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The incidents will follow him for the rest of his career, marking him as indelibly as the midget pinch hitter did Bill Veeck. By shattering two backboards within 22 days, the Philadelphia 76ers' Darryl Dawkins sprayed Plexiglas, spread destruction and created a lasting image.
It had to happen. Ever since 1975, when he became the first high school player to be drafted by the NBA, Dawkins had maintained that his dream was to destroy a backboard, and at 6'11" and 260 pounds, few doubted he could make it come true. And when it finally occurred during a game in Kansas City last Nov. 13, the result was spectacular. Dawkins soared and jammed the ball with two hands, and the backboard went poof, in a flash disintegrating into a fine spray of slivers. Asked later what he thought as the Plexiglas shards rained down on defender Bill Robinzine and him, Dawkins replied, "It was time to get out of Dodge."
A Kansas City maintenance man gathered up the pieces and announced that he would sell them as souvenirs. "This is going to make me a rich man," he said. However, the value of his collection declined on Dec. 5 when Dawkins splattered another backboard, this time at The Spectrum in Philadelphia. Afterward, Dawkins suggested the pieces of the second board be exhibited in a local museum and explained he had no control over his destructive force. "It was the power," he said. "The Chocolate Thunder. I could feel it surging through my body, fighting to get out." Not everyone was amused. NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien summoned Dawkins to his office, where they discussed the dangers of flying Plexiglas. Meanwhile, a Philly newspaper termed his deed "The Chocolate Blunder" and in its Sunday editions ran an entire page of letters from readers commenting on the wisdom of the Destructo Dunk.
For Dawkins and his deeds to become a subject worthy of an entire page of letters is no minor accomplishment, because pro basketball is a sport where the out of the ordinary is almost commonplace. Everybody dunks. Everybody soars. And yet, despite playing on a team with perhaps as much individual talent as any in history, and performing inconsistently at that, Dawkins has carved himself a special niche and in the process has almost mesmerized the media. He is the only player with a nine-point career scoring average ever to have his own newspaper column, a weekly forum in The Philadelphia Journal called The Dunkateer Talks Back.
Somerset Maugham once said, "Make people laugh, they will think you trivial." Most people figure that Dawkins is all style and no substance. They forget that he is 23 and even after five years in the NBA the second-youngest player on his team. It is almost as if Chocolate Thunder is sort of a surreal makeup that shows basketball fans the Dawkins they crave while allowing him the privacy to be what he wants.
No one, including Dawkins himself, knows what he's going to do or say next. His philosophy is to keep 'em guessing. "People get used to you, they get bored," he says. "You've got to change. Then you got 'em confused. Works every time." Last season he announced that he was going to retire from basketball and become a boxer. The papers dutifully reported this news. Then Dawkins renounced the tale and with a wink told reporters that it "made for a pretty good story, didn't it?"
Dawkins is a publicist's dream. At times he has shaved and oiled his head, and heightened the effect by sticking a gold earring in one lobe. He talks of living on his own planet, Lovetron, recently renamed Chocolate Paradise, speaks of "interplanetary funksmanship" and has developed a rather esoteric vocabulary to categorize his dunks. After he destroyed the backboard in K.C., he grandly designated his effort "The Chocolate Thunder Flying, Robinzine Crying, Teeth Shaking, Glass Breaking, Rump Roasting, Bun Toasting, Wham, Bam, I Am Jam."
This is caviar to the notebook and tape-recorder crowd, and in the locker room the reporters and broadcasters jam around Dawkins. And no matter how inane his comments, how farfetched his observations, his audience eats it up, recording his words as sage and enlightened thinking. To reduce locker-room traffic, the 76ers buffer Dawkins with two seldom-used rookies, Bernard Toone and Jim Spanarkel, who dress on either side of the Dunkateer. Nonetheless, occasionally the media crush is so bad that, Spanarkel says, "I have to dress in the shower."
To further enhance his image, Dawkins wears two gold necklaces that swing and glitter as he runs up and down the court. Gold type spelling out one of his nicknames, Sir Slam, dangles from the first; from the other hangs a gold cross. And he drives something called the Dawkmobile, which, to paraphrase Tom Wolfe, is a metallic blue-kolored, gold-flake, streamline baby—a customized Corvette replete with pinstriping, huge chrome wheel covers, an undersized steering wheel, two chrome lion figurines atop the fenders, special tail fins and mirrors built into the hood. When the Dawk stands on it, really pushes down on the accelerator, the tires squeal and a cloud of exhaust shoots out the back, and the kids in The Spectrum's parking lot yell, "Hey, Dawk! Hey, Dawk! Do it, Dawk!"
And of course he can do it. Why, the man tears down backboards! And the nicknames. No one has more nicknames than Dawkins; he wears them like his necklaces. In the NBA everyone is given a nickname, but Dawkins has taken the ritual a step further, creating appellations for himself. One (Sir Slam) imparts noble rank, another (Dr. Dunk) bestows a medical degree on him. The rest are simply pure whimsy: Chocolate Thunder, Double D, Candy Slam, Squawkin' Dawkins, Pure Pleasure, Cool Breeze, Zandokan and Mad Dunker, with more to come.