Remembering Chocolate Thunder

SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - September 1, 2015 - 10:00am

Darryl Dawkins, who played 14 seasons in the NBA and became a fan favorite because of his out-of-this-world antics, died at the age of 58 last Aug. 27 and the entire basketball world mourns his passing.  

In his book “Chocolate Thunder” co-written with George Wirt, Dawkins suggested what to carve on his tombstone. “Here lies Darryl Dawkins – basketball star, romantic and benefactor – he broke the backboard.” The book was published in 1986, nearly 30 years ago. Dawkins always knew that life is too short and that’s why he lived it to the fullest.

“Not too long ago, playing in the NBA (was a dream),” he wrote in the last chapter of his book. “I can still remember sitting at home with my mom and reading the newspaper with her. I’d see an ad for a nice car, show it to her and say,’I’m going to buy you a car like that some day.’ Or I’d see a picture of a house and tell her, ‘This is the kind of house I’ll get you some day.’ Those dreams came true because I believed I could do it. I realize that the Lord only gave us so much time on this planet. I want to make the best of my stay here. Because there’s more to life than smashing backboards.”

Dawkins was a 6-11, 270-pound giant with a soft heart. He called himself a romantic. Dawkins wound up with three wives and four children. His first wife Kelly committed suicide when they planned to divorce in 1987. He later married a New Jersey Nets cheerleader Robbin and they lasted 10 years. His third wife Janice was the last.

Dawkins never went to college and from high school, turned pro. In the 1975 draft, he was picked fifth overall by Philadelphia behind Dave Thompson, Dave Meyers, Marvin Webster and Alvan Adams. Dawkins averaged 12 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots in 726 games over 14 seasons. Thrice, he led the league in personal fouls. In 1985-86, he would’ve led the league in field goal percentage with a .644 clip but fell 16 short of the minimum makes. Twice, Dawkins played in the Finals but couldn’t nail a ring as the Sixers lost to Portland in 1977 and to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1980.

Dawkins was cut after averaging 1.9 points in 14 games with the Detroit Pistons in 1988-89 and that was his last NBA season. If Dawkins stayed with the Pistons, he would’ve been on the title squad with Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, Joe Dumars and Isiah Thomas. He tried to make an NBA comeback with Denver in 1994 and Boston in 1995 but neither team was interested.

After his NBA career, Dawkins played in Italy and even with the Harlem Globetrotters. Then, he coached Newark in the American Basketball Association, Winnipeg in the International Basketball Association, Pennsylvania in the United States Basketball League and a community college in Lehigh. Dawkins also toured the world as an NBA Ambassador and even did clinics in Manila.

When Dawkins coached the Pennsylvania Valley Dawgs, the team’s general manager was Sam Unera, a Filipino. It was Unera who arranged for former PBA cagers Vince Hizon and Bong Alvarez to play with the Valley Dawgs for a season.

In 2004, Vince arranged a phone interview with Dawkins. I was in Manila and he was in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I asked Dawkins what it was like working with Filipinos. He replied: “You know me, I get along with everybody. Filipinos are the hardest-working people I know. I met Sam five years ago and I notice he’s always working. We’re like brothers. We hang out in each other’s house. We’re on the same page. My Filipino players, Vince and Bong, work really hard. Vince is a smart player, plays good position defense and is a heckuva shooter. Coming off the screen, he’ll nail that jumper. We run so much and Vince fits in well.”

Dawkins said he broke at least six backboards in his career. “Two in the NBA, two in Italy and about two or three in some gyms,” said Dawkins. “My greatest moment in the NBA was getting into the league out of high school. Moses Malone did it, too, but he went to the ABA first. The other greatest moment? Getting my paychecks.”

What about matching up against Shaquille O’Neal and Yao Ming? “I’d body them,” he said. “Yao’s so long I’ll have to figure out how to do my monster dunks on him. As for Shaq, I’d play physical. I’d hold my own. I wouldn’t back down. That would be some kind of rivalry – Shaq and me.”

Fans loved the way Dawkins fantasized about Lovetron, the imaginary planet where he said he came from. He spoke about forming a team called Love-a-Doves to bring funk back in basketball playing on the interplanetary suburb Pleasurephonic. The team’s cheerdance team would be called the Lovettes wearing gold leotards with big open hearts in the middle, no skirts and 14-karat gold ProKeds.

Two of the toughest players Dawkins said he ever faced were Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dave Cowens. “Kareem scored 40 points against me on Mother’s Day and my own mother called me to complain,” he said. “The only way to play him is to push him away from the basket and back along the baseline so he has to come around from behind the backboard to make that skyhook go in.” As for Cowens, he said, “He was always hustling and running, he would pull your pants down if he had to, you wouldn’t even know they were down until you felt the breeze.”

In 1979, Dawkins made headlines all over the world by smashing a backboard at the Kansas City Municipal Auditorium in a game against the home team. Early in the second period, he jammed the ball off Bill Robinzine and the glass board shattered into pieces. Dawkins called his unforgettable dunk the “Chocolate Thunder Flying, Robinzine Crying, Teeth Shaking, Glass Breaking, Rump Roasting, Bun Toasting, Wham Bam, Glass Breaker I Am Jam.”

Back when Dawkins said he came from Lovetron, nobody thought it could be his version of heaven. If heaven is his Lovetron, then Dawkins has gone back home. Rest in peace, Chocolate Thunder.

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