There’s never been an NBA player quite like Darryl Dawkins, and for five seasons he brought his rim-rattling game and irrepressible personality to the Meadowlands.
Stevie Wonder nicked named him “Chocolate Thunder,” but Dawkins came up with “Dr. Dunkenstein” all on his own. He even nicknamed his dunks, and there was no shortage of them; twice in 1979 Dawkins slammed the ball so hard he broke the backboard.
“The comedian,” said Buck Williams, who started alongside Dawkins in the frontcourt. “One thing I learned from Darryl, Darryl was a comedian. I think you learn something from everyone. I really admired the way Darryl handled the public. Every time somebody wanted an autograph, he was so accommodating. And his humor, he should have done standup comedy. Every day in practice, he and Sugar (Micheal Ray Richardson) would start ribbing each other. I laughed more than anything.”
The time spent with New Jersey was the second phase of Dawkins’ career. He began as a trailblazer, a high school phenom recruited by the country’s biggest college programs before he became the first player to go directly from high school to the NBA, 20 years before Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant. He made his NBA debut at just 18 years old with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1975.
His future Nets teammate Albert King went through a similar experience at Brooklyn’s Fort Hamilton HS, when prep school legends were built through word of mouth and print, before YouTube and social media and ESPN.
“Before the NBA, he was a phenomenon,” said King. “I remember magazines, back then there were no ESPN, so you were more of a legend because you just see magazines. Funny guy but a good guy.”
Dawkins spent seven seasons with the Sixers, playing in three NBA Finals, before the Nets acquired him for a first-round draft pick before the 1982-83 season. The team had made a big leap the year before, reaching the playoffs after a 20-win improvement, and with Dawkins in the middle they won 49 games, the most the team would win in its first 25 NBA seasons.
The following season, Dawkins averaged a career-high 16.8 points along with 6.7 rebounds. The Nets returned to the playoffs for the third straight season where Dawkins’ former Philadelphia teammates were waiting in the first round. Dawkins had 22 points in Philadelphia in Game 2 as the Nets went up 2-0 in the series and eventually won in five games for their first NBA playoff series win.
The Nets dropped their second-round series to the Milwaukee Bucks in six games as Dawkins averaged 18.4 points and 6.2 rebounds in 11 playoff games.
“No one like him. Darryl at that time was coming into his own,” said Otis Birdsong. “Might have been playing the best basketball that he had throughout his career. He wasn’t really depended on or counted on in Philly because they had so many stars. He held his own against (Moses) Malone. And then the next series against Milwaukee, Bob Lanier, he dominated that series. I can remember Bob saying when they got swept in the conference finals by Boston, he said they had nothing left in the tank, New Jersey had taken it all from us.”
“Physically, I put him on par with Shaq,” said Williams. “The only difference between him and Shaq is results. Shaq won championships. Darryl told jokes and didn’t win championships. Same player in terms of physicality and athleticism.”
Consistency was never a Dawkins strong point, and over the next few seasons, injuries cut into his availability. After playing 81 games in each of his first two seasons with the Nets, he played a total of 96 the next three, including just six in his last year as a Net, 1986-87.
Mike Gminski, drafted by the Nets in 1980, played behind Dawkins for two seasons and eventually moved into a starting role.
“One of the most unique individuals I’ve ever been around,” said Gminski. “There were nights where, as his backup, a lot of the games I was almost the de facto starting center because he’d come in, pick up quick fouls, I’d play the first quarter, he’d come in and get an early third foul. It just went along that way. There were nights he didn’t feel like playing. And then there were nights, one against Cleveland he had like 35 points and 18 rebounds, but he was as dominant a player in the league that night that you could ask for.”
Dawkins remains the Nets’ franchise leader in career field goal percentage with a 60.1 mark, and his field goal percentages of 59.9 in 1982-82 and 59.3 in 1983-84 are second and third on the franchise’s single-season list.
After brief stops in Utah and Detroit following his Nets tenure, Dawkins retired after the 1988-89 season. He stayed in the game as a coach at the minor league levels and passed away in 2015 at the age of 58.
“A great guy first of all. A great teammate. Looked after you,” said Mike O’Koren. “He was a very good player. Just played the game because he was 6-10 and good. He could have been dominant. He could have been like Moses (Malone). If he scored 30, it was great. If he scored four, it was great. He was probably the most popular Net of that era. The people loved him and he would put on a show. He loved to go out and do camps and do appearances. I know the Nets asked him an awful lot to do and he was there for every one of them. Got to know him very well over the years. We were good friends. I’m really sad that he passed away. Just a good friend. A really good person.”
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