Darryl Dawkins has never worried about being politically correct. Ever since he made headlines in 1975 when he became the first schoolboy to be drafted into the NBA (Philadelphia—fifth pick overall), Dawkins was never shy about speaking his mind.
According to Dawkins, the outcome of the upcoming Olympic basketball tournament hinges on a subject no one else dares to fully address—the racial components that define basketball as we know it.
“The game is the same,” says Dawkins. “The object is for the good guys to score and to keep the bad guys from scoring. But there’s a big difference between black basketball and white basketball.”
Growing up poor (but happy) near Orlando, Fla., Dawkins learned the former before he learned the latter. “Black basketball is much more individualistic,” he says. “With so many other opportunities closed to young black kids, the basketball court in the playground or the schoolyard is one of the few places where they can assert themselves in a positive way. So if somebody makes you look bad with a shake-and-bake move, then you’ve got to come right back at him with something better, something more stylish. And if someone fouls you hard, you’ve got to foul him even harder. It’s all about honor, pride, and establishing yourself as a man.”
Once the black game moves indoors and becomes more organized, the pressure to establish bona fides increases. “Now you’re talking about high school hoops,” says Dawkins. “So if you’re not scoring beaucoup points, if your picture isn’t in the papers, if you don’t have a trophy, then you ain’t the man and you ain’t nothing. Being second-best is just as bad as being last. And if a teammate hits nine shots in a row, the black attitude is, ‘Screw him. Now it’s my turn to get it on.’“
If young black players usually cherish untrammeled creativity, white hooplings mostly value more team-oriented concepts. “White basketball means passing the hell out of the ball,” says Dawkins. “White guys are more willing to do something when somebody else has the ball—setting picks, boxing out, cutting just to clear a space for a teammate, making the pass that leads to an assist pass. In white basketball, there’s a more of a sense of discipline, of running set plays and only taking wide open shots. If a guy gets hot, he’ll get the ball until he cools off.”
Why is white basketball so structured and team-oriented?
“Because the white culture places more of a premium on winning,” Dawkins believes, “and less on self-indulgent preening and chest-beating. That’s because there are so many other situations in the white culture where a young kid can express himself.”
As the twig is bent, so grows the tree. When Dawkins and the Sixers squared off against the Portland Trail Blazers for the NBA championship in 1977, Philadelphia’s most dynamic players were Julius Erving, George McGinnis, World B. Free, and Dawkins.
“They beat us in six games,” Dawkins recalls, “and the series marked the most blatant example of the racial difference in NBA game plans. We were much more flamboyant than Portland, and certainly more talented. We had more individual moves, more off-balance shots, more fancy passes, more dunks, and more entertaining stuff. But everybody wanted to shoot and be a star (including me), and nobody was willing to do the behind-the-scenes dirty work.”
Meanwhile, the white players at the core of Portland’s eventual success were Dave Twardzik, Bobby Gross, Larry Steele and Bill Walton. Dawkins notes that “Even the black guys like Lionel Hollins, Mo Lucas, Johnny Davis, Lloyd Neal played disciplined, unselfish white basketball. Credit their coach, Jack Ramsay, for getting everybody on the same page.”
As much as Dawkins respected Portland’s game plan, however, he was never crazy about Walton. “The guy was a good player who could really pass and had a nice jump hook,” Dawkins opines. “What made Walton so effective was that he was surrounded by talented players who wanted to win and weren’t concerned with being stars. Personally, I think that Walton was, and still is, full of baloney. Back then, he had this mountain-man image, he smoked lots of pot, and I don’t think he bathed regularly. And the league let him play with a red bandana tied around his head. To say nothing of his involvement with Patty Hearst.
“If a black player ever tried any of that kind of stuff he would’ve been banished from the NBA in a heartbeat. Yet in spite of all the messed up things Walton did as a player, now that he’s a TV announcer all he does is tear down everybody else. The guy still ticks me off.”
During his 15-year tenure in the NBA, Dawkins’ signature move was bulldozing to the basket and smashing the Plexiglas backboard to smithereens. He was brash, outlandish, funny, and irresistible. He called himself “Chocolate Thunder,” claimed to be from the planet Lovetron, and devised names for his more awesome dunks—among the most noteworthy were In Your Face Disgrace, Cover Yo Damn Head, Sexophonic Turbo Delight, and his classic If You Ain’t Groovin’ Best Get Movin’-Chocolate Thunder Flyin’-Robinzine Cryin’-Teeth Shakin’-Glass Breakin’-Rump Roastin’-Bun Toastin’-Glass Still Flyin’ Wham-Bam-I-Am Jam!
For the past four years, the 6-foot-11, 285-pound Dawkins has been coaching the Pennsylvania Valley Dawgs in the summertime United States Basketball League. In so doing, he’s won two championships (2002 and 2004) and distinguished himself as a superior motivator and big man coach, as well as the kind of on- and off-court teacher who can help transform wild young hooplings into mature gamers. As a by-product of his own maturation, Dawkins can also see the pluses and minuses of both black and white basketball.
“The black game by itself,” he says, “is too chaotic and much too selfish. No one player is good enough to beat five opponents on a consistent basis. The black style also creates animosities among the players because everybody ends up arguing about who’s shooting too much and who’s not shooting enough.”
But the white game also has its drawbacks: “It can get too predictable and even too cautious because guys can be afraid to take risks and make mistakes.”
Dawkins believes that the best NBA teams combine the best of both. “In basketball and in civilian life,” Dawkins says, “freedom without structure winds up being chaotic and destructive. Only when it operates within a system can freedom create something worthwhile.”
And, according to Dawkins, this is the most difficult task at hand for Larry Brown. “Only Tim Duncan and Carlos Boozer are willing to play white basketball. All the other guys on Team USA really want to go off on their own.
“Unless Brown can bleach some of the selfish funk from their game, they’ll be lucky to win the bronze.”