Q & A: Darryl "Chocolate Thunder" Dawkins

Back in 1975, when he was 18 years old, Darryl Dawkins upset the natural order of things, becoming the first player ever to jump directly from high school into the National Basketball Association. The jumping to come was just as famous. Few players standing 6-foot-11 and weighing 275 pounds can leap, but Dawkins was an exception. "Double-D" became known for dunking with reckless abandon and turning backboards in millions of shards of glass. The dunks were so fearsome that he gave them names like "Yo' Mama," "In Your Face Disgrace," "Cover Yo' Damn Head," and "The Turbo Sexphonic Delight." The media tagged him "Dr. Dunk" and "Sir Slam." And, before ESPN, he was on the highlight reels of evening news shows from coast to coast. He claimed to hail from the planet Lovetron. While setting league records for shattered panes nearly 20 years B.S. -- Before Shaq -- he also set a season record for fouls that still stands, getting whistled 386 times during the 1983-'84 campaign. Despite the aggressive nature of his game, it seemed that Dawkins did it more for fun than for the humiliation of his opponents.

He began his NBA career 28 years ago -- pre-David Stern, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. The season he started was the same season the red, white and blue American Basketball Association merged with the established NBA. He played most of his 14 NBA seasons with the Philadelphia '76ers and New Jersey Nets and, when no NBA team would meet his price, he played five more years in Italy, where he was paid tax-free, with a house thrown in. He later came back to the States to play in the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) and the United States Basketball League (USBL). There, in another circuit that uses a red, white and blue ball, he coaches the USBL's Pennsylvania Valleydawgs.

The man loves any number of premiums, and smoked a Macanudo with singular relish when his Valley Dawgs won the USBL Championship in 2001.

Dawkins has just written Chocolate Thunder: The Uncensored Life and Times of the NBA's Original Showman with Charley Rosen. Kenneth Shouler reached the cigar-loving Dawkins in Allentown, Pennsylvania where Dawkins was set to hit the road and coach his 'Dawgs against the Westchester (New York) Wildfire.

Ken Shouler: How do you enjoy coaching the Pennsylvania Valleydawgs in the United States Basketball League?

Darryl Dawkins: I try to teach my players to do like I say and not like I did. I know when they need to run in practice, when they need a half-court practice. I know what it is to have someone second-guess everything you do. I know when you have a troublemaker that you have to make an example out of. I really do love coaching. And I plan to get to the NBA one day, and who knows? John Lucas was a drug addict and he recovered from that to become a fine NBA coach. So just because I had a good time when I was a player doesn't mean I should be kept out of the NBA. I think the NBA will take you when they want you.

KS: How are the Valleydawgs doing?
DD: We're doing pretty good. Our record is 4 and 2 and we're tied for first place with the Westchester Wildfire, which is [former Knicks guard] John Starks' team. Westchester beat us twice and they came to our place and we beat them. We're coming to Westchester four more times.

KS: Why did you write a book at this time?
DD: I've been out of the NBA long enough that writing a book would not hurt anybody. And I wanted to tell about the time that I was in the NBA and that it is certainly not what is going on in the NBA now. The NBA has really changed. I feel like I have a story to tell that was my side -- the way I saw things and the way I remember things. Like I said, the book was not to hurt anybody, but just to let people know what I went through and what most guys coming out of high school face coming into the NBA.

KS: You were known as a stylish player on and off the court. What's the difference between styling now and styling then?
DD: Styling then meant you dressed very nicely -- we wore a lot of hats. We wore three-piece suits or nice two-piece suits, with shirt and tie. Now, styling in the NBA is a big jersey, a pair of jeans and some Timberlands. And braids -- we didn't wear braids at that time. We thought the NBA would look down on it.

KS: But there were big 'fros.
DD: We had big 'fros. You could have the braids on all week and at the end of the week you could shake it loose and BOOM — you had a serious 'fro standing there.

KS: What are the other main differences between the NBA then and now?
DD: I don't think the players enjoyed anything in the crowd as much as we did. We played a lot of times when we were hurt. Dave Cowens had one of his best games on two sprained ankles. You get a guy today with a sprained ankle and he might be out a week and a half. There is no "team" right now: there's mostly a lot of one-on-one. There's isolation one-on-one. Back then, we pretty much didn't care who scored as long as we won. The Celtics were that way. On Philadelphia -- one night Doc (Julius Erving) would have 35-40 for us. The next night George McGinnis would have 35-40. World B. Free would give you his. Another big difference was we carried a posse, but it was our family. I had my brothers with me and other guys carried three or four brothers with them. Nowadays, a guy has nine or ten guys with them, not even their family. They're guys they grow up that can't stay out of trouble.

