I had the pleasure and the good fortune to spend quite a bit of time in the company of Darryl Dawkins. We collaborated on his autobiography, we co-led a weekend hoops camp, I attended the christening of his first-born son and we made several road trips together.
Moreover, I’ve been covering the NBA for over 40 years, and of the hundreds of NBA players I’ve connected with, Double D provided the most fun to be around. So I’m not ashamed to confess that his untimely passing literally brought me to tears. My only recourse to assuage my grief is to remember several of the happy days and ways we shared.
I’d seen dozens of games he’d played on TV — with Philadelphia and New Jersey — but the first time I’d encountered him in the flesh was when I’d been assigned to write a profile of Darryl for a national magazine. The scene was a Nets practice session where the players were lying on their backs as the trainer led them through various warm-up stretches.
The Meadowlands Arena was silent except for the trainer’s occasional directions. Dave Wohl was the Nets’ coach of the moment and he strode through the ranks of the sprawled players wearing a neatly pressed team sweatsuit and an air of propriety.
Suddenly the earnest silence was ruptured by a shrill falsetto voice: “Oh, Old Black Joe! Could y’all sing for me one of them Nee-grow spirituals y’all sing so well?”
The faux question was answered with a lazy, sonorous baritone: “Yas’m, Missy Viola. I’s sure be happy to sing for y’all.”
It was Dawkins, of course, who then broke into song: “Ol’ man, ribber, dat ol’ man ribber …”
Wohl was instantly apoplectic. “Let’s get serious here, Darryl. Practice is not time to be fooling around.”
But it was too late. Whatever decorum had been evident was now destroyed as all the players convulsed with laughter. Their helpless hysteria was boosted when Dawkins responded to his coach’s plea in the same drowsy Ante Bellum tone: “Yah suh, Mistah Boss Man.”
Q: You’ve played both center and power forward, Darryl. What do you think is your best position?
A: Crouched over a little, like this.
The next time I encountered Sir Slam, he was playing with the Detroit Pistons, I was coaching in the CBA and our paths crossed in the Milwaukee airport. He’d been tossed from the game the night before and was already plotting his revenge. “I’m going to spend the offseason traveling all over the country sleeping with referees’ daughters and wives.”
Q: What’s your alma mater?
A: Always do the best you can.
A few years later, I was commissioned by another magazine to write about Darryl’s game plan as coach of the Pennsylvania ValleyDawgs in the summertime United States Basketball League.
Here’s Darryl’s at-large scouting report of a player he was considering adding to his team: “The guy’s agent says he’s a seven-footer, which means he’s about six-foot-nine. He’s also got a big ol’ head and he’s as ugly as shit on a stick, so we won’t be losing no girls to him. Yeah! Let’s sign him up!”
Dawkins’s rapport with his players was unique. He’d joke, jive and have them howling with laughter, but he was also quick to heartily curse them out when they were lazy, stupid and/or inattentive.
Darryl’s game-time outfit was a light-gold double-breasted suit replete with a folded purple handkerchief tucked into the breast pocket, a purple T-shirt, purple alligator shoes, a diamond-encrusted gold ring, gold earrings and a gold crucifix.
As the teams warmed up, several fans accosted Dawkins. “Young girls comin’ at me fast,” he said. “It’s hard work to stay straight.”
With his hoarse voice straining to be heard over the modest crowd noise, Darryl was passionately involved in the game. “Push it!” he continually chided his players. “Gimme a look at the three seconds,” he begged a ref.
After the Dawgs raced to a 120-110 victory, the coach eased himself onto a faded gold velvet couch in the home team’s locker room. First he reminisced about his past: “If I had it to do all over again, there’s only one thing I’d change. I wouldn’t have fallen in love with as many women as I did.”
Then he mused about the present: “Right now, I’m as happy as I’ve ever been in my life. My legs are okay, my knees are okay and I’ve even got half a brain left. There’s no way that somebody who’s done all the crazy stuff that I’ve done could have survived as well as I have so far without divine intervention. Whoever your God is — Jesus, Yahweh, Allah, Buddha — there’s got to be something in your life that’s bigger than you.”
In all of our many dealings, Darryl was always respectful, responsible, thoughtful, intelligent, enthusiastic and routinely hilarious. And I remain grateful to him for so warmly welcoming me into his universe. For demonstrating that his humor was genuine and not born of any concealed anger or malignant world view. Honesty was always Darryl Dawkins’s only policy.
Q: If you could be reincarnated, what would you come back as?
A: As soon as possible.
Ah, but Big D, you haven’t really left us. All of us who were lucky enough to have met you will keep you alive in our hearts.