Darryl Dawkins was one of the most outrageous characters in NBA history. He was also known as Dr. Dunkenstein, Double D, or Sir Slam. But his most famous nickname was actually given to him by Stevie Wonder, and that nickname is Chocolate Thunder.
I would argue that Dawkin’s cultural impact was greater than his basketball impact. Just to show how big he was, back in 1999 as the millennium was ending Saturday Night Live was doing a Weekend Update segment where they were naming their Man of the Millennium.
This was supposed to be the most impactful person of the previous 1000 years. They could have selected Leonardo DaVinci, Mozart, Einstein, Galileo, or George Washington. But no. Being a bunch of comedians, the folks at Saturday Night Live announced their selection for the Man of the Millennium as none other than Darryl Dawkins. See, for that joke to work, people have to know who Darryl Dawkins, or Chocolate Thunder, is.
Why Was Darryl Dawkins So Famous?
He never made an all-star game. His best scoring season was in 1985 when he averaged 16 points per game for the lowly New Jersey Nets. Other than that he had a very average NBA career. Well, he’s famous because of two dunks in late 1979. And I’ll get to that in a moment.
But first, let me give you some history on Chocolate Thunder. He was born and raised in Orlando, FL. He attended Maynard Evans high school in the early 1970s and was absolutely destroying the high school scene in Florida. Of course, this is true of nearly every NBA player when he was in high school. He averaged 32 points per game and 21 rebounds as a senior. He was also 6’11” and had really filled out at around 230 lbs. He was on everybody’s recruiting list. This guy was a monster on the court.
Straight to the NBA From High School
His final choices for college were Kentucky, Kansas, and Florida State. But in a move that shocked everyone, he declared for the NBA draft. He said it was because he wanted to take care of his family financially and you can’t blame him for that. But, to go from high school directly to the NBA? Nobody had ever done that before.
There is no precedent for this. Surely, a 19-year-old is not ready to walk into a grown man’s world no matter how big and athletic he is. Remember, this is 1975. This is decades before Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, or LeBron James would make coming out of high school seem like a normal thing.
He was taken with the 5th overall pick by the Philadelphia 76ers. And with that, he became the answer to a trivia question. Who was the first player to enter the NBA straight from high school? I know. Some of you might say that Wilt Chamberlain was the first player drafted from high school. And you would be right, except that he did not go straight to the NBA. He went to college first and joined the NBA four years later. Some of you might say that Moses Malone was drafted out of high school a year before Dawkins.
And that is also true, except that Malone went to the ABA, which was still a completely separate league. Now others of you might say that Bill Willoughby was drafted out of high school the same year as Dawkins in 1975. And this is also true, but Willoughby was drafted in the 2nd round, after Dawkins. So, Dawkins is the first player to enter the NBA straight from high school.
From the Planet Lovetron
He only averaged 2 points per game his rookie year coming off the bench. But he slowly increased his minutes and production each of his first seven years in the league. Once he became a regular starter the home announcer in Philadelphia was in a bit of a dilemma because when the starters are announced in the NBA, they include which university the player came from. But Dawkins did not have a university.
Today, that is no big deal because guys like LeBron are announced as being from their high school. But when you are the first person to do something, like Dawkins, you have to get creative. So he convinced the announcer in Philadelphia to say that Dawkins was from the Planet Lovetron, wherein the offseason he would engage in “interplanetary funkmanship.” Ahh, you can not make this stuff up.
But the one thing he could always do from the beginning was to dunk with such ferocity that he left the backboard shaking after each one. If you really want to see him in action go to YouTube and search for Chocolate Thunder Dunking. There you will see several highlight clips.
So, getting back to my original question; what made Dawkins so famous? As I mentioned, it was two dunks.
The I Am Jam
The first of Dawkins’ famous two dunks happened on November 13, 1979, in the Municipal Auditorium which was home to the Kansas City Kings. Dawkins, still playing for Philadelphia, went up for a ferocious dunk against Bill Robenzine and shattered the glass backboard. Pieces of glass rained down on the court. Players scattered in every direction to get away. The crowd couldn’t believe it. That was the hardest dunk anyone had ever seen at the time. The rim was just sitting on the floor with pieces of glass all around. It took the arena crew over an hour to clean everything up and bring out a whole new basket support.
Dawkins also had a penchant for naming his most memorable dunks. There was the Rim Wrecker, the Look Out Below, The In Your Face Disgrace, The Yo Mama, The Spine Chiller Supreme, and on the occasion that he went coast to coast for a dunk, well those were called the Greyhound Specials.
