Why We Need Better Basketball History—for Darryl Dawkins

I did see Darryl Dawkins play, a lot.  Not in person but on television.  He loomed large in the imaginary series my best friend Robb and I would play out in my driveway or at the park.  He’s dear to my heart, as the pictured tee-shirt demonstrates. I like wearing it to teach my hoops class and drop knowledge of Darryl on the young ballers and scholars.  Now, already others—Rodger Sherman’s and David Roth’s are among my favorites—have written fine elegies to Dawkins.  And, for my part, I’m going to be talking about Dawkins this evening on the Over and Back podcast.  To prepare, I went into my hoops library to see how Dawkins is remembered in the annals of basketball history as they now stand.

Now, admittedly this was a cursory examination.  I obviously didn’t reread every work to see what they had to say.  I either reread the chapters that I expected or knew would cover Dawkins’ period in the NBA or else scanned the index in those works that had one. For the most part, I was merely somewhat surprised—perhaps disappointed—that this giant of my memory should be shoved into so tiny a space in the basketball history.

Sure, there are brief entries in the standard reference works.   And there’s the title nod and a side-bar in Tom Ziller’s fine chapter—”Punch-Dunk Lovelorn: The NBA’s Lost Years Reconsidered” on the 70s from FreeDarko Presents The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History and Dr. J makes a few passing references to Dawkins in his recently published autobiography.  Reliable Nelson George does offer a few of paragraphs of phrase for “one of basketball’s greatest lexicologists” in Elevating the Game, and recognizes that his celebrity “was built on more than just talk.”  But mostly he’s just not there (y’all will surely let me know if I’m missing something).

So, with some reluctance familiar to my readers, I turned to The Book of Basketball.  Surely Bill Simmons’ massive tone, rhetorically positioning itself after all as the bible of the game, would rectify this.  And yet, amidst all the words strewn across the 734 pages of the book, the name Darryl Dawkins appears a grand total of five times (really in just three different contexts).  Still, I imagine, at least there’s that.

So I looked inside.

And then my disappointment turned to rage.

And if could, this is what I’d have done.

But I can’t do that.

So instead, I’ll have to settle for what I can do and hope that it is enough.

Exhibit 1.  p. 15.  In the course of describing the 1981 NBA Eastern Conference Finals between his beloved Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers, Simmons recalls the moment that the relationship between Boston fans and Bird changed:

Leading by one in the final minute, Philly’s Dawkins plowed toward the basket, got leveled by Parish and McHale, and whipped an ugly shot off the backboard as he crashed to the floor.  Bird hauled down the rebound in traffic, dribbled out of an abyss of bodies . . . and pushed the ball down the court, ultimately stopping on a dime and banking a 15-footer that pretty much collapsed the roof.

Dawkins, known for the strength, elevation, force and majesty with which he destroyed backboards, is reduced to a clownish foil, ineptly sprawled on the ground as Bird hits the game winner.  But you know what, that’s okay.  Really. Because in that part of the book, Simmons really isn’t claiming to do history. It’s a Prologue, and an abashedly personal one at that.  So okay.  I’ve got my own versions of that in my basketball autobiography and I won’t begrudge Simmons his.

Exhibit 2. p. 112.  Now we’re into history.  This is the long third chapter of the book that offers a season by season recap of pro basketball history, each season summed up by a specific notable event or theme.  The 1973-74 season, according to the Book of Basketball, is to be remembered for five distinct ways the NBA was suffering, the first of which is that “Bidding wars and swollen contracts damaged the new generation of NBA up-and-comers.”  Hmmm.  To explain, Simmons brings in no less an authority than ex-Celtic player and coach, Tommy Heinsohn who (Simmons dixit), “explained beautifully in his award-winning autobiography” that

Darryl Dawkins is the perfect example.  The guy could have been a monster, should have been a monster, but nobody had the controls. Armed with a long-term contract, Darryl had the security of dollars coming in. . . . Unless you’re talking about athletes who are truly dedicated to the game, the only time these guys bear down is when their security is threatened.

