Darryl Dawkins died today, according to several media outlets.
We didn’t have a professional basketball team in Pittsburgh when I was in sixth grade. That’s when I made a free-throw in gym class to “win” a game, and was instantly obsessed with the sport. Back then, the only teams you got to see on television were the Lakers, Celtics, and Philadelphia 76ers. So I latched onto the 76ers beginning in the 1976-77 season. They went to the NBA Finals that year, losing to the Portland Trailblazers. But I had my team. And I’d remain a loyal fan for years.
Dawkins did the unheard of coming out of high school in Orlando; he gave up his right to a college education and entered the NBA draft. The Sixers took him as the 5th overall pick, and in that Playoff year of 1977, he made a name for himself. Not just by throwing down ridiculous dunks, but by squaring off against the league’s leading tough-guy, Maurice Lucas. That put him in the spotlight of one of my favorite Sports Illustrated articles of all time (I was addicted to that magazine in my younger years) as one of the NBA’s top “enforcers.”
That title would plague him for the rest of his career. A quick mouth and an often-short fuse would make him a target for officials. He got called for the most inane non-fouls because he was Darryl Dawkins. He’d get rung up for technicals just by the way he looked at referees. He also made a lot of silly mistakes, and some of those calls and fouls that hounded him were of his own doing, but he wasn’t treated fairly, either.
Note: I don’t remember where I read it; probably in Sports Illustrated. But I read his new head coach, when he was traded to the Nets from Philly, made two lengthy videotapes of Dawkins’ career: One he sent to the league that showed the stupid calls against him by referees who targeted him, and one he gave to Darryl, showing the bad decisions he was making on the court that weren’t helping his reputation or his performance. But I didn’t see him play post-Philadelphia enough to know if those tapes helped.
I saw Darryl Dawkins once in person. He was with the Utah Jazz in the pre-season, and they were playing an exhibition game against the Bulls in Pittsburgh. I had no intention of going (Michael Jordan? Yeah, he’s okay, but not worth parking downtown to see…) until I saw the Six O’clock news team interview Dawk before the game. I jumped in the car, parked downtown, and bought a walk-up ticket at the Civic Arena. Best money I’ve ever spent? Maybe.
Dawkins barely played. In the last minute of the game, he had two chances to throw down his signature dunks, but both times, he lost the handle on the ball. He clearly didn’t have much left. But he was still the most entertaining player in the arena that night. He sat on the end of the bench with Mel Turpin. Frank Layden, then the coach of the Jazz, and a noted character in his own right, would wander to the end of the bench, whisper something under his breath, and walk away. Dawkins and Turpin would be doubled over in laughter. I would have given anything to listen to those conversations.
As the game wound down and fans started to hit the exits, every one of them that walked behind the Jazz bench got a handshake form Darryl. Not begrudgingly. Not halfheartedly. But happily. With a smile. At least, that is, until security rushed over and roped off the bench. No sense in letting the people who get to see NBA players once a year get to interact with them. Oh well. I was too far away to get a handshake anyway.
Darryl Dawkins was 6’11”, 250-ish pounds who could run the floor and jump like a forward. Julius Erving once described seeing him as “watching a building jump into the air.” He was a man-child. My affection for him was replaced after his Sixer days by Charles Barkley, and I’ll always equate those two. My favorite 76ers.
Rest in peace, Darryl. I’ll miss you. Basketball will miss you too.