But on this night when he shattered the backboard for the first time, he had a special name in mind. And he included the name of the man he dunked on. This one was called the “Chocolate Thunder Flying, Robenzine Crying, Teeth Shaking, Glass Breaking, Rump Roasting, Bun Toasting, Wham Bam, Glass Breaker, I am Jam.”
For weeks it was the only thing that basketball writers could talk about. Well, probably not the only thing. There were also two rookies tearing up the league at the same time by the names of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. But otherwise, this story got a lot of ink.
The Commissioner at the time was Larry O’Brien. His name might ring a bell because the NBA’s championship trophy is called the Larry O’Brien Trophy in his honor. But, the real Larry O’Brien was not happy with Dawkins. He called Dawkins into his office in New York to tell him in no uncertain terms that he was never to break the backboard again or else he would be fined and suspended. They actually put in a rule to prevent anyone else in the league from getting the same idea.
He Did It Again
But the fans in Philadelphia were begging to see the backboard shattered in a home game. Because the first dunk was done in Kansas City. So just three weeks later back at home in The Spectrum against the San Antonio Spurs, Dawkins does it again. We went up for the dunk and Doug Collins, his point guard, was already running away before the dunk was even completed.
He saw the look in Dawkins’ eyes as he brought the ball behind his head with both hands and knew what was coming. You could just see it in wind up. Collins did not want to pick glass out of his hair.
So, once again, the game was delayed for over an hour as the arena crew had to completely replace the entire basket support. As promised Dawkins was fined and suspended. But the fans could not get enough. They cheered at the site of the rim sitting on the court.
The commissioner realized that the rule may not be enough to stop players from doing this in the future. Something needed to be done with the actual equipment. The rim and backboard needed some beefing up. It needed to become Dawkins proof.
The Breakaway Rim
In a completely separate story, a guy named Arthur Ehrat and his nephew, who was an assistant coach at St. Louis University had an idea for a breakaway rim that could handle all of the hard dunking that you saw in the ABA and NBA. They had been working on it for a few years and the breakaway rims made their debut at the 1978 Final Four.
These new rims had a spring and a hinge in them so that when someone dunks really hard the rim bends from the force of the dunk and then snaps back into position as soon as the player lets go. That bending motion is what keeps the backboard from shattering. The spring absorbs most of the force and not the backboard. You may not think about it much today but the breakaway rim exists because of guys like Darryl Dawkins.
Anybody who causes a rule to change, or causes the league to install new equipment is a noteworthy player. And Dawkins is definitely a noteworthy player. His two ferocious dunks in 1979 caused the league to switch over. The NBA had completely switched to the new rims by the Fall of 1981 and now they are standard across the world at the professional and collegiate levels.
Unfortunately for Dawkins, he wasn’t able to stick around with the 76ers to win a championship. The team had been to the NBA Finals three times while Dawkins played on the team. The team was led by Dr. J, Julius Erving. But they lost the Finals in 1977 to the TrailBlazers. Then they lost again in 1980 to the Lakers. In 1982 they lost to the Lakers again.
Then the team had an opportunity to upgrade at the center position. The Houston Rockets were looking to move the reigning League MVP, Moses Malone, and Philadelphia had a chance to get him. So they traded Dawkins to the New Jersey Nets in order to create salary space to go after Malone, which they did. The following year the 76ers would celebrate their first championships since Wilt Chamberlain won it in 1967.
Jazz and Pistons
Dawkins would end up playing five years for the Nets before playing just a handful of games for both the Jazz and the Pistons. He then went on to play a number of years in Italy where he was a very popular player. He then tried to make an NBA comeback where he went to training camp with the Orlando Magic but didn’t make the team. He tried again with the Celtics and did not make that team, either. He then played a little bit of minor league basketball in some leagues that do not even exist anymore.
In 2009 he was named head coach of Lehigh Carbon Community College in Pennsylvania. He would coach there for five years before dying of a heart attack in 2015 at the age of just 58.
But his mark on the NBA is unmistakable.
And seriously, go to YouTube and search for Darryl Dawkins or Chocolate Thunder if you want to see some of his amazing dunks. It’s worth watching.
And this is why we do this podcast and blog. We want to shine a light on forgotten stories that need to be remembered again. So, join us next time we answer the question, what does fashionable footwear from 100 years ago have to do with playing basketball.