KS: And the more money, the bigger the posse.
DD: I'm telling you, man. I think with the posse thing it's going to get to the point where one posse is going attack the other one and somebody is going to get hurt and possibly even killed. The NBA will finally say, "Hey, you can't travel around with nine guys behind you and three guys in front of you and neither one of them are body guards.' Guys have their posses in different towns. Allen Iverson in Philadelphia has a posse. Kevin Garnett in Minnesota has a posse traveling with him, or from his hometown of Chicago. Paul Pierce in Boston -- these guys have posses with 'em." It's nice to remember your boys and stick with 'em and let 'em know you didn't forget about them. But you're only gonna get in trouble sooner or later.

KS: Was Orlando a basketball town at all when you were growing up there?
DD: It was more of a football town, but my mother was my first coach. In junior high school my coaches were Fred Pennington and Jimmy Jordan. They would run you to death. We would run three or four suicide sprints to start practice, run the weave 20 minutes, then we had tapping drills and all kinds of stuff we did. Weight lifting wasn't that big; they ran you to death and you shot until you could hardly walk -- at least two-and-a half to three-hour practices. Nowadays, guys have one-hour-fifteen-minute practices and are just tired of practicing. We respected, knew and loved our coaches. Today guys think, "He's just a coach; I'm making $14 million and he's making $3 million and he's gonna tell me to run?"

KS: What was your first salary in the NBA?
DD: I was around $200,000 to $300,000. At that time, the owners were crying, "You're taking all the money. There's no money left for anyone else." Then two weeks later, someone else was doubling your salary.

KS: Did you know you had what it took to make the pros when you were still at Maynard Evans High School?
DD: About the middle of my senior year, I had heard that some pro scouts were after me. I was playing pretty well. They could see that I was a passing guy and I could rebound the ball. I could move pretty good. I got lifted by the crowd, because there's nothing the crowd likes more than seeing a big guy flying up and down the floor. If a guy is 6-10 or 6-11 and starts the fast break and gets back on defense, the scouts are saying, "This guy is a man playing with boys. We have to take a look at this."

KS: How about dunking?
DD: They wouldn't let us jam. In high school I couldn't jam the ball; it was against the rules to jam it. What made me mad was the year I graduated, next year they put jamming back in. Boy did that hurt.

KS: So you saved the jamming for practice?
DD: Yeah, every now and then I let loose and jammed one in practice.

KS: Had you grown to your full size in high school?
DD: I graduated high school about 6-10 and 1/2. I grew to about 6-11 and 1/2 and about 275 pounds. I was a big boy.

KS: In photos you looked muscular, too, and guys weren't lifting weights much then.
DD: That was from odd jobs I had growing up, like loading trucks and chopping wood. I have to laugh at guys who say, "I have to join this gym, I'm not getting enough exercise." If you just had a regular job, and did chores around the house, you didn't need a gym.

KS: It had to soothe your ego that you could jump from high school to the pros, with the Philadelphia '76ers expressing such an interest in you when you were 18?
DD: It did make me feel good that I could go from high school to the pros. I wanted to help my mother and grandmother then, because they had done such a hard job of raising us and I wanted to be able to buy them a home and help some brothers and sisters through college. Basketball was my way to do that.

KS: Do you ever regret not going to college?
DD: You know, I look back on my career, and I played 14 years in the NBA, and played for the championship three times (for Philadelphia in 1977, 1980 and 1982) and I looked at guys who came out of college with tremendous build up and hype and they came in the league and played five or six years and never got a chance to play for an NBA championship. I didn't win it, but at least I can say I was there.

KS: Your first year, in 1976, you didn't see many minutes, but the second year you did and you were playing with Julius Erving, who had come over from the ABA. What was it like playing with him?
DD: Playing with Doctor J. was truly a pleasure. You see a tremendous scorer like that coming in and I thought, "He ain't gonna pass me the ball now; I gotta go get it off the boards." But he did pass the ball and that's the thing I liked about him.

KS: If you had to pick an All-Star team of guys you played with, I guess Erving would have to be one. Can you pick the rest?
DD: I would not pick a team of guys I played with; there was just too much talent. But if I had to pick one, Doctor J. would definitely be on my team.

KS: That Philadelphia team knocked on the door a few times, making it to three Finals in six years. Explain why you'd get close so often but didn't win.
DD: When you have a lot of stars like we had -- we had Kobe Bryant's father, Jumpin' Joe Jellybean Bryant, we had World B. Free, Doug Collins, Henry Bibby, George McGinnis, Doctor J. and myself -- a lot of times when you have a team like that, there's not enough balls to go around. I thought that off the floor we had a good time together as a team. We all partied together, we lived by each other's houses, we knew each other's kids, kids' birthdays and all that stuff. But it got to the point that I don't think the ball was moving around enough. Doc had to get his shots, because he was the Doctor and he was the man. George had to get shots and Doug Collins had to get his and World B. Free was GONNA get his. So there weren't enough balls to go around.

KS: You know that line about the last guy to hold Michael Jordan under 20 was his North Carolina coach, Dean Smith. About Philly, they said the last guys to hold Doctor J. under 20 were his teammates George McGinnis and World B. Free.
DD: Oh-oh, man. They got their shots up -- there was no waiting around.

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