Remembering Chocolate Thunder

Darryl Dawkins (1957-2015)

Darryl Dawkins (No. 53)
(1957-2015)

Growing up, I loved basketball more than any other sport; and I played them all at one point or another.

My football career ended after one season in Pop Warner when I went to helmet-to-helmet with a 6-foot-5 (or see he seemed), 250-pound (at least he looked it), 35-year-old man (he probably wasn’t) and got my bell rung something fierce.

My baseball career ended days after seeing my first real curve ball — the one headed right for my head as I dove Charlie Brown-style out of the way, only to hear a “strike” being called and seeing the ball on the outside corner.

Basketball — that was my sport. I might not have been the best shooter, the best ball handler, the best rebounder, but nobody was going to out-hustle me on the basketball court and I thrived on that part of the game.

Growing up in New England, you’re born to be fan of the Boston Red Sox, New England Patriots, Boston Bruins and Boston Celtics; though I do admit a strong affection from the Minnesota Vikings in my youth and, these days, the New York Islanders and New York Rangers.

The Boston Celtics and I never really got along, though. Green was never my color and parquet floors always made me want to throw up.

One of the big reasons was Chocolate Thunder.

It sounds like the ultimate dessert — chocolate cake, covered with chocolate frosting, soaked in chocolate syrup, topped by chocolate Hershey Kisses — and that, I suppose, would explaining the throwing up.

To the contrary, though, Chocolate Thunder stood 7 feet tall, weighed around 250 pounds and played basketball. And he had a personality that stood twice as tall and felt twice as wide.

Chocolate Thunder was one of the nicknames that belonged to Darryl Dawkins, former center for the Philadelphia 76ers; always a beacon of light in the world of professional sports.

How a 5-foot-10, varsity guard/JV forward could gravitate toward a giant like Dawkins is hard to fathom, but it all begins with a poster.

There was a point in my life — right about the time the sound of a clean swish became the prettiest sound in sports — where my family grew in size.

Following my own parents divorce and re-marriage, all of a sudden I had “cousins” who were located in eastern Pennsylvania, who shared my love of Philadelphia’s hard court Sixers.

During my one and only trip to my new family’s homestead, located in Bethlehem, Pa., I returned to my native Maine with a gift — a full-size poster of Darryl Dawkins.

For your run of the mill sports fan, Dawkins was probably remembered best as the NBA player who broke multiple backboards, powering the ball through the rim with such colossal might that the glass would shatter all over the court and all over the players below him.

The most famous was, perhaps, his first — which for a true Sixers fan turned Kansas City’s Bill Robinzine into a household name.

Dawkins had named the dunk “The Chocolate-Thunder-Flying, Robinzine-Crying, Teeth-Shaking, Glass-Breaking, Rump-Roasting, Bun-Toasting, Wham-Bam, Glass-Breaker-I-Am-Jam.”

He was poetry in motion — at least as much as a giant could be — and just like that I was hooked.

Now I don’t know if Dawkins ever became my favorite basketball player ever. I mean … Michael (Enough said, right?).

But he was part of a team that I fell in love with, a team that included Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks, James Toney, Caldwell Jones, Bobby Jones (no relation — Sixer fans will get the joke), Doug Collins and, of course, Steve Mix.

They were a thorn in the side of the Boston Celtics (which I loved), though the Celtics always seemed to get the better of my Sixers (which I hated).

Bottom line, though, is the Sixers were one of the teams of my youth, one which I loved so much that it hurt when they lost, especially to that God damn team that played on the parquet, in a place undeservedly called “The Garden.”

It is that love which made Thursday’s news so staggering, so shocking, so sad.

Darryl Dawkins died of a heart attack. Chocolate Thunder was gone. He was 58 years old, nine years older than me, as of this writing.

Reading about his life — and death — over these last 12 hours taught me so many more things about Dawkins than I ever knew before.

• How did he get the nickname “Chocolate Thunder?” Rock legend Stevie Wonder — who let’s not forget is blind — gave it to him.

• Once Dawkins accidentally stepped on a kids hand during an autograph frenzy and he handed the kid a $100 with an apology.

• Dawkins died in Allentown, Pa., which coincidentally just happened to be the town right next to Bethlehem, where I first acquired the poster that hung on my bedroom wall for years.

As I’ve gotten older and hear that somebody from my childhood passes away, it stuns me. Every time.

