Darryl Dawkins

December 7, 2007


The Basketball Kid Takes a Stand
(continued from Wayne Rollins)

Episode Three: The Rise of The Basketball Kid

One day in November 1979, my winless 7th grade basketball team was off to another slow start in some opponent’s cold, near-empty gym. Early in the game there was an inbounds play at midcourt. The ref handed my teammate Chris the ball and Chris slapped it with his right hand, a signal to the rest of us to start milling around, pretending we had set plays. In a rare burst of on-court assertiveness, I cut hard to my left, breaking free of the listless scrum of bodies near the center jump circle. I caught the inbounds pass in stride and started dribbling toward the wide-open hoop. I had never scored a basket before, so as I dribbled a kind of joy bubbled up through my ribcage and into my throat.

Previous to that moment there had only been an aimless murmur of voices in the gym. Suddenly the murmur spiked, went weird. I’d never heard the sound before and hope to never hear it again: A generalized, ingrown gasp, like a note from a choir on a record played backwards. I pressed onward, dribbling, still preposterously open, ignoring.

I stopped just inside the foul line and hoisted the side-holstered push shot that all kids use before they get the hang of a real jump shot. Improbably, the basketball grazed the inside of the rim and nestled through the net. The strange sound that had risen up all around me ceased. I turned, smiling, expecting to see my teammates smiling back. Jesus, the look on their faces. My own smile congealed. The players on the other team stared one more beat, still stunned, then started spasming with laughter. Eventually the scoreboard operator added the tally to the already swollen number beneath the word HOME.

From that point on the losses began to blur together. We lost all our games that season, all but three the next season. By the time I got this Darryl Dawkins portrait in my last unironically purchased pack of trading cards I had begun to understand that my fate was sealed. Forever would I labor beneath scoreboards generating nauseating inequalities. Ninth grade was no different. Our freshman team lost every game. The following year my junior varsity team kept losing. The varsity coach, Viens, came into our locker room at halftime of a game we were losing pretty badly. He went down the line of all the guys on the team from my grade, listing faults, his mole-like face pinched into a particularly sour expression of pure disgust. Only two of us had been playing all along, since 7th grade. Me and Chris. Viens saved us for last.

“Wilker, I don’t notice you out there,” he said. “You’re invisible.”

“Chris,” he said. “You’re stupid.”

Chris had always been my mom’s favorite player. He was always the smallest kid on the court, and though he was something of a gunner, he always tried hard. Sometimes he tried so hard during our collective humiliations his face got red and he verged on tears, his unceasing drives into the crowded lane sometimes seeming like involuntary convulsions of grief. But Chris quit hoops at the end of that year, neglecting to try out to play for Viens on the varsity, and I wandered away to the boarding school that would eventually expel me. The summer after I got expelled I went to live with my grandfather, who had for the benefit of my brother and me nailed a backboard and a basketball hoop to a tree. The rim was the most forgiving rim in the history of the world. Almost any shot would fall dead upon contact with that rim and drop through the net as if collapsing from exhaustion. What was I going to do with my life? Who was I going to be? I avoided these questions. Instead, I went on outlandish imaginary scoring sprees, again and again, pretending I was someone else, some beleaguered, limping, indomitable hero battling long odds to lead his loyal teammates to victory. As had happened throughout my solitary childhood, sounds escaped my mouth as I played, the whispered approximations of crowd noises and ecstatic announcers and grateful exulting teammates. I was 17 years old. Finally my grandfather got me a job pumping gas. But I still got two days off a week, and I spent them the same way I’d been spending my free time before the start of my first full-time job. Reeking of pot smoke, hoisting jump shots, mumbling to myself, I imagined myself invisible to this world, instead forever rising in the universe within the universe where losses turn to wins.

continued in Mike Newlin


  1. 1.  I had a forgiving rim and an underinflated basketball. I learned that I wasn’t really that good as soon as other people became involved in my games.

  2. 2.  2 : Ah yes, other people. As Sartre said (at least I think he said it), “Hell is other people.”

  3. 3.  Of course I intended to link my comment in 2 to the comment in 1 , and not to itself, but I guess if any comment is going to link to itself it should be one expressing dread over the existence of others.

  4. 4.  You’re not entirely alone on this one, Josh. In sixth grade, I came in off the bench during a playoff game and took an inbounds pass from halfcourt and immediately ran the wrong way for an uncontested layup. Fortunately, though, I missed the shot. We ended up winning the game in overtime, and then went on to win the championship. I can’t imagine how I’d feel about it if I had actually made the easy shot.

  5. 5.  I always wondered why those gyms were kept so cold and yet we had to play basketball in short shorts back in the 70’s. Viens sounds a little like the gym teacher that George “Cantstandja” was given an atomic wedgie by in high school. Maybe Viens is now homeless somewhere with little baked-bean teeth.

  6. 6.  4 : “I can’t imagine how I’d feel about it if I had actually made the easy shot.”

    Well, to that point in my life I’d never felt worse about anything. I didn’t tell my family, or anyone, for years.

    5 : Viens also shows up near the end of the Cardboard Gods profile of Rollie Fingers (see team archives in the sidebar under San Diego Padres). He coached for a long, long time, eventually even winning a Vermont Division II state title.

  7. 7.  I had a teammate who made a shot for the other team in eighth grade. Luckily for us, his backcourt violation nullified the shot. He’d dribbled about 60 feet to make that uncontested layup on the wrong end.

