When I was in graduate school at Lehigh University, Darryl Dawkins was playing professional basketball for the Philadelphia 76ers. He was part of the team assembled around Julius Erving and coached by Billy Cunningham, and they were among the best teams in the league year after year, in a few instances coming tantalizing close to the title that they would win only after Moses Malone had replaced Dawkins on the roster.
Ironically, Moses Malone had been the first player drafted directly out of high school when he had been selected by the Utah Stars of the ABA. The next year, Dawkins had become the first player drafted directly out of high school by an NBA team. By the time that he retired, Malone had accumulated career statistics that made him a lock for the Hall of Fame, and he has been included on just about every subsequent list of the greatest players ever to play in the NBA. In contrast, Dawkins was often a compelling and just as often a maddening combination of awesome but raw talent—an athlete of almost unimaginable and yet, seemingly, largely unrealized potential. He ended up having a very solid NBA career, but anyone who had the opportunity to watch him play could not help but imagine him dominating the league as no one but Wilt Chamberlain had dominated it. And, unlike Chamberlain, Dawkins had a fairly good 15- to 18-foot jump shot!
But if I found him a maddening paradox, I was just a fan. To his coaches, teammates, and opponents on the court, he was all the more a source of continuous puzzlement. To mark his passing at 58, reportedly from a heart attack,, ESPN has republished a profile of him that gets at the complexities of the man’s personality and his public persona–between which, for much of his life, Dawkins himself may not have been able to differentiate consistently. The profile was published about five years ago, when Dawkins had settled comfortably into life with his very closely knit family in Allentown, Pennsylvania. To the dismay of almost everyone, he had become a good basketball coach and was coaching the basketball team at Lehigh County Community College. The profile is available at: http://espn.go.com/nba/story/_/id/13526002/darryl-dawkins-dies-age-58
Although Lehigh County Community College is located relatively near to where I lived while attending graduate school at Lehigh University, and although I attended a number of 76ers home games, my only truly “personal” memory of Darryl Dawkins came one night at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. I had gone to a game with a woman whom I was seeing and her younger brother. He collected autographs; so after the game, we went to the ramp where the players entered and exited the arena. After about fifteen minutes, the players started drifting out. I remember Bobby Jones stopping to sign the autograph book. He was considerably taller than I am, but he was so thin that I did not feel especially small standing next to him.
But then Darryl Dawkins appeared, wearing a white Stetson hat and a white leather jacket with long fringe down both sleeves. He was an absolutely humongous human being. When he stopped to sign the autograph book, I realized that I had not felt so very small since the early years of elementary school. If we had been matryoshka dolls, I would not simply have fit inside of him; I would have been the third or fourth doll inside of him.
He must have signed 40-50 autograph books before he reached a large white Lincoln that someone had pulled up to the end of the ramp. And the whole time he was smiling and talking as casually to the fans as if they were people who lived down the block from him.
In hindsight, simply by watching him night after night on television, I had formed the connection with him that that seeing him so up-close had cemented: I never cheered for or screamed so exasperatedly at another player, and when the 76ers traded him, I could not really believe it. In my head, I knew that Moses Malone would lead the team to the “promised land” and that there would not be a place on that team for Darryl Dawkins. But in my heart, I knew that however satisfying that NBA title would turn out to be, the team’s path to it would be much more workmanlike, much more clearly “inevitable” and therefore much less endearing than all of the near misses for which Darryl Dawkins had borne too much of the blame.
Hearing of his passing, I cannot help but think that, despite all of the money that he made as a player and from product endorsements, for much of his career Darryl Dawkins may have played more for the simple joy of the game than many of the “amateur” players now preparing very intensely for the start of the college football season. As the ESPN profile makes clear, many people wondered whether playing college basketball might have made him more prepared to compete in the NBA. But that sort of thinking presupposes that anyone less driven to dominate the sport than Michael Jordan was has failed the sport, himself, and most of all us, the fans. It also suggests that, far from being an idyllic “amateur” prelude to the more cutthroat business of professional sports, intercollegiate athletics prepares athletes very pointedly to view their sports as corporate enterprises and themselves as commodities that have, with rare exceptions, an all-too-brief shelf life.