When “Chocolate Thunder” wore a Pistons uniform

Darryl Dawkins (obscured) has just shattered the backboard in a game against the Kansas City Kings in 1979.

For two seasons, during the heyday of the “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons, the man who was probably the most entertaining and colorful player in NBA history sat on their bench. He didn’t play much basketball, but Darryl Dawkins was a larger than life character who in many ways was a pioneer for the self-promoting, rap-music loving, jive-talking stars in what was dubbed “The Association.”

None other than Stevie Wonder gave Dawkins the nickname “Chocolate Thunder,” and of course, Stevie never saw the big man play, but he knew him as a friend and a basketball force.

Dawkins was a man-child when at the age of 18 he went straight from high school in Orlando to the NBA. As a high school player he was a mammoth talent – brushing aside startled defenders with his inside moves and dipping the ball into the basket. He carried his team to the Florida state title.

As a teenager in the NBA, Dawkins was bigger than almost anyone else on the court – 6’11 and more than 250 pounds. Basketball had long been invaded by giants, but few observers had ever seen a man so tall, so thick, and so skilled. He was Shaq long before Shaq.

Dawkins had a personality that matched his physique. He was funny, confident, playful, clever, and articulate. Long before the NBA had seen O’Neal of even Charles Barkley, Dawkins was a one-man quote machine. He backed it up with his play on the court. But what Dawkins was best known for was his rim-rattling slam dunks. Not only did he throw the ball down through the hoop, he shook it with sucj authority it actually scared players and spectators. In 1979 he slammed the ball so hard that he shattered the backboard. A few weeks later he did it again, by then the NBA was scrambling to institute a rule and penalty, including a suspension and fine, if a player broke the fiberglass backboard. Dawkins wasn’t the type to be in awe of anyone else, but he did seem to be in awe of himself. He named his famous backboard-shattering dunk “The Chocolate-Thunder-Flying, Robinzine-Crying, Teeth-Shaking, Glass-Breaking, Rump-Roasting, Bun-Toasting, Wham-Bam, Glass-Breaker-I-Am-Jam.” He named many of his dunks, and he even came up with a name for the world he lived in” “Dunkalicious.”

After several years with the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Nets, Dawkins found his way to Detroit during the 1987-1988 season, when the Bad Boys were learning to beat the Boston Celtics. He was injured for much of the schedule, but came back the following year and earned a ring as the team won their first NBA title. By that time, “Chocolate Thunder” was thunderous mostly in name only. Chronic back problems robbed him of his mobility, but he sat on the bench, serving as a veteran big man who took up a spot on Chuck Daly’s club. Oddly, Dawkins provided leadership to the young team, helping young players like John Salley to adjust to the pressures of the NBA and also keeping the team loose. He probably also gave advice on how to push and shove – Dawkins is the all-time single-season leader for personal fouls in NBA history.

“I am an ambassador for calm and cool,” Dawkins announced with a big grin when he was asked of his role for the Pistons prior to the 1989 NBA Playoffs.

The two seasons in Detroit proved to be the last of his NBA career, and he retired due to his bad back at the age of 32. Like a heavyweight champion who couldn’t resist another paycheck or the spotlight, he tried a comeback several times, but never got back to the big time.

For sure cool, fun, and “dunkaliciousness” there was never anyone quite like Darryl Dawkins in Detroit sports history.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a web producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.