Remembering Chocolate Thunder

Darryl Dawkins (1957-2015)

Darryl Dawkins (No. 53)

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.


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