EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece comes to us from Jovan Alford, publisher of Bloguin Philadelphia sports site Total Sports Live. Catch all the good work being done by TSL and our other Bloguin Philadelphia sports site, Complete Philly Coverage. — M.Z.
On Thursday afternoon, the NBA and the Philadelphia 76ers lost an ambassador for the game of basketball. They also lost a legend in Darryl Dawkins.
One of the NBA’s most beloved and original characters passed away at the age of 58, and it sent shockwaves around the basketball world. The 6-foot-11 forward from Orlando, Florida — also from the planet Lovetron — helped change the game of basketball with his backboard-breaking dunks. He also helped lead the Philadelphia 76ers to the promised land of the NBA Finals on multiple occasions.
As mentioned above, Dawkins was a trendsetter in the NBA. If you think about it, there wouldn’t be Kevin Garnett, LeBron James or Kobe Bryant if it wasn’t for him. Dawkins was the first player in NBA history to be drafted out high school (fifth overall) in 1975 by the Philadelphia 76ers.
As a 19-year-old rookie with the 76ers, Dawkins played in only 37 games, averaging 2.4 points, 1.3 rebounds, and 0.2 blocks in 4.5 minutes per game. Just like any rookie in the NBA, Dawkins was playing in a man’s game, but for a player with his skill, a cautious first season would not prevent him from leaving a meaningful imprint on the game of basketball.
After his rookie season, Dawkins started to play more, and we began to see his athleticism and rim-shattering dunks. Those dunks eventually got him the nickname Chocolate Thunder, which was given to him by the great Stevie Wonder. That nickname would stick with him for the rest of his career, but he also earned other nicknames such as Dr. Dunkenstein and Sir Slam. Whenever you gain those types of nicknames and enable them to stick, you know you are making a name for yourself in the NBA — nicknames aren’t just handed down easily.
Dawkins embodied the passion of Philadelphia and was a true 76er. He was always going to give 100 percent for his teammates and they loved him for that. His passion and phenomenal above-the-rim exploits would help the Sixers get to the NBA Finals three times over the course of his seven-year career with the team. Dawkins had played in three NBA Finals before turning 26 years old. How many other NBA players can say that?
The Sixers’ first trip to the NBA Finals in the 1976-’77 season marked Dawkins’ second year in the league. During the regular season, he averaged only 5.3 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 0.8 blocks in 11.6 minutes per game. However, during that postseason, Dawkins upped his game, scoring 7.3 points and grabbing 5.4 rebounds per game. Then, on the biggest stage in the NBA Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Sixers crumbled after leading the series 2-0, losing it 4-2. In the Finals that year, Dawkins averaged only 7 points per game. Yet, for a second-year player just 20 years old, playing against the likes of Maurice Lucas and Bill Walton wasn’t supposed to be easy. That moment figured to be a teaching point for Dawkins, and the run of history indicates that it was. Dawkins developed his game and became an even more central presence on some of the best teams the Sixers ever produced.
Chocolate Thunder and the Sixers eventually made it back to the NBA Finals in 1980, but they were going up against the Kareem-and-Magic Los Angeles Lakers, which was not an easy task. During the 1980 NBA Finals, Dawkins averaged 20.2 points per game in a losing effort as the Sixers fell in six games to the Lakers. In the 1980 playoffs, he averaged 17.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per game. That was the third highest point total average he had in the playoffs over his career. He had grown up from his wide-eyed encounter with Bill Walton in the 1977 Finals.
With an NBA championship escaping him and the Sixers two times in a three-year span, Dawkins and the Sixers endured one of their most disappointing defeats in 1981, losing the Eastern Conference finals in seven games to the Boston Celtics after leading the series, 3-1. The team could have allowed that moment to acquire a lasting negative effect, but Dawkins and the Sixers wouldn’t allow that to happen. They beat the Celtics in the Boston Garden to win the 1982 East Finals, a riveting seven-game series that left the fans of the losing team in a state of admiration rather than bitterness. The 1982 Sixers gained so much respect that when the final seconds elapsed in their Game 7 triumph over the homestanding Celtics, the Boston Garden crowed encouraged them to “Beat L.A.!”
Indeed, the 76ers’ opponent in the 1982 NBA Finals was once again the Los Angeles Lakers. Philadelphia had shown so much by avenging its East finals loss to the Celtics, but that series took something out of the team. The Lakers were opposed by the San Antonio Spurs in the West finals that year, and with Pat Riley in his first season as head coach, Los Angeles had everything set up to succeed: fresher legs, a rising superstar coach, and a very balanced lineup led by two legends, Magic and Kareem. Again, the Sixers lost to the Lakers in six games.
In the series, Dawkins averaged 12.2 points and 5 rebounds per game. Even in a losing effort, he still gave the Lakers fits. In Game 3, he posted a double-double consisting of 14 points and 13 rebounds. Then in Game 5, when the Sixers went on to win by 33 points, he scored 20 points on 9-of-15 shooting from the field, while grabbing seven rebounds.
Dawkins never got that illustrious championship with the Sixers, as he was traded to the New Jersey Nets in the summer of 1982. (The Sixers, with Moses Malone finally put all the pieces together and won the 1983 world championship for themselves… and Julius Erving.) After his playing career was finally over, basketball fans still remember Dawkins for his dunks and his play with the 76ers.
The basketball world and the Sixers organization lost a legend on Thursday afternoon, but his presence — without a doubt — will still be felt by the Sixers and Philadelphians throughout the entire 2015-’16 season.