Before Thursday, I honestly can’t remember the last time I thought of Darryl Dawkins and his dunks, or that poster that meant so much to the little kid in me.

Now that he’s gone, though, it feels another tiny piece of me is gone, as well.

RIP Chocolate Thunder.

The Sportswriter Takes a Sports Vacation (Or, What Else Is New?)

Citi Field, home of the New York Mets. (Photo by John Nash)

Citi Field, home of the New York Mets, taken on the Monday of my latest vacation. (Photo by John Nash)

You never know who you’re going to meet on a day-to-day basis and where a conversation might go, or what it might spark inside you.

On Wednesday afternoon, while attending a minor league baseball doubleheader between the New Britain Rock Cats and the Trenton Thunder, I ran into a gentleman who made me think.

Between games, I had decided to climb up the third base grandstand to get a birds-eye view of Beehive Stadium, a smaller ballpark which sits adjacent to New Britain Stadium, and former home of the New Britain Red Sox.

Growing up as a devoted — and often heartbroken — fan of the Boston Red Sox baseball club, I knew of Beehive Stadium, as well as Muzzy Field, as the former homes of some of the team’s minor league baseball clubs.

It wasn’t until I entered the fall season of my life that I was able to visit these ballparks, though the Red sox affiliation with both stadiums were gone long ago.

Still, the heroes of my youth had played there and I was still  drawn to those stadiums in a way that had me visiting the ghosts of my past.

In Bristol, former Red Sox players like Wade Boggs, Oil Can Boyd, Butch Hobson, Bruce Hurst and Bob Stanley had played there. So too did a certain catcher whose name I no longer speak because his passed ball (not Stanley’s wild pitch) helped cost the Red Sox the 1986 World Series.

Beehive Stadium in New Britain, Ct.

Beehive Stadium in New Britain, Ct.

New Britain had been home to the likes of Roger Clemens, Ellis Burks, Sam Horn, Mo Vaughn — just to name a few.

“Hard to believe they used to play over there, huh?” said a man wearing a Colorado Rockies t-shirt, representing New Britain’s present-day parent club since the Red Sox’s Eastern League affiliate is now located in Portland, Maine.

It was.

New Britain Stadium — despite it’s setbacks that have driven to the team to Hartford next season where the players will live on as the Yard Goats — is to Beehive Stadium what Camden Yards is to Wrigley Field.

Modern vs Relic. Today vs. Yesterday. Nice and comfortable vs. … well, like I said, relic.

After snapping my photo of Beehive, I started a conversation with the gentleman and told him of my history with the Red Sox. He was from Springfield, Mass., and also a Red Sox fan growing up.

We compared notes from the past and some how the conversation turned to me being on vacation from my job as a sports journalist to which he laughed and said, “So you come to a baseball game?”

Guilty as charged. If the spike fits, why not wear it.

This was technically my second ball game of the week as I attended the New York Mets game at Citi Field as they hosted the — of all teams — Colorado Rockies on Monday night.

I’ll probably take in another sporting event or two this week as I wrap up my third of four vacation weeks.

 

It’s not because of what I am though — a sports journalist.

It’s because it’s who I am.

Sports have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember — be it as a player, a coach, a referee, a sportswriter, or a fan.

If I could attend a sporting every day of my life until I drop, part of me would die a happy man.

Football. Baseball. Basketball. Hockey. Soccer. Hell, even field hockey.

If two teams are competing, I find enjoyment in being there and taking it in. I find that as peaceful and relaxing as I do sitting on a lake in the state of Maine, which I did a few weeks back, if you remember.

I’ve taken a three-day trip to Pittsburgh to see the Pirates play a three-game series against the Red Sox. I’ve taken a three-day trip to Washington, D.C., to watch the Nationals play the Mets in a three-game series.

On days off, I’ve gone to see the Philadelphia Phillies play. I’ve gone to see the Red Sox play. I’ve gone to see the New England Patriots play (and couldn’t tell if the balls were deflated, but they did win). I’ve gone to see the New York Red Bulls play soccer. Twice, I’ve gone to watch college football’s Pinstripe Bowl, including the first-ever one.

I even once trekked to D.C. to see the Portsmouth Football Club take on DC United in a friendly at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium.

Again, that’s just me. It’s different than working, sitting there, watching and taking everything in. I’m just enjoying the ambiance and not just looking through the lens of a camera and furiously taking notes.