This is simply disgraceful.  Heinsohn’s presumption and prejudice, in itself laced with (hopefully) unconscious racism, may simply be read as an expression of his personality, which, after all, is what an autobiography ought to provide.  That context should signal to most readers than any assessment contained therein are to be taken with a grain of salt or discarded entirely.  But the disgrace comes in that Simmons, as part of a history, actually cites this as an authoritative assessment of the state of the league at the time and, more disturbingly, as an account of the interior life of Darryl Dawkins.

Exhibit 3. p 132. We’re still within the year-by-year history, now up to the 1977-78 season which Simmons calls “The Blown Tire.”  He’s square in my budding adolescence now (I was twelve during that season) so my pique is up.  This, he claims, is the NBA’s “most damaging season” ever.  And among the problems, the “most harmful,” Simmons tells his readers, is “fighting.”  He explains that fighting had always been part of basketball and offers a few famous names.  A page or so later, he will tell the story, so often told, of Kermit Washington leveling Rudy Tomjanovich in December 1978, an incident that devastated both men for some time.  But in between the short introduction and the main event, he remembers an “ugly brawl” in the 1977 NBA finals that, he admits, didn’t appall anyone. It’s not very important, in fact, and yet it is described in some detail.

It started when Darryl Dawkins tried to sucker-punch Bobby Gross (hitting teammate Doug Collins instead), then backpedaled into a flying elbow from [Maurice] Lucas, followed by the two of them squaring off like 1920’s bare-knuckle boxers before everyone jumped in.  After getting ejected, Dawkins ended up destroying a few toilets in the Philly locker room.

Dawkins has now been made into the poster-boy for the second of the two major problems responsible for the NBA’s “problem” decade.  And, as in the first anecdote above, he appears as an inept clown, first failing a dirty punch, he strikes his own teammate, then inadvertently stumbles into another punch and ends by tearing, not rims, but toilets off the wall, and not to the terror and delight of audiences across time and space, but in abject solitude.

Dr. J, incidentally, who was, you know, there, remembers the fight differently.  He describes  Lucas throwing the first punch and connecting with Collins by mistake. But you know, memory can be tricky, so I’m not going to go with Dr. J just because he’s Dr. J and I like his story better.  Here’s the video, for the record.

Here’s what strikes me in the video. It happens before the fight.  It’s Dawkins sprinting like a gazelle—this man is 6-10 and 250 pounds remember—to beat everyone downcourt, alter the Blazers’ attempt to finish their fast break and corral the rebound, tearing it away from Gross.

There’s so much to remember about Darryl Dawkins.  He was huge.  Breaker of backboards, sure, that’s awesome.  But also a talented basketball player and a breaker of codes.  And while his nicknames and quips and his imaginary planet are funky in a way that today we experience as charmingly goofy and harmlessly deracialized, we should perhaps also remember that he was also a giant black teenage boy entering a sport and a profession that at precisely that moment, even as it never stopped drawing them into its maw, was growing ever-more wary and controlling of individuals like Dawkins, ever-more ready to spit them out at the slightest misstep.

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Now, this doesn’t seem to part of the story that Dawkins ever told about his life and perhaps that is to his credit. And, as I said, there are several moving tributes to Dawkins getting lots of clicks right now. If it didn’t bother him, maybe it shouldn’t bother me.  But it does.  After all, whatever else I am, I am a book guy, still.  So the histories that get published matter to me.  And the histories that sell millions of copies matter even more.  And I believe we ought, at the very least, to be able to write a history of the sport that doesn’t feature Darryl Dawkins as an emblem of everything that the white basketball unconscious at some point decided was a problem with basketball (and with America). But awaiting that history, in the meantime—and even if Darryl didn’t care—I still think it’s important to shatter not only backboards, but also the crusted crap that some writers have smeared over some of the cherished glories of the game.

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