Few things can match the power of a Darryl Dawkins dunk â€” that is, except for Dawkins’s personality. Known during his playing days for his backboard-shattering slams, Chocolate Thunder could most recently be found charming basketball fans across the country as an ambassador for NBA Nation on its eight-city summer tour which ended in Washington D.C. this June.
In addition to meeting with fans, Dawkins’ responsibilities on the tour included serving as a judge for the 2011 Sprite Slam Dunk Showdown, an amateur dunk contest. Chocolate Thunder’s credentials more than qualify him for the job. Dawkins earned the title of the NBA’s original power dunker during the 1979-80 season when he broke two backboards in less than a month.
Playing alongside Dr. J with the 76ers, Dawkins reached the NBA Finals on three occasions and averaged 12 points per game throughout his 14-year NBA career. We got up with the rim rattler himself to discuss the origin of his nickname, his first dunk, and the NBA lockout.
Dime: How’d you get hooked up with being a judge for the Sprite Slam Dunk Showdown?
Darryl Dawkins: Well, I think I got hooked up because I try to do good things with the NBA, and they always want somebody who’s notable and who’s personable with people. So I got hooked up with the NBA Nation and the next thing I knew I was judging the Sprite Slam Dunk Showdown. They needed somebody who can travel on the weekends and go up to eight different cities. Man, that’s like every weekend. You jumping on planes to go to Cleveland, Sacramento, Dallas, or Miami, and you get to Miami and it’s 102 degrees out, you know. I think I just caught a lucky break because I’m sure there are a lot of guys who would like to do it.
Dime: What were some of the highlights of the tour?
DD: When you go to these different cities. Like in San Antonio we caught a folk festival and had all kind of heritage food around â€” I like to eat, obviously. Seeing some of the guys get away with some of dunks that, you know, I probably wouldn’t even attempt some of these dunks. I was a power dunker. I want to go straight up, put it down on somebody. I want everybody under there. But these guys will do 720, between the legs, jump over six or seven guys. They’ve got great creativity. These guys got an imagination, which I like.
Dime: What’s the sickest dunk that you’ve seen so far?
DD: I’ve seen some pretty sick stuff, man. Left-handed, 360, the jumping over the guy, putting the ball between the legs and around the waist. It’s been crazy. I’ve enjoyed it.
Dime: Do you think that dunking has gotten more impressive over the years?
DD: For years, people always say, “Ah, what about the dunk. It’s still two points.” But it energizes a team. If you’re down and you get a monster dunk, everybody gets psyched. “Oh yeah, let’s go, let’s go.” So it was dying down a little bit and guys, I think, they took it upon themselves. They got energy on it and started trying different stuff.
Talk about the sickest dunk, we had one guy throw it off the library which was about 60-feet away, back onto the court it bounced, and he timed it, went over there and got it. It was outstanding, man. It was crazy. They got good imagination. They not afraid to try stuff. That’s what keep you from winning, when you don’t wanna try something. You gotta try something people ain’t seen before, and you gotta go to the gym and work on your dunks. In a slam dunk competition, don’t show up with three dunks. You got to have eight or nine dunks because if you get into the finals and two guys may do the same dunk or one guy does the dunk better than the other.
Dime: Out of the 10 finalists, who is your favorite?
DD: I’m not allowed to pick a favorite. Not yet. In my mind, I know what I want, but I’m not allowed to pick a favorite. I think all the guys have worked so hard to get there, and if I was to say one guy, that guy would be feeling like ‘I got this,’ and I want everybody to have a chance.
We’ve seen guys come in and practice and be great and you get a crowd out there and they get a little stage fright and they can’t get one down. So I try to stay away from picking a favorite, but in my heart I have one guy I’m keeping my eye on.
Dime: You said you like to eat. What have been some of the best meals you’ve had touring around these different cities?
DD: I will try just about all the folk food we go to in any place. Lately we had some dynamite ribs in Dallas. Then you go to Miami and you have all the seafood restaurants down there. You can’t mess up, man. You can’t go bad.
Dime: How did the nickname Chocolate Thunder originate?