The world of sports is my workspace, but it’s also a place I can escape to.

And that’s one of the great things of my life that I’ve always embraced.

The Dover Years: Gone, But Never Forgotten

A raspberry Stoli Kamikaze at Cara's Irish Pub in Dover, N.H.

A raspberry Stoli Kamikaze at Cara’s Irish Pub in Dover, N.H.

The shot glass sat on the bar, waiting for some action.

It would have to wait. There was a beer to nurse and memories to swallow down.

I was sitting in a bar called “Cara’s Irish Pub” in downtown Dover, New Hampshire. It was my first visit to the establishment, which is owned by old friends.

It was not, however, my first visit to Dover. That had come almost 20 years earlier when I moved here from the only home I had ever known — my native state of Maine.

I came here alone for a job, not knowing a single soul, and for eight years I stayed. I must admit, it was one of the few places in my life that became home, a place where I felt like I belonged.

When I drove into town again last Saturday, for the first time in 12 years, the memories came flooding back to me at each and every turn.

Locust Street. Henry Law Avenue. Central Avenue. Wentworth Douglass Hospital. Beckwith Park. The old Foster’s building.

Memories everywhere. Ghosts from my past rising up and dancing in my head.

I spent two days in Dover taking care of some work-related business this week before making the trip down to Cara’s.

I looked at the shot glass, half filled with a Raspberry Stoli Kamikaze.

Now there were some memories.

• • •

Dover memories.

Dover memories.

It was inside Mike Murphy’s Irish pub where my life changed. It was there where I made some of the best friends I’ve ever had in my life.

After living alone inside a big studio apartment off Henry Law Avenue, I moved in with a roommate named Monique. One night, we walked into the bar together and that night, right then and there, both of our social worlds changed for the better.

All the people, all the friends we made, all the good times that were to be had in our “regulars corner” or at the pool table or watching the bands take the stage.

It was there, at the bar, where I celebrated the new millennium by making out with a sure-fire, out-of-the-closest lesbian, whose name escapes me on this day.

It was there, at that bar, where I celebrated a handful of birthdays with those who were closest to me.

It was there, from that bar, that we walked up to a friend’s house one snowy night and began leaping off her third story balcony into the giant snowbanks below.

Dover memories.

Dover memories.

How many $100 tabs did I charge up at that bar in one night? Far too many. Once the liquor started pouring, once the shots — the raspberry Stoli kamikazes — started flying, once one person started buying so too did others follow suit.

I graduated from Rum and Cokes to Bass Ale to Guinness in that corner of the bar. And car bombs, I believed they were called; the shot of Jamesons dropped into a Guinness and chucked down as though my name was O’Nash.

Ah, good times.

I had two centers of my world. One was the newsroom just a block away. The other was the corner of the bar I came to call my home away from home.

I’m supposed to be good with words, but trying to find the right things to say about those people is so hard to do, even today. They became my family — my brothers and sisters, parental figures, sons and daughters. I loved so many of them that I honestly felt an ache when another job took me away from Dover.

There used to be an online webcam that showed downtown Dover and in the year after I left, I would look at it so many times and miss this town and the people who called it home.

I missed my friends. I missed my Dover family.

• • •

Over the years, though, I’ve learned that life went on, taking everybody in different directions. It wasn’t just me moving on. It was everybody else, as well.

Through the magic of Facebook, I’ve been blessed to see those people I loved so much fall in love with new people and start their own families. I’ve seen them build their own homes from scratch, with their own hands. I’ve seen them travel across the country on their motorcycles.

Sadly, I’ve seen some pass away (RIP Phil) and others just disappear off the face of the earth (Where are you Danny?).

And, I’ve seen two of them open their own bar, calling it Cara’s, and creating a place for a whole new group of friends and families to come together and make memories that will last forever.

Dover is no longer home. It almost feels like I never lived here.

Thankfully, I have the ghosts to remind me that I did live here, though, and it was once upon a time a very special place to me.

But, in reality it was thanks to the people who all just happened to be in this one place at that time that made this home.

They were my friends, my family and I will forever be thankful for having them there in my life, and I’m glad to have all those special memories to bring back when I need them.

I picked up the shot and downed it one chug, wishing I could count up the number of times I had done this before.

Wherever you are, my Dover friends, please know I love you and still think you often.