Darryl Dawkins: A long way from Lovetron
By Frank Fitzpatrick
SCHNECKSVILLE, Pa. - When he was a teenager in the NBA, the sole resident of Lovetron, an imagination-rich, 6-foot-11 man-child adrift in the cliche-addled sports world, Darryl Dawkins always seemed out of place.
But maybe never more so than now.
At 52, the once-bombastic "Chocolate Thunder" resides in a plain-vanilla suburban Lehigh Valley neighborhood with his wife and two daughters. "Right behind the Target," he noted proudly.
A wordy wunderkind who so famously and colorfully shattered precedent and backboards for the Dr. J-era 76ers, Dawkins is coaching a community-college team, working diligently for local charities, attending his children's youth-league games.
The harem-surveying, backboard-slaying, extraterrestrial-portraying young Dawkins has been replaced by a still physically imposing middle-age version, one who is an unlikely pillar of this community.
"Lovetron," he explained last week, "is shut down for renovations."
Last month, two decades after his 14-year NBA career ended, Dawkins returned, if not to the spotlight at least to a pleasant glow, when he answered a newspaper advertisement seeking a men's basketball coach at Lehigh Carbon Community College.
"He called from Vegas and said he'd seen the ad and was interested in the job," said Jocelyn Beck, LCCC's athletic director. "Frankly, at first I thought it was some kind of a joke. . . . I said, 'You're Darryl Dawkins, why here? And he said, 'Why not?' "
The school of 7,000 students is just nine miles from Dawkins' home in Whitehall. The big buildings on its 153-acre campus appear to be the most modern structures in this old Lehigh County town where just 0.10 percent of the 1,989 residents are African American, according to the Schnecksville town Web site. It is a place where the air is often redolent of manure, and where the prime attraction is a 1,500-acre game preserve.
Dawkins had played a year with the Globetrotters, and coached a New Jersey high school girls' team and briefly in the ABA before arriving here in 1999. He guided the now-defunct United States Basketball League's Allentown-based Pennsylvania ValleyDawgs until 2006, winning a league title in '05.
He met a girl from Catasauqua, married, and settled down. They have two daughters, ages 6 and 7. (He also has a 14-year-old girl from a previous marriage.)
"No way she was getting too far away from her mama," Dawkins said of his wife, Janice. "But the Lehigh Valley is one of the best-kept secrets around. You're close to New York, Philly, D.C. I know people might not picture me in a place like this, but I actually love it here. Sometimes people don't know what they think they know."
Beck thought she knew Dawkins, and couldn't understand why he would want a job at a relatively obscure junior college in this bucolic area north of Allentown.
"During the interview, I pointed out that there were job openings at big colleges across the U.S., even in the NBA. So why did he want to come here, especially since he'd never had the college experience himself?" Beck said.
"He said he wanted to get back into it, that he liked coaching young men, helping them find themselves. He said he would make sure they gave back to the community the way he has. He had all the right answers. There were a number of applicants, but even if he weren't Darryl Dawkins, he interviewed best."
The move already has paid off for LCCC. There were television cameras and a gym full of people at the basketball team's open house earlier this month. Parents of players have inquired about the program. A 27-year-old graduate of Council Rock High has called to say he wanted to play for Dawkins.
"I'm going to make sure these kids know their story's not going to be like Darryl Dawkins'," he said. "If they go to school, they'll get an education they can fall back on. I didn't go to college. I know what's at stake. We've got too many rappers and basketball players and not enough doctors, lawyers and engineers."
Basketball-wise, he hopes to do for these kids what the winos in Orlando, Fla., did for him.
"When I was growing up, I couldn't play against kids my age," he said. "I was so big and it was too easy. The only person who could give me a game was my mama. So I'd play with the winos. Those guys would beat on me whenever I went into the lane, thump me, let me know what it would be like playing against older guys."
He took those lessons to the NBA, after the 76ers made the then-senior at Orlando's Maynard Evans High a first-round hardship pick, No. 5 overall, in the 1975 draft. That year, he and Bill Willoughby became the first players to go directly from high school to the NBA. (Moses Malone stopped first in the ABA.)
Though he had been touted as the next Wilt Chamberlain, Dawkins wasn't that as a rookie, and Sixers coach Gene Shue stuck him on the bench for most of two seasons. Eventually, Dawkins found himself and had a productive career with the Sixers, New Jersey, Detroit and Utah, reaching the NBA Finals three times but never getting a ring.
At first, his physique and demeanor masked the fact that he was just a teenager trying to mesh with veterans Billy Cunningham, Fred Carter, George McGinnis, LeRoy Ellis, and Steve Mix.
He didn't know what to do on the road, or after home games. He'd never seen snow, let alone driven in it. He wasn't sure how to answer reporters' questions. Consequently, an intergenerational schism developed between him and his much-older teammates.
"On the road, the older guys didn't want me to hang around with them when they went out, and the younger guys were afraid that if I went along, the girls they met might like me better," he said. "I was too young to go to bars anyway.
"So I would just hang around the room, watching TV and playing that old video game Tetris. . . . I was homesick like a dog."
Eventually, when he turned 21 and his playing time increased, Dawkins got a halting grasp of things, particularly interviews. He started referencing Lovetron, his imaginary home planet, to intrigued sportswriters and naming his powerful dunks.
One of the best remembered was the "Chocolate Thunder flyin', glass flyin', Robinzine cryin', parents cryin', babies cryin', glass still flyin', rump roasting, bun toasting, thank you wham ma'am I am jam."
"I always had a wild imagination," he said. "And I grew up a big fan of Ali. All that stuff just came naturally to me."
At one point, general manager Pat Williams told him to "tone down" the talk. Teammate Caldwell Jones urged him to stop complaining about things such as salary and playing time.
"He said, 'You get a check on the first and fifteenth of every month like the rest of us, right?' " Dawkins recalled. " 'Well then, shut up and don't let me read about you asking to be traded.'"
Dawkins' highest salary came a few hundred thousand short of a million dollars, but he is proud that through coaching, working with the NBA overseas, and various other jobs he has stayed financially sound.
"There are guys who made a heck of a lot more than me asking if they can borrow $2,000," he said. "It's different now. Money's crazy. One guy's making $14 million, and his boys tell him he ought to be getting $15 million because that's what that guy over there gets and you're better than him."
Despite his mellow suburban lifestyle, plenty of the old Dawkins is still on display. Twin gold earrings. Patent-leather sneakers. Gaudy suits. A knack for original phrases. Good-natured answers that ramble on and on before veering off in head-scratching directions.
He said his players respected him, even though they occasionally saw him "wearing Daisy Dukes," short-shorts, on ESPN Classic.
LCCC's first game will be Nov. 2 at Lackawanna Junior College. Dawkins said he learned from all his coaches, "even [former Nets coach] Dave Wohl," whom Dawkins called a "commandant." So Dawkins said he would counsel his kids to have fun.
But win or lose, Double D's life is darn delightful.
"I have no regrets," he said. "When I got older, I learned that if you keep your feet on the ground, you won't have far to fall. My life is good now."
And a Darryl Dawkins interview from "52 weeks":