What Might Have Been: Former NBA Center Darryl Dawkins, Dead at 58


Sad news out of Philadelphia.  Former Sixer Darryl Dawkins has passed away at the age of 58.

He had a lot of nicknames, Chocolate Thunder, Double D, and Baby Bull among them.  He was the first player to be drafted into the NBA out of High School in 1975, by the then-woeful Philadelphia 76ers.  He was known for his thunderous dunks and somewhat flaky personality.  He is, in fact, best known for smashing backboards and his legacy is the adoption of the collapsible rim.  He was a giant man-child, already six-foot-eleven and 252 pounds as an 18 year old, one who possessed breathtaking physical gifts.  He was, for his size, incredibly agile.  He could jump through the roof, was immensely strong and lightning-quick, and had an exceptionally soft shooting touch.


For all that, Darryl Dawkins remained one of the great stories of unfulfilled potential in professional sports.  Like so many who followed him, he could have been so much better than he was.  Despite his ample gifts, he never worked terribly hard to get better.   With all the tools to be a superior defender and rebounder, he was decidedly mediocre at both.  Dawkins never grabbed 20 rebounds in a game, nor 700 in a season.  He was foul-prone on defense, and turned the ball over with alarming frequency on offense.  Also, Dawkins never developed an inside game, preferring (when not dunking) to shoot fall-away jump shots even against smaller opponents. (Even with that, he had an exceptional .572 career shooting percentage.)   Against less gifted but harder-working centers, he was routinely bettered, especially in big games.  So much so that Philadelphia dealt him in 1982 and acquired Moses Malone to play the center position.  Malone, smaller and lighter than Dawkins, lacked Dawk’s gifts, but was a legendary worker and tenacious rebounder.  With Malone in place of Dawkins, Philadelphia won a championship in 1983.

Dawkins’ lack of physical conditioning caught up with him, as well.  Injuries shortened his seasons, and dampened his talent.  After two decent campaigns with the New Jersey Nets, Dawkins was all but finished at 29.  He would play parts of three more seasons, finishing his career on the bench with the Pistons.  His career averages of 12.0 points and just 6.1 rebounds belied a superior, if untapped, talent.  After one series where Dawkins had played poorly against the Celtics, Boston Globe reporter Bob Ryan called Dawkins “the greatest waste of space since Greenland”.  And he had a point.  Had Dawkins gotten a couple of years with a tough college coach to teach him the fundamentals, and instill a work ethic to harness his talents, he might have been a truly great player.  But alas.

This much is true, though.  Darryl Dawkins understood that basketball was largely entertainment.  He had fun, engaged the fans, and was, by all accounts, one of the nicest guys in the league.  He was never in trouble with the law, or for doing something cruel and asinine, like so many of today’s athletes.  And he is gone too early.  Which is a real shame.   He will, in his odd way, be recalled fondly, and will be missed by those who remember him.

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