9/21/15: Malone and Dawkins Walked the Same Path; Wore Different Shoes
‘’See, Kareem doesn’t look like this because he doesn’t do the banging,” six-foot ten, 260 pound Moses Malone once said in an interview while constricted by a neck brace. “That’s the difference between us.”
While the 21st century NBA fan recalls Malone as a slump-shouldered old man in Rec Specs, plodding up and down the hardwood for 80’s also-rans like the Bullets, Hawks, and Bucks, that very player could throw shade at a six-time MVP like Abdul-Jabbar by virtue of the resume he accumulated during his relentless prime in Houston and Philadelphia: Winning three MVPs himself while also slaying the giant on the sport’s biggest stage, scoring 26 points per game and out-rebounding the legendary proprietor of the skyhook across four games of the ’83 Finals by a 70–30 margin.
Moses passed away on September 13, sadly two weeks following the death of the man he once supplanted in the Spectrum paint, Darryl Dawkins.
Malone and Dawkins will forever be linked by two things: Being the first high schoolers to jump to the pros (Malone to the ABA in ‘74, Dawkins to the Association in ’75), and by the fateful summer of ‘82, when new Sixers owner Harold Katz and GM Pat Williams oversaw a series of moves that changed the course of the franchise as well as the careers of two legendary pivot men.
In late August, Philly shipped the incumbent Dawkins to the New Jersey marshlands for $700,000 and a draft pick. Less than a week later, Katz made Malone the highest paid player in the NBA, inking the reigning MVP to a six-year, $13 million deal.
Dawkins was a sportswriter’s dream, the man known as “Chocolate Thunder,” who professed to hail from the Planet Lovetron, where he traveled during the offseason to visit his girlfriend Juicy Lucy. He was long on clever quips and had a nickname for each of his powerful dunks but also possessed a withering appetite for developing the skills to complement his immense physical talent.
By contrast, Malone was notoriously aloof; the aesthetics of his craft an afterthought. Everything was predicated on a single dominant skill — boxing out — and Malone did it better than anyone in the history of the game. With Dawkins a pedestrian on the glass and often fouling out of games (he led the NBA in infractions three times, with a single-season record of 386 in ’84), Moses prepared to go the full 48 every night, obsessed with earning his wage.
Both players gave the fans their money’s worth, but they did it in vastly different ways.
The Rim Wrecker. Yo Mama. The Go-Rilla. Cover Your Head. Look Out Below. The In-Your-Face Disgrace. The Spine Chiller Supreme. Dawkins’ frightening array of power slams drew national attention, despite tepid attendance figures at his home gymnasium.
His piece de resistance: The backboard shattering Chocolate-Thunder-Flying, Robinzine-Crying, Teeth-Shaking, Glass-Breaking, Rump-Roasting, Bun-Toasting, Wham-Bam, Glass-Breaker-I-Am-Jam, deployed on the hapless Bill Robinzine of the Kansas City Kings in November of 1979. 22 days later, Zandokan The Mad Dunker busted another backboard at the Spectrum before the league told him to cut it out.
The Sixers of the late 70’s and early 80’s were really good with Dawkins in the paint, reaching the Finals in ’77, ’80, and ’82 and featuring a rotating cast including Dr. J, George McGinnis, Doug Collins, World B. Free, Bobby Jones, Andrew Toney, Maurice Cheeks, Steve Mix and Lionel Hollins. Sir Slam augmented his rim assault with statistics befitting a rotation player on a contender, topping out at 14.7 PPG and 8.7 RPG during a 1980 season that saw the Sixers fall to the Lakers in six games of the finale.
But with so much focus on the pomp and circumstance, many wondered if Dawkins would ever live up to the hype that made him a top five pick out of high school. “The more the coaches could see how little he was using his skills, the more they felt they could teach him,” Dr. J reflected. But Dawkins wasn’t about to go by anyone’s perception of who he should be. Nor was he particularly fond of refining his repertoire beyond his dunks.
“If I learned how to do a move, why did I have to spend another hour doing it 500 more times?” he said. “I already showed you I could do it.”
The same bright lights that boosted Dawkins’ popularity ultimately proved to expose his flaws, as Chocolate Thunder was overshadowed in each of his Finals appearances by future Hall of Fame centers: Bill Walton in ’77, Abdul-Jabbar in ’80 and Kareem and Bob McAdoo in ’82. In ’81, the Sixers choked away a 3–1 series lead in the Conference Finals to the Celtics, who featured Hall of Famers Robert Parish and Kevin McHale in the post.
With gunners like McGinnis and Free already out the door by ‘82, Katz turned his attention to his affable big man. The 11 and six line Dawkins submitted on a bum leg in ’82 wasn’t going to cut it for Sixers management.