  8. 8.  Maybe not the same as scoring a basket for the opposing team, but in one game for my 7th grade team, I fouled out–that’s 5 fouls–in less than 2 minutes of clock time. I remember the coach saying, “But I thought I just put you in for the first time a minute ago?”

    But I never lost the love for the game. In fact, in an hour, I drag my 39-year old body to the Y for my regular friday afternoon run with the guys from work.

    But I am extremely glad that the Y has wood floors, and not the horrible linoleum tiles that we played on in 7th grade. And since it was a mixed-use floor, no amount of sweeping could kep it from being a skating rink.

    And since someone has to say it in today’s comments….”Lovetron.”

  9. 9.  I stopped playing basketball when I jammed my finger, first practice, of intermural college ball. I couldn’t risk not being able to hold a pen during college (I was in some art and architecture classes). I don’t think I’ve played since, and I don’t miss it much.

  10. 10.  7 Wow, a near coast-to-coast wrong-wayer. What determination!

    8 : Have a good game. Foul a couple guys for me! I haven’t played in a while, but that’s only because I’m too cheap/broke to join a gym, even the Y, plus I’m lazy. I miss it.

    And thanks for bringing up Lovetron. In my earlier attempts at this post I kept trying to get some thoughts about Darryl Dawkins, and Lovetron, and the smashing of the backboard over forever immortalized-in-supreme-facialization Bill Robinzine, and the great early ’80s 76ers, and the wondrous photo on this card, in which Darryl seems to be sleep-rebounding, but I couldn’t jam it all in there and so just gave up. In fact Darryl deserves lenghty epic poems written in his honor, not mere mentions in posts. I am not being a wise-ass when I say that I feel lucky to have grown up during a time when Darryl Dawkins roamed the earth.

  11. 11.  Here is my Jim Marshall (Vikings) moment. On our 5th grade team, we sucked and I was the only good player. This made me the gunner, as I shot probably 75% of our team’s shots. We had not won a game all year, but during I’m guessing the 7th or 8th game of the season we were up at halftime by a basket.

    Starting the second half, I received the halftime tipoff and proceeded to take it to the hole for a basket. The other team’s basket. This would not be so noteworthy, except that we lost by 1 point. More noteworthy is that I scored all of our team’s points, as well. My father, who was Bobby Knight without the good mood swings, ripped me the whole way home in our fake wood-paneled Oldsmobile station wagon for being such an idiot, moron, dummy, or whatever non-profane word he could think of which wouldn’t break his Baptist code.

    While I had success in varsity sports, the 3 most memorable sports moments of my playing career all happened before high school. I hadn’t thought about that until now. Thanks for sharing this great story, Josh, as it triggered some interesting memories for me.

  12. 12.  I used to pretend I was the entire 76ers team as a kid playing Nerf Hoop all the time by myself. When I ripped the Hoop off the door I was Darryl Dawkins.

  13. 13.  11 : Thanks for that story, Scott. Now I’m wondering what the other two most memorable sports moments were (I remember a little league story on The Juice where you had to win the game to avoid a paternal ass-kicking; I wonder if that’s one of them).

    12 : The Sixers team that Dawkins played on from ’79-’82 was one of the best teams to never win a title, and maybe the most likable. As a Celtics fan, I rooted against them, but I respected them, and even got a little teary with this respect when I joined in (at home) with the Celtics fans urging the Sixers to “Beat L.A.” in the waning moments of the Celtics’ 1982 Game 7 loss to the Sixers. Dawkins’ most famous moments were the two times he broke a backboard, but his most valuable moment in the league may have come just prior to that 1982 Game 7. The year before, the Sixers had lost in the playoffs to the Celtics after squandering a 3 games to 1 series lead, and they went into Game 7 in 1982 on the brink of repeating the choke job. The Sixers locker room was a tense, unhappy place, but then apparently Dawkins started telling jokes, breaking the whole locker room up, getting everybody loose, and they went out and kicked ass. Doctor J led the way, of course, but that team also had The Most Underrated Point Guard In NBA History (Mo Cheeks), plus a host of superlative role players (supergunner Andrew Toney, defensive specialists Bobby and Caldwell Jones, steady Lionel Hollins, goon/baseline jumper specialist Steve Mix, and of course Darryl Dawkins, who though never quite as good as his physical attributes seemed to suggest he could be was still a very solid scorer and rebounder. He was traded after the Sixers became, with the acquisition of Moses Malone, the best team I’ve ever seen (for exactly for one season), but he had his revenge when he led his new team, the Nets, to a stunning, champion-toppling, one-year-dynasty-ending playoff upset over the Sixers in 1984.

  14. 14.  “Like a Weed, Joe…”

  15. 15.  …as such –


  16. 16.  The only good moment I can remember having with my dad as coach was when our team won the flag football super bowl. I scored a td and spun the ball in the end zone. It was probably the greatest moment of my dad’s life, so he was really happy that night and even told me he thought the ball spin was cool.

    The other memorable moment was in our Babe Ruth league championship where with 2 outs and a guy on a second, the other team hit a single up through the middle, I charged the ball and threw the runner out at home to win the championship. It was a picture book scenario, well that was until after the game when our team manager announced the all-star team selections for our league and I wasn’t on the list, but his less-talented son was. It would seem rationale to say that I should have gotten over it a long time ago. I haven’t, but that is a nutshell of how life goes.

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