By Chuck Mindenhall
November 21, 2016
Behold Chocolate Thunder
One of basketball’s greatest characters, Darryl Dawkins, made power basketball into a style all his own
I can remember seeing Darryl Dawkins come through Denver when he was with the New Jersey Nets back in the mid-1980s, and harboring a single hope — that he would smash the backboard to smithereens. As a kid, there was nothing cooler to contemplate than a show-stopping shower of glass in an otherwise orderly game, such a rude and unruly thing to happen. I wanted to see what would happen if he did — would they have a back-up backboard? Would the game be cancelled? How would everybody react? I wanted to see what name he would come up for the dunk afterwards, as he was prone to do, to commemorate that particular game.
He didn’t break the backboard, of course, as the NBA had already designed the breakaway rim years earlier because of him, but the thought was there every time he touched the ball. If ever there was a challenge, it was Dawkins against the new breakaway rims designed to withstand his punishment.
Dawkins’ brand of basketball was power. He didn’t play above the rim like his contemporaries David Thompson and Julius Erving, he attacked it. He once said that he wanted to slam the ball so hard that the defenders’ hand would get caught in the cylinder, break off, hit the ground, and scramble on fingers in search of its rightful owner. When Dawkins was done rattling a backboard, he converted the experience into poetry. He was a dunk lyricist that bestowed titles upon his creations — The Rim-Wrecker, Dr. Dunkenstein, Groove Tron. The Left-Handed Spine-Chillin’ Supreme, and The Right-Handed Broom-Sweeper Delight.
There were hundreds.
As one of the game’s true innovators, Dawkins made the dunk an extension of libido. He would put a little hip action into a dunk — for instance, “The Heart-Stopping, Cake-Shaking, Baby-Making Rump-Roaster” — just for the ladies. That was the kind of player Dawkins was. A 6-foot-11, 275-pound center with finesse on the dribble, with cruelty on the rim, and yet a feel for his audience. Stevie Wonder, he has said, hung a nickname on him — “Chocolate Thunder” — and it naturally stuck. He lived up to it during his stint in the NBA with the Philadelphia 76ers and the New Jersey Nets. Having been the first basketball player to enter the NBA straight from high school, he played for a quarter-of-a-century professionally.
In that time he played with Dr. J, he dunked on Bill Walton, and traded dukes with Maurice Lucas during an NBA Finals.
And while he never played in the ABA in the 1970s, Dawkins was the embodiment of its boisterous spirit. A zany, gold chain-wearing, otherworldly, boom box carrying prankster from the planet “Lovetron” who advanced the idea of a fleet-of-foot athlete center, the one who could leap through the rafters. With the popularity of the dunk soaring with Dr. J’s aerial creativity, his idea was to devastate the basket (and anybody standing in his way). In 1979, at just barely 22 years old, Dawkins shattered his first backboard in Kansas City over Bill Robinzine of the Kings, leaving the forward to scramble away from the shardstorm.
(It’s still a mesmerizing piece of footage. He named that one the “Chocolate-Thunder-Flying, Robinzine-Crying, Teeth-Shaking, Glass-Breaking, Rump-Roasting, Bun-Toasting, Wham-Bam, Glass-Breaker-I-Am Jam.”).
Three weeks later, with George Gervin and the San Antonio Spurs visiting the Spectrum in Philadelphia, he did it again — this time for his home fans. After the second abuse of NBA property, he got a call from the league commissioner warning him that if he broke another one he’d be issued a $5,000 fine.
“The first one was an accident, but I wanted to see if I could do it again when I got back to Philadelphia,” he once said. “All the fans were hollering, ‘You’ve got to do one for the home crowd,’ so I went ahead and brought it down. Everybody was in awe. Fans were running out grabbing the glass. People’s hands were bleeding. I felt like I was doing something no other human could do.”
That forced the NBA to create the breakaway rim. Years later, when the University of Pittsburgh’s Jerome Lane was drafted by the Nuggets, the first comparison was to Dawkins, because he had shattered a backboard in a collegiate game against the Providence Friars. He attacked the rim similarly, and that was enough to draw in the onlookers (Lane reveled in the comparison). Early in Shaquille O’Neal’s career, when he was with the Orlando Magic, he slammed home a put-back against Phoenix that made the whole backboard and stanchion come down. That kicked up memories of Dawkins. Shaq did it again in New Jersey, vicious ripping the backboard off its moorings.
As his old Sixers’ teammate World B, Free once said, “Shaquille O’Neal dunks, Darryl Dawkins dunks.”
There will never be another Darryl Dawkins, who died in 2015. He was a larger-than-life figure at a time when the game was finding its identity. As Dr. J and later Michael Jordan put the game in flight, defying the laws of gravity, Dawkins wanted to bring everything crashing back to the ground. From the mid-1970 through the mid-1980s, “Chocolate Thunder” authored his own mythology, and to this day he stands out as one of the game’s most distinguishable players.