“I’m not going for that Lovetron stuff and I don’t care about one-handed rebounds. I just want him to play like a man,” said the owner, for whom the specter of Philly legend Wilt Chamberlain loomed large. He even attempted to coax a then 45-year old Stilt out of retirement in early ’82 while Dawkins sat with a fractured shine bone. Chamberlain ultimately passed on the offer.
“After seven years you have to stop saying he has potential and start saying, he just hasn’t done it,” said Katz. Indeed, even with 48 games of Dawkins, the Sixers finished ’82 12.3 percent below the league average in offensive rebounding. And so the emboldened Nutri-System honcho set his sights on the greatest offensive rebounder of all-time: Malone.
While Moses was almost completely barren in the rhymes and nicknames department, his lunch pail was always full. Living by the adage, “I just goes to the rack,” Malone had averaged 31 points and pulled down nearly 15 rebounds per game the previous season. On a Philly team with Dr. J and Toney throwing in 20 a night from the perimeter, a player who did near 100 percent of his damage down low was just what the doctor ordered.
The analytics also made sense. While today’s math-obsessed NBA teams employ multiple assistant coaches and statisticians, primitive early-80’s computer calculations too made their case for Malone: A Sports Illustrated blurb in September of ’82 cited projections that the Sixers with Moses would improve by 337 offensive rebounds, leading to 1,396 more points scored and making them a 67-win team in ’83.
The computers were right. While Dawkins and Caldwell Jones combined for 232 offensive rebounds in 129 games played during the ‘81–’82 campaign,. Malone reached that total in his 40th game as a Sixer. The ’83 team went 65–17, putting them among the elite units of the decade. Philly was rough and ready to topple the Lakers. “When we got Moses, he put a little more aggressiveness in everybody’s game,” said Maurice Cheeks.
“We used to be a pretty team that looked good winning games,” Dr. J said. “Now we win games without looking that good. If we put together a perfect game we probably still wouldn’t look good, because we have an imperfect approach to playing. Bodies are flying all over the place out there.”
What Moses lacked in style, he soon added to the trophy case, as Philly dropped just one game in the ’83 playoffs and swept the Lakers in the Finals. Though Kareem arrived as the leading scorer during the postseason, Moses completely neutralized him offensively and demolished the 7’2” veteran on the glass, most glaringly during the first two games of the series, as Philly took both games at home with Kareem grabbing a whole eight rebounds.
The Sixers, who had been out-rebounded by an average of 7.6 boards per game in the ’82 Finals, finished plus-five in ’83, a swing of 12.6 rebounds per contest in securing the franchise’s second, and, to date, last NBA championship.
Meanwhile, Dawkins had a solid ’83 for the Nets, averaged a career-high 16.8 PPG in ’84 and helped spur a first round upset of his former team in an aborted title defense that spring. But injuries eventually took their toll and Dawkins’ larger than life 70’s presence began to fade as the 80’s coldly rolled along.
Following stints with the Jazz and Pistons, he was off to Italy by the end of the decade, hammed it up with the Globetrotters, and made an appearance in October of ’95, 20 years after his NBA debut, at Celtics training camp. The refrain was the same: Coach M.L. Carr said Dawkins needed to lose weight while Chocolate Thunder cracked up the media with his antics. Basketball-wise, it wasn’t a match.
Likewise, Malone failed to recapture the glory of ’83, unceremoniously dumped by Katz to the Bullets in ’86 and posting 20 and 10s into the early 90’s while playing for his seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth pro teams. He retired following the ’95 season; Dawkins stuck it out as a player/coach in such outposts as Sioux Falls and Winnipeg through the new millennium.
Fifteen years later, both are gone; with them, a sizable chunk of the cut and color of the NBA’s shine.
Malone boasted the MVPs, the double-digit All-Star Game appearances, the record for most career offensive rebounds, the Hall of Fame nod, the championship ring. But his yeoman work was noticeably devoid of interplanetary funkmanship, and it’s unclear how many times Moses had a smile on his face when he clocked in for a night at the office, something Dawkins was noted for. “I always liked being Darryl Dawkins,” Chocolate Thunder once pronounced.
Both Dawkins and Malone entered the pros as teenagers and exited bald-headed, pear-shaped journeymen. Both stars shone brightly, if briefly, in Philadelphia. The dichotomy of the two players and their personalities is what made, and continues to make the NBA so great, particularly as the league becomes further homogenized by teams comprised entirely of scoring point guards and stretch fours.
One player was born to stand out; the other, to toil.
Dawkins found the diamond; Malone polished it.
There is value in both roles. One career illustrious; the other brightly illustrated, we were privileged to experience the wholly unique thrills of each.
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