DD: Stevie Wonder used to come the ball games and they would have a guy sitting with him. And the guy would be holding on to his arm, telling him what’s going on, and he would say, “Hey, the big chocolate guy just put down a thunder dunk. The chocolate guy with another monster dunk.” And Stevie Wonder actually gave me the nickname Chocolate Thunder. So a guy who never saw me can give me that name. I think I can wear that well. I don’t even know if he remembers, it’s been so long, but I’ll keep that.
Dime: Were you a big Stevie Wonder fan?
DD: No doubt about it, man. Music? All kinda music. I don’t just listen to one thing; I listen to everything.
Dime: In your opinion, what was the craziest dunk you ever threw down?
DD: Obviously everybody remembers the backboard breaking, but I actually â€” you have to ask Doug Collins about this â€” I threw one down so hard, it caught the bottom of the net and burned the bottom of the net and then popped back out. And Doug said, “Woah, the bottom of the net smoked and the dunk popped back out.”
But we wanted to do it on somebody. These guys are great, they have imagination when they’re by themselves, but I want to see it done in the game. If you gon be showtime, put it down on people, not just by yourself, and that’s what we specialize in.
Dime: What’s more satisfying: dunking on someone or breaking a backboard?
DD: I caught a left-handed, picked it right up off the floor, reverse dunk without even looking. Bill Walton was right behind me trying to block it. That was sick because nobody thought I could pick the ball up with one hand, not even look back, and just throw it over the shoulder. I see Bill sometimes, he says, “Hey man, my back still hurts.” That was before its time. Guys weren’t even trying the left-hand stuff.
Dime: Do you remember the first time you ever dunked?
DD: I think I was playing with some guys on the playground down in Florida and all the guys were older than me. All these guys were way older than me and they would foul you real bad, hard. And you’d be, “Hey, that’s a foul.” And they’d say, “Shut up.” And you couldn’t say anything because you couldn’t beat them. So I threw one down hard one day and got it. And the guys said, “Hey, wait a minute, you know what that was?” I said, “What?” They said, ‘That’s called a slam dunk, man, you grabbing the goal.”
I didn’t realize. I was just mad they was all hanging over me. After I threw it in, I couldn’t get one down the rest of the day. I kept trying it and trying it. I couldn’t get it down. And then about four months later, it all came together, and I was dunking when I wanted to.
We didn’t lift weights. We just would take a bicycle and ride it up a hill until you couldn’t ride anymore. Your legs would be burning, and you’d be falling off the bicycle. That’s all summer, and by the time you got ready for the season, you was jumping over guys.
Dime: How did you start coming up with nicknames for all your dunks?
DD: I always had a wild imagination. I was sitting on the bench â€” I was playing with some great guys, had Dr. J, got World B. Free, Kobe Bryant‘s father, J.B., all these guys on the team â€“ Harvey Catchings, George McGinnis â€“ all these guys can put it down. So I said, “Man, if I get in the game, I’ma dunk the ball every time I get the chance as hard as I could.” And when I started dunking people started saying, “What was that called? What was that?” And I would say, “That was ‘Yo mamma.'” “What was that one called?” “That was the left-handed ‘Spine Chiller Supreme.'” It just came to me, man. Like I said, my imagination has always been wild.
Dime: Who are some of your favorite dunkers in the NBA right now?
DD: I think Durant does bring it to the basket. He’s head and shoulders above a whole lot of guys. I like his aggressiveness and the way he brings it to the basket. Kobe still can get it done when he wants to. Blake kind of reminds me a lot of myself younger. He’s a little different color than me â€” I got a little chocolate and he got a little vanilla going on â€” but he put it down. He probably is one of the most awesome dunkers out there right now. But I think there’s some dunkers that haven’t entered the dunk contest that can throw it down also. I think DeMar DeRozan â€” he’s an awesome dunker. I don’t think that people look at him like he’s a real great dunker because he does it so easy.
Dime: You played alongside Dr. J. What was he like as a teammate?
DD: Doc was a tremendous leader. He led by example. He didn’t do a whole lot of talking. I remember when we got him. The first season we got him, he was gliding and going to the basket. We all thought he was fantastic. And after a two-hour practice, he goes over and starts running two 20s. And I went up to him and said, “Hey Doc, we just got through practice, man, what you doing that for?” He said, “Well I’m about four pounds too heavy. ‘Bout four pounds. I got to run this fat off.” “What!” I said, “I’m already carrying 15 extra.” He said, “I’m four pounds too heavy.” And after he worked out those two, three weeks out there after practice, we saw him really take off. Those four pounds made a big difference.
