Darryl Dawkins, the 14-year NBA vet whose powerful dunks and off-court flash earned him the nickname “Chocolate Thunder,” died Thursday at the age of 58. According to his family, the cause of death was a heart attack.
Dawkins grew up in Orlando, Florida and made history as the first player to be drafted to the NBA directly out of high school, after applying for the 1975 Draft as a financial hardship case (a 1971 Supreme Court decision allowed players to go pro without waiting the league-mandated four years after graduating high school, provided they could give evidence of hardship). He was taken fifth overall by the Philadelphia 76ers, and with his speed and imposing physical presence, Dawkins was expected to make an immediate impact – and though started slow during his first few seasons, he eventually became a key contributor to Sixers squads that battled for Eastern Conference superiority in the late Seventies and early Eighties.
It was during those early years that Dawkins also displayed the power that would become his claim to fame: In the span of one month during the 1979 season, he threw down a pair of monstrous dunks that shattered backboards in Kansas City and Philadelphia – plays that would become highlight-reel staples for decades to come – and would lead the league to implement the use of so-called “breakaway rims” to limit the possibility of player injury.
Dawkins, who had already been known to fans as “Dr. Dunk,” seized upon the moment, giving each of his signature slams unique, street-smart handles – “The Chocolate-Thunder-Flying, Robinzine-Crying, Teeth-Shaking, Glass-Breaking, Rump-Roasting, Bun-Toasting, Wham-Bam, Glass-Breaker-I-Am-Jam” being a particular standout.
Those heavyweight slams also earned Dawkins one of the NBA’s all-time nicknames, “Chocolate Thunder,” bestowed upon him by none other than Stevie Wonder. Dawkins played up his otherworldly abilities by claiming to hail from “Planet Lovetron,” where he spent the offseason practicing “interplanetary funkmanship.”
Dawkins was traded to the New Jersey Nets in 1982, and he helped the team make the playoffs for four-straight seasons. However, a balky back began to slow him down, and his NBA career ended in 1989 (though he made comeback attempts in 1994 and ’95). Dawkins also played in Italy, the Continental Basketball Association and even had a brief stint with the Harlem Globetrotters. He had recently worked as an NBA Nation Ambassador, and traveled the country in a promotional role for the league.