill) Robinzine Crying, Teeth Shaking, Glass Breaking, Rump Roasting, Bun Toasting, Wham, Bam, Glass Breaker I Am Jam.” Two hundred and ninety-five dollars of glass all over the floor.
Then NBA Commissioner Larry O’Brien called him into his offices to talk responsibility and good examples and possible injury and certain fines. “What do I think about Larry O’Brien?” Dawkins says. “I think he is a very powerful man. We talked it over and decided that, of course, I knew better than to try to capitalize on breaking backboards.”
All this was going on, of course, while CBS was using the film of the “Destructo Dunk” to try to get people to watch their basketball games. It is not known what O’Brien had to say to CBS. “Contractually, we had no control over promotional aspects,” he says. “No, I’m not going to comment on whether CBS was irresponsible, but I will say overall they have done a terrific job. I’m just doing everything I can to see that nothing like this leads to serious injury.
“Frankly, I like the dunk. I get just as excited as the other fellow, and I think you’ll agree that a hell of a lot of guys can dunk in the NBA.”
The main implication of the ruling then is that Darryl Dawkins can probably play Larry O’Brien’s game better than O’Brien can play Dawkins.
Anyway, the bedroom is on the second floor of the house Darryl bought in a development in Somerdale, New Jersey, and filled with white furniture and hanging vases and cardboard likenesses of Teddy Pendergrass and the O’Jays and Chaka. There is a swimming pool in back and a bird bath in front, neither of which, according to an anonymous hometown source, will see water until it rains. “Darryl don’t want anything to do with nothing drowning,” the source said, “but don’t say I said that.”
Dawkins says, “The only thing I’m afraid of is the unknown. That and ice skatin’.”
The bedroom has chairs and paintings and piles of records, but the thing you keep looking at is the bed. There is a lot of room on that bed. It’s round and covered with blue velvet, and there is a canopy over one end with a stereo system built into it.
“Yeah, I get my share of the ladies,” he says. And that is true. They chase him in the parking lot after games, follow him in cars, run after him at stoplights. Dawkins has his phone number changed maybe once a month, but there was a girl at New Jersey Bell who always gets the new one.
“The girls I know,” he says, “they got to like me for me. They say, ‘Darryl, how come you don’t buy no Jag or Rolls?’ I tell them, ‘You don’t have to like my cars.’
“I’m 23 years old, and I ain’t never getting’ married, but it’s time for children. I take care of them, not necessarily the mothers, but my children will always have what they need. . .”
And after nearly a month of following Darryl Dawkins around, that will be the only thing he really says about his father.
Over the weeks, the games blur. The 76ers play out a winning streak, lose badly to Boston and Seattle. There are moments, though, that stay clear. Julius Erving working without the ball, the sounds his shoes make against the floor. Bobby Jones coming off the bench again and again to keep the 76ers in games, the way it sounds when somebody tries to run through a Steve Mix pick. And a flat jump shot from the side that hits the rim and bounces almost straight up.
Dawkins sees that bounce and takes two strong steps from the free throw line. He jumps and his hand is at least even with the top of the backboard. For an instant, the ball and the hand are stuck together, and then the ball is gone, through the net, bouncing away from the referee. And clear up in the five-dollar seats, two old regulars who can watch a month of basketball without saying a word look at each other, and one of them gives in. “I never . . .” he says.
On Sunday, February 10, the 76ers play the Lakers in a nationally televised game at the Spectrum. The Sixers come from six points behind with three minutes left to win 105-104. Toward the end of the game, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar comes out to guard Dawkins. They hit each other as Dawkins crosses into the lane and suddenly Jabbar is going backwards. Dawkins gets the ball and dunks.
As Dawkins’ dunks go, it’s nothing spectacular, but the game is close and the fans at the Spectrum explode.
And sitting in the middle of that explosion, you suddenly are thinking of the 74-year-old woman sitting under a velvet picture of The Last Supper somewhere in Florida—the person who knows Darryl Dawkins best in the world misunderstands the noise and shakes her cane at the television.
“Don’t you hurt that boy,” she says. “That boy’s been hurt enough.“