Darryl Dawkins Finds Lovetron in Italy

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The terrifying dunk is still his trademark. Ever the free spirit, he still calls himself "Chocolate Thunder" and dreams of his own planet "Lovetron." He'd still rather play to the crowd than play defense.

So what's new about Darryl Dawkins after a season in Italy?

"It's not just Darryl Dawkins any more," he says. "I'm international now."

And a winner, too.

The 6-foot-11, 267-pound center helped lead Ipifim Torino to a 23-7 record, best in Italy, earning the team a promotion from the A-2 division to the premier A-1 league and a berth in the playoffs.

In the 30-game regular season, Dawkins averaged 21.2 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. Attesting to his penchant for dunking, he shot an amazing division-high 75 percent from the field.

On April 28, he scored a game-high 29 points on a variety of dunks, inside power moves and soft jumpers as Ipifim won the best-of-three, first-round playoff series over A-1's Enimont Livorno, last year's losing finalists.

After a 14-year career in the NBA that foundered after injuries and personal tragedy, including the suicide of his estranged wife, Dawkins may have found his utopian "Lovetron" after all in Turin.

"It's been like a new lease on life," he says. "I could play here five or six years...If I had known it was this nice over here I probably would have left the NBA sooner."

Dawkins, 33, points to his success as a vindication of the people in the NBA who said he was washed up, that he was too old, too fat, too slow, too undisciplined.

"I know I can still play in the NBA," he said, leaning back in a swivel chair at the team offices before a recent playoff game. "I can outplay half the guys who are there now. There aren't that many established centers. And I can handle them all anyhow."

Dawkins says he would like to play again in the NBA, preferably in his hometown of Orlando, but only if "the money is right." Otherwise, he says it would be "hard to say no" to another contract with Ipifim, although he declined to disclose his salary.

"I've got a three-bedroom house with a loft and a brand new station wagon. Anything I want over here, they get for me...I don't know why I'd try to fix something that's not broken."

Never one to mince words, Dawkins doesn't hide his contempt for the way he feels he was misunderstood and mistreated by the NBA. He suggests he may even have been "blackballed" out of the league.

"I look at some of the guys in the NBA who have had drug problems, and they're giving these guys a chance to come back. I didn't have any drug problems. I had injuries and personal problems. And they just refused me a chance to get back in. In the NBA, if they want you in there, you'll be in there. If they don't want you in there, I don't care what you do, you're not getting in there."

Dawkins figures his outspokenness and non-conformist ways may have made some enemies.

"I was the last of a dying species," he says. "I would bring a different girl to every game. I'd come dressed one week in cowboy boots, jeans and cowboy hat, and then the next week in serious suit and tie, and the next week I could be wearing shorts.

"I said what I felt and I did what I felt. If they asked me if somebody could play, I'd say something like, 'Hey this guy can't play dead in a cowboy movie.' I guess they just weren't used to hearing people say what's on their mind."

Dawkins has been viewed as a textbook case of unfulfilled potential. With his size and strength, he was billed as a possible franchise player when he joined the NBA in 1975-76 at the age of 18, straight out of high school in Orlando, Fla.

But in seven seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers, five with the New Jersey Nets and two with the Utah Jazz and Detroit Pistons, he never quite measured up to expectations. His best season statistically was 1983-84, when he averaged 16.3 ppg for the Nets.

Dawkins says he never got the credit he deserved.

"If they always said that I was just a mediocre player, then how did I stick around 14 years? And in the playoffs, if I was just a mediocre player, how am I holding my own against Jabbar, Lanier, Parish and these guys?"

Plagued by injuries, Dawkins played in just 26 games from 1987-89 with New Jersey, Utah and Detroit and was let go by the eventual NBA champions. He attended the Orlando Magic's minicamp but walked out, he said, because the team wouldn't give him a guaranteed contract.

His career was further troubled by the medication-overdose death in 1987 of his estranged wife, Kelly Barnes Dawkins.

"I had a rough time a few years back," says Dawkins, who has remarried. "It would have been easy for me to say okay I'm through. But I managed to put it together and come back again. I thank God for that. I don't know how many players could do that."

In Turin, a northern industrial city famous as the home of the Fiat auto giant, Dawkins is mobbed by fans almost wherever he goes. He has learned to survive without American fast-food and to adjust to Italy's slower pace of life.

"You start to learn that from 12 o'clock to 3 o'clock you're not going anywhere, you're not doing anything, so you might as well learn to take a nap for that part of the day."

On the court, to make up for the cultural and language differences, Dawkins has adopted new crowd-pleasing routines.

"I have to do some other things besides talk to thrill the crowd," he says. "Like if the ref makes a bad call, you can turn to the crowd and make a gesture."

Ipifim Coach Giuseppe Guerrieri says Dawkins has been a great surprise.

"I heard a lot of bad rumors about him before he arrived, that he was crazy, undisciplined, a troublemaker," Guerrieri says. "But he turned out to be a real gentleman. He practices hard. He has never been a second late for practice or the team bus."

The coach's only complaint is that Dawkins often doesn't get back down court to play defense.

"It's not my main priority to play defense -- at all," Dawkins admits. "I would rather shoot and dunk the ball."

Dawkins is often remembered in the NBA for his backboard-breaking dunks. Who can forget his self-described "Chocolate Thunder Flying, Robinzine Crying, Teeth Shaking, Glass Breaking, Rump Roasting, Bun Toasting, Wham, Bam, I Am Jam" of Nov. 13, 1979, against Kansas City?

Dawkins says Italian backboards are easy to break but that's he's "lightening up" on some dunks to avoid injury.

"But every now and then," he says, "a guy will be really on me and I'll have to jam one in his face to make him remember."

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