Jerry Reynolds was there, several rows up from midcourt.
The longtime Kings broadcaster remembers watching Darryl Dawkins, the 76ers’ towering 6-foot-11, 270-pound package of potential, power and personality. And Reynolds saw the dunk that changed the sport, or at least how backboards and rims were constructed, and became one of the most memorable images in NBA history.
It was Nov. 13, 1979, at Municipal Auditorium. Reynolds regularly attended Kansas City Kings home games, a perk because the Kings practiced at nearby Rockhurst University, where Reynolds coached. In the 76ers’ game against the Kings, Dawkins grabbed a pass 38 seconds into the third quarter, turned and soared for the finish, shattering the backboard as players scurried for cover. There was a stunned silence from the crowd, and then a roar of approval with a standing ovation.
“It was an amazing thing,” Reynolds said. “I was thinking, ‘Wow. Did I just see that?’ I knew Dawkins was about to throw down a massive dunk, but I didn’t think the glass would explode, a zillion pieces everywhere. It was kind of remarkable, really. Dawkins was kind of remarkable in a lot of ways.”
The dunk enhanced the cult-hero status for a player who once claimed to be from “Planet Lovetron.” Dawkins, who died Thursday at 58 from heart failure, was known for naming his dunks – and for loving life more than the game. He never lived up to his enormous potential, but he became one of the sport’s most enduring figures, an original showman.
Said Dawkins after his dunk: “It was the power, the ‘Chocolate Thunder.’ It wasn’t the safest thing to do, but it was the Darryl Dawkins thing to do.”
Bill Robinzine of the Kings took the brunt of the dunk, glass nicking his legs and arms and other pieces lodged into his hair. In his weekly sports column for a Philadelphia newspaper, Dawkins immortalized Robinzine: “From this day forth, you shall kindly refer to that historic tribute to interplanetary strength as: ‘The Chocolate-Thunder flying, Robinzine crying, teeth-shaking, glass-breaking, rump-roasting, bun-toasting, wham-bam-glass-breaker-I-am jam.’”
Kings general manager John Begzos sent a bill to the 76ers for $295 for the backboard and expressed his disgust with Dawkins, saying then, “It’s not a part of basketball. It’s a sideshow. We’re supposed to be selling grace and ability of players like Phil Ford, Otis Birdsong, not stuff like that.”
Soon after Dawkins obliterated another backboard weeks later in Philadelphia, the NBA adopted breakaway rims and shatter-proof backboards.
Dawkins entered in the national spotlight in 1975 while still at Maynard High School in Orlando. Dawkins, who built up his body by stacking boxes of oranges and throwing tires around at a junk yard, caught the attention of the 76ers, who also had their eyes on Elk Grove High School’s Bill Cartwright. But Cartwright, a skilled 7-footer and the nation’s top college prospect, made it clear he was going to attend USF.
“Bill had everyone after him,” said Dan Risley, Cartwright’s high school coach and longtime friend. “Agents went to Bill’s house to try to convince his parents. There was a national all-star game in Sacramento, at Memorial Auditorium that year, and Dawkins didn’t play. He would’ve gone against Bill, which would have been fun to watch.”
Dawkins didn’t play in that game because the 76ers wanted to keep other NBA scouts from watching him. Dawkins was the first player to enter the NBA directly from high school after the 76ers selected him with the fifth pick. Dawkins had lived in a house without indoor plumbing until he was a teen and vowed never to be poor again. In 14 seasons, he averaged nearly 13 points and six rebounds.
Cartwright played four years for the Dons, was the second pick of the 1979 draft and won three NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls. Dawkins went 0-3 in NBA championship series.
“Drafting high school players was my master plan,” former 76ers general manager Pat Williams told me a few years ago. “I wanted to find stars before anyone else, but it was a risk.”
Robinzine also was picked in that 1975 draft, 10th by the Kings out of DePaul. After seven seasons with the Kings, Cavaliers, Mavericks and Jazz, his career was over when he was cut by Utah in 1982.
In 2010, Dawkins said he supported the NBA’s decision to stop drafting high school players. He also endorsed the NBA dress code, once saying, “A guy making $14 million shouldn’t be wearing a Snoopy T-shirt with jeans hanging down around his butt.”
As for his career and legacy as the first high school-to-NBA player, Dawkins once said, “I don’t regret anything. I helped my family, and I had a great time in the league.”