Darryl Dawkins was a man out of time, a being from another planet, and one of the most joyous basketball players of his era.
Photo by EPA/LUIS TEJIDO
What I remember about Coach's Superstars, the sneaker store in my hometown, are sports posters wheatpasted onto walls and fat motes of dust catching the light. There may still be stores like Coach's Superstars hanging on in some towns, but the place where I got kid-size versions of the puffy basketball moonboots that Clyde Drexler and Dominique Wilkins wore in the posters on the wall didn't make it to 1990. Things were already changing, on my suburban main street and in the NBA and everywhere else—changing in the sorts of ways that conspire to grind up little weird places like Coach's Superstars and replace them with a carousel of recognizable franchises of various charmlessness, mixed in with the sort of impenetrable, posh, totally doomed suburban flowers and gift store where everything is displayed on a miniature column. It gets harder, every time I go back home, to imagine that Coach's Superstars was ever there.
But that was the place that had the basketball sneakers, and I was the kid that played basketball every damn day, so that was where we went. The posters on the walls were mostly of the lurid 1980s variety; for every dutiful white-bordered poster featuring a linebacker in some blurry action shot, there were two Costacos Brothers specials featuring an oiled-up, cocaine-pupiled Lawrence Taylor or Don Mattingly dressed as a pinstriped hit man. I saw these posters in my friends' basements, too, but the most mysterious one at Coach's, which bore no legend beyond the words "Chocolate Thunder," was for a player I did not recognize. There was a pile of broken backboard glass at his feet, and he held a severed rim in the one hand. The look on his face was calm and a little amused, which made sense given that he was dressed in some sort of crop-topped Flash Gordon sports outfit with the word "LoveTron" on it. I did not know this basketball player or understand any of those words or non-words, or really anything that was on the poster. It fascinated me.
I am pretty certain that I never got to see Darryl Dawkins play basketball. I was a baby when he was in his prime. Then he was injured and, by the time the glossy and naive NBA of the 1990s took its place at the center of my tweenaged life, Dawkins was gone. His best seasons came at the end of the NBA's lost years, when the league was ragged and uncertain and un-lucrative and weird in that parallel-universe 1970s way. Games ran in tape-delayed anonymity late at night, and in some of those games Darryl Dawkins obliterated backboards with dunks—he broke two in a three-week stretch in 1979, at which point the league made that sort of human-on-backboard violence punishable with a fine—and loped and leapt and played very well on some excellent Philadelphia 76ers teams.
The year before those Sixers finally won a NBA Championship, Dawkins was dealt to New Jersey. He played the best basketball of his career on some talented and troubled Nets teams, but before I came to the inexplicable-in-retrospect decision to give my whole idiotic adolescent self to that organization, Dawkins got hurt, and never quite recovered. He played just 26 games over his last three NBA seasons and was out of the league at the age of 32. His career ended too soon, for me and everyone else, and his rich and weird and seemingly quite enviable life did, too. Dawkins died on Thursday at the age of 58.
The things that Darryl Dawkins accomplished as a player are not the things for which he is remembered, though, or the reason why he is beloved. It seems worth mentioning that Dawkins led the NBA in true shooting percentage in 1985-86, and that advanced stats rate him as one of the more valuable defensive players in the league during his prime—it's true, after all—but what Dawkins did was, in the moment and in his legend, much less important than how stylishly and distinctively and joyously he did it.
Every bit of what appeared to be nonsense on that mesmerizing poster in Coach's Superstars was part of the myth that Dawkins was deliriously and delightedly building around himself in his every moment. Chocolate Thunder, for instance, was an appropriately musical nickname given to Dawkins by Stevie Wonder, on the occasion of one of Dawkins's acts of wanton backboard destruction. The LoveTron on his uniform, which puzzled me no end—I remember asking my father what LoveTron was, and while I do not recall his answer I promise to call him soon and apologize for putting him in that position—was, Dawkins explained to the legendary good-natured and pro-human Philadelphia sports press, his home planet. During each offseason, Dawkins would return to this planet to practice Interplanetary Funksmanship and spend quality time with his girlfriend, Juicy Lucy.
Dawkins invented this planet in high school, and when he turned pro, at 18, he brought the principles of Interplanetary Funksmanship with him. Foremost among them was the sacred ritual of naming one's slam dunks; he dubbed his first backboard-destroying dunk the Chocolate-Thunder-Flying, Robinzine-Crying, Teeth-Shaking, Glass-Breaking, Rump-Roasting, Bun-Toasting, Wham-Bam-Glass-Breaker-I-Am-Jam. Basketball as Dawkins played it was more about having the most fun possible than the grim end-to-end domination that was emerging as the NBA's prevailing worldview—"I hope you don't expect me to do it every night," Dawkins famously told the owner of the Sixers after a 30-and-15 game—but, as Walter was just saying, at least it was an ethos.
All of which is sort of a long way of saying that he was an incorrigible, uncoachable kidult of a basketball player; Dawkins said it himself, when his playing career was over. "I should have been sent to Cleveland," he told ESPN in 2010, "because that was where all the uncoachables went at the time." As frustrating as this must have been to the various authority figures struggling in vain to make Dawkins something more prosaic and predictable than what and who he was, it was (apparently) thrilling to watch and fun to behold. There is something uncanny about NBA videos from that time, mostly because their dim dinge is so out of keeping with the technicolor NBA we've come to know since. To watch the highlights of Dawkins dunk is to watch lightning strike a bar full of grim gamblers: something weirder and brighter and more ungovernable than usual flashes through the proceedings, lights them up or sets them ablzae, and then is gone.
So much of being a basketball fan, as a kid, is aspirational. We are shopping, at the moment right before we begin to become ourselves in earnest, for someone we might want to be. It's natural that we begin at the outsized side of the spectrum, with people who are bigger and more beautiful than anyone we see in our everyday. Basketball players are as good a choice as anyone: they are graceful and expressive and visible; they are forceful and, not for nothing, they can fucking fly. Only over short distances, naturally, and only for a few moments, but in the multiply tethered indignity of earthbound adolescence, even those few hints of transcendence are tantalizing.
That doesn't really go away as we grow older, honestly, although as we grow up we get a little less unabashed about trying these sorts of potential selves on. As a kid, I made the Nets my proxies in the roiling, self-thwarting struggle of adolescence; I believed that their simple bigness or their all-devouring intensity or their simple flailing effortfulness could show me how to be, and so who I might be when I was done becoming. I am not sure I was wrong about that, really, although we only ever become ourselves, anyway. But I am sorry that I never got to know Darryl Dawkins during that time. There is, in his expressiveness and his self-determination and his insistence on centering his whole self around the creation and the celebration of joy, something to admire and maybe even emulate.
At that time when we need them so much, these temporary superhumans help us learn to become ourselves in some secondhand way. Darryl Dawkins had a lot to teach there, and still does. I think maybe he knew it, looking at Dawkins's expression on that mysterious poster in the sneaker store, without really knowing what it was and without deigning to push it on anyone. Surrounded by all those superstars, frozen in their own overstatement or virtuosity, Darryl Dawkins suggested something else—that being human might be more fun than being a star.