How Darryl Dawkins Changed The NBA

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The following is adapted from the new Random House book Year of the Dunk: A Modest Defiance of Gravity.

When the NBA and the ABA merged in 1976, the older league, whose official logo, embroidered into all its jerseys, was the silhouette of a player in the very earthbound act of dribbling, was basically purchasing the rights to Julius Erving—who had led the ABA in scoring for three seasons—and his modern, leaping style of play. Still, the NBA continued to have misgivings about promoting the dunk. It discontinued the slam-dunk contest, and in these pre-Magic, pre-Michael years, the league couldn’t shake a taint of the moribund. But on a November night in 1979 at Kansas City Municipal Auditorium, Darryl Dawkins changed all that. Thirty-eight seconds into the third quarter in a game against the Kansas City Kings, Dawkins drove two steps past his defender and dunked the ball so hard that the Plexiglas backboard shattered. Ever the showman, Dawkins, who played for the Philadelphia 76ers, told sportswriters after the game that he had been possessed by a “chocolate thunder.”

“I could feel it surging through my body, fighting to get out,” he explained. “I had no control.”

Several weeks later, Dawkins did it again, in a game against San Antonio, essentially crumpling the rim as he shattered the backboard—and suddenly he was a dunking sensation. Beat writers for the 76ers started a betting pool about when he would strike next. A stadium janitor in Detroit implored him to break a backboard so he and his team could show how fast they could replace it. The dunk got at something primal and maybe a little threatening to white refs and white NBA administrators.

“When I dunked, no matter how nice and polite I’d do it, the refs would nail me with a technical foul for swinging on the rim,” Dawkins, who, at one point became so popular that he had a column called “The Dunkateer” for a Philadelphia newspaper, wrote in his autobiography. “Even when I wasn’t dunking, the refs were putting me in a straitjacket. Then the NBA summoned me to New York and I was told that the next time I broke a backboard I’d be fined $5,000. Okay. That’s cool. It’s their fucking league after all. Right? Then a short time later I saw a commercial on TV: The NBA is exciting, blah, blah. Go out and see a game, blah, blah. Then there’s a shot of me breaking a backboard. What the fuck? That was pure, unadulterated hypocritical bullshit.”

The aftermath of a Dawkins dunk against the San Antonio Spurs, December 1979. Photo via the AP

Unadulterated hypocritical bullshit, but also a signal, finally, from the league that it was committed to the dunk. In 1984, David Stern, newly minted as NBA commissioner with a charge of expanding the league’s appeal, reintroduced the slam-dunk contest, the one the NBA had unceremoniously retired when it had merged with the ABA. The embrace of the dunk is what would make basketball a truly international, glamorous sport: Michael Jordan famously won the competition in 1987 and 1988, besting Dominique Wilkins, launching Jordan’s global brand and a worldwide interest in the sport. Basketball officials, once keen to discourage dunking because of its expression of racial exuberance, now eagerly realized its commercial possibilities.

Erving, Dawkins’ teammate on the 76ers, once told the magazine Black Sports: “Dunking is a power game, a way of expressing dominance. It makes your opponent uptight and can shatter his confidence.”

For Bill Robizine, the Kings player who was the victim of that first glass-shattering Dawkins dunk, the famous moment was the beginning of a long, dire downhill slide: Three years later, he was out of the league, and killed himself in his car by carbon monoxide poisoning.

Erving’s take on the dunk reminded me of what Dawkins had to say about the curmudgeonly complaint once lodged by Oscar Robertson, the splendid, high-scoring guard of the 1960s and 1970s. “A dunk is just two points,” Robertson once said, according to Erving’s biographer. “I wouldn’t spend three cents to go see a Slam Dunk Contest.” Chocolate Thunder’s response, one that serves as a rebuke to those generations of stuffy coaches and sportswriters who dismissed the dunk as nothing more than a gratuitous flourish: “Everybody says a dunk is only two points, but it gets your team hyped, gets the crowd all excited, and takes the starch out of other teams, especially when you dunk on somebody. And I always dunked on somebody.”

Asher Price grew up in New York City and now lives in Austin with his wife and their dog. He writes about energy and the environment for the Austin American-Statesman and plays pick-up basketball on the neighborhood court every Sunday morning.