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Remembering 'Chocolate Thunder,' An NBA Legend Straight From Planet Lovetron


There's a reason pro league basketball nets have breakaway rims and shatterproof glass, and that reason is Darryl Dawkins.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Doug Collins to Darryl Dawkins. Oh, he did it again. He broke it again. He's broken another backboard. That's twice in one season, and the crowd goes nuts.

CORNISH: Dawkins died yesterday in Allentown, Pa., at age 58. He was the first player to be drafted straight out of high school to the NBA. The Philadelphia 76ers drafted him in 1975. It was four years later that he shattered his first backboard. Dawkins went on to play for the New Jersey Nets, Utah Jazz and the Detroit Pistons. And to talk more about his legacy, we turn to ESPN's Tom Friend. Welcome to the program.

TOM FRIEND: Thanks for having me - appreciate it.

CORNISH: So let's talk about those dunks. How big a deal was that at the time? What was his style of play.

FRIEND: Well, you know, he was considered the strongest man ever to play in the NBA until maybe Shaquille O'Neal showed up in the 2000s. But then when he dunks a basketball and tears down the backboard, I mean, it was larger than life. This was a big deal in the NBA. It had never been done before, and he named it. I think - and here's the name. If you ain't grooving, best get moving - chocolate-thunder-flying, Robinzine-crying, teeth-shaking, glass-breaking, rump-roasting, bun-toasting, glass-still-flying, wham-bam, I-am-jam.

That's - I mean, this guy had enough (laughter) to write that poem - you know, that rhyme after his dunk. He named a dunk. That became the big deal, and he did it again. And when he did it again, he named that one, too. But this was just a massive, Baby Huey type of guy - just a man-child. And that's why people got so enamored of him, maybe thinking he would be the next great superstar.

CORNISH: You profiled him during the time he was working or applying to become a college coach even though he had never been to college himself (laughter). Did he ever express regret about that?

FRIEND: I think he realizes that if he'd gone to Kentucky - he was going to go to Kentucky. He was from Orlando, Fla., from a family - a very poor family. They had - you know, he had an outhouse to go to the bathroom. He had seven brothers and sisters. None of them had gone to college, so going to college - when he got to the NBA and made some money, he said, you know what? I'm going to send my brothers and sisters to college.

And so what he did was, he literally paid for five of them to go to college - five of the seven. And you know, he never went. Would it have helped his basketball career - absolutely. I mean, he's a cautionary tale of this the high-school-to-pro journey because Kevin Garnett made it, but there's a lot of kids - and Kobe Bryant made it - but there's a lot of kids that didn't. So Darryl never really reached his potential because of that. And I think he had some regret, but he made up for it by how he was so jovial and made people happy in the way he played.

CORNISH: You've written that he wasn't necessarily - he had a hard time living up to the expectations that people had of him, that people had of a player that was coming out of high school.

FRIEND: Yeah. I mean, I think the dream was that Darryl Dawkins was going be the next Wilt Chamberlain, and the expectations were high. He played on a team that had Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Bobby Jones, Doug Collins, World B. Free. There was talent everywhere. This guy was going to put them into the championship every year, and he didn't have the work ethic. He used to eat candy bars on the bench. They had to have a - each player had to run a six-minute mile in training camp, and he ended up taking 15 minutes to run his. I mean, one time he tripped his coach. He was so mad at his coach, he tripped him - you know, Billy Cunningham.

So my point is that this was not a coachable guy. He's even said, I wasn't coachable. So that was the agonizing part of Darryl Dawkins. He was this beast, but he didn't want to be a beast. He just wanted to be one of the guys. And I don't think he was able to handle that expectation.

CORNISH: Well, Tom Friend, thank you so much for speaking with us and telling us the story of Darryl Dawkins.

FRIEND: My pleasure.


CORNISH: Darryl Dawkins - he died Thursday at a Hospital in Allentown, Pa. He was 58 years old. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.