Dime: You entered the NBA out of high school. Do you think there should be an NBA age minimum?
DD: Well you know what, for me, I was lucky. I had good people surrounding me. My family, my minister â€” they all believed in me. I don’t know if it will work for everybody. I had a lot of things coming at me, but my mother stayed on me, my grandmother stayed on me, and they just didn’t let me get too big of a head. I could say what I wanted to say, but they were kinda like watching over me. They kept me grounded, I’ll put it that way, and they kept me on the right track.
Dime: So do you think since other guys might not have that same presence it’s a tougher transition for them?
DD: I think some of ’em do. Some don’t. Some just want to get to the NBA. I think it’s your right if you think you can do it. You challenge it and you try it sometime. The rule was put in place so guys learn how to handle money, handle fame, handle traveling, handle living on their own, all these things I had to adjust to on the fly. Today, guys do it differently: bring four or five of their buddies with ’em. They get them a car. They’ll follow them around and all that. I just had my brothers. You have to learn how to cook for yourself, how to get up on time, how to leave when it’s snowing so you don’t miss the plane because that was a big fine at that time.
Dime: I saw that you were a contestant on Dream Job. Who is your favorite anchor right now?
DD: I really don’t have a favorite anchor to be honest with you because I like everybody who comes on there. I can’t pinpoint one and say hey my favorite one. But you know what, if I was leaning towards one, it would be Kenny Smith because Kenny Smith does talk knowledge. He does know basketball, and it’s not just the first thing he hollers out of his mouth â€” he’s always giving it some thought. And it’s an intelligent answer as well as it can be funny… Charles Barkley‘s good because he just say what comes to his mind. Magic is doing his thing. I like all the guys.
Dime: How do you think Shaq will do as an anchor?
DD: Shaq will do fine. Even if he say something nobody likes, nobody gonna do nothing about it. I think he’ll do fine. Shaq has a great sense of humor; people just don’t know it. They see him on the court out there knocking people around and running over people, but they don’t know what he has inside… Shaq has great knowledge of the game. I think he’ll do fine.
Dime: Have you been keeping tabs on the NBA lockout?
DD: I try to stay away from that because I never feel like a strike is good for anybody doing any kind of job because something is gonna be lost. So I never feel like it’s something that everybody gotta do sometime. I just get away from that and do what I like to do: entertain people and work with kids. I just hope they get it done and get it done soon so we have everything cool.
Dime: You played in Italy at the end of your career. Do you think that playing overseas is a good option for NBA guys if there’s a work stoppage?
DD: With a lot guys, they better get ready, because if they going to Italy, it’s going to be two Americans or two foreigners on each team. And you gotta live in Italy. You don’t have a chance to fly home every holiday. They don’t celebrate the same holidays we have. And you have to learn to live like an Italian.
You got to learn how to read the signs, learn how to drive over there because, believe me, they keep the pedal to the metal, and you got to learn how to live alone. If you go over there and you take one of your buddies it’s just you and him hanging out. And the crowd want to get close to you. Just to go over there to say, “I’m going over there to make some money.” No, you’re learning another culture. It was always exciting for me because I always like a challenge. But hey, if they’re throwing money around over there, I think some guys are gonna jump and gonna try it, but I think they’ll get back here fast as they can because this is the NBA, this is the greatest league in the world.
Dime: How was the food over there when you were playing in Italy?
DD: Fantastic. I actually had a problem when I got back here: I couldn’t find Italian food that tasted the way it tasted over there. So I just started cooking it myself the way I remembered it being over there. But the pasta, the pizza, the veal, they did an awesome job over there, man. Over here, I never really eat pizza.
Dime: Have you found any good pizza spots in America that do it justice?
DD: Yeah, one I really, really like is down in Freehold, New Jersey. It’s called Federici’s. They have a thin crust, and the sausage is fresh over there. It’s out of this world. Any time I find myself in that area, I gotta go by there. Otherwise you’re gonna have bad luck.
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