By Shawn Fury
When Darryl Dawkins died in late August at the age of 58, basketball lost its most beloved and most quotable backboard vandal. Dawkins famously took down two glass boards in 1979, one in November against Kansas City and another in December against San Antonio. But the man known as Chocolate Thunder wasn't the first destroyer of that vital piece of basketball equipment.
In the NBA, the pioneer of glass destruction was a forgettable player from the early years of the league named Chuck Connors, who earned fame once he quit basketball, dedicated his career to acting, picked up a gun and became the star of "The Rifleman." The 6-foot-5, left-handed Connors played two years with the Boston Celtics in the old Basketball Association of America, one of two leagues that eventually became the NBA. Against Chicago on November 5, 1946, at Boston Arena, a Connors set shot in warmups went off the rim and the glass backboard shattered. According to a 1992 Associated Press story about the incident, "A worker had forgotten to install a piece of rubber between the rim and the glass." Based on Connors's basket-damaging career field-goal percentage of 25 percent -- a subpar number common for that era -- it's not certain the forgetful worker was truly at fault for the mishap.
Two decades later, a pair of explosive players -- Gus Johnson and Spencer Haywood -- took their turns at wrecking backboards. Stunned reporters couldn't find the proper words to describe the deeds. In December 1963, the 6-foot-6 Johnson, perhaps the greatest dunker of the decade, broke a backboard while playing for Baltimore against San Francisco. But in the AP story about that game, Johnson "slammed a jump shot so hard Tuesday night that the basket's glass backboard broke, holding up the Bullets' game against the San Francisco Warriors." Unable to find a replacement at Oakland Auditorium, the game continued when workers "rigged up a brace behind the huge crack in the backboard."
Johnson duplicated the feat in 1965 against St. Louis, and Hawks owner Ben Kerner congratulated him by sticking him with a bill for $1,500. Johnson didn't pay. Finally, in 1971, Johnson ruined another backboard on a breakaway dunk against the Milwaukee Bucks. Milwaukee Journal columnist Bob Wolf wrote in 1978, "And Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) of the Bucks was so impressed by it that he jumped onto his chair, raised his arms and yelled his approval." The dunk came in the fourth quarter of a game Johnson's Bullets lost 151-99. Fans forgot the scoreboard obliteration a day later as memories of Johnson's calamity lived on. When Wolf -- who wrote that the dunk "may have been the most exciting happening in the 27-year history of the Milwaukee Arena" -- asked the former Bullet about the event seven years later, Johnson told him, "When it happened, I started wondering to myself, 'Am I that powerful?' I was so high above the cylinder that it seemed like the floor was a million miles away."
Haywood couldn't match Johnson's record of three shattered backboards, but the enigmatic star also broke a board with a "jump shot," at least according to one confusing report. A month after winning Olympic gold, Haywood, a junior college transfer, made his NCAA debut on Nov. 30, 1968. The New York Times published a UPI story that noted, "Spencer Haywood, United States Olympic basketball star, opened his collegiate career tonight, sinking 36 points as the University of Detroit crushed Aquinas, 105-40, in a game terminated with 6:31 to play when the 6-foot-8-inch star shattered the basket and the backboard with a driving jump shot." Haywood clarified for William F. Reed of Sports Illustrated, saying he dunked because "I was looking down through the basket and I saw this guy waiting to submarine me. So I said to myself, 'Well,' and I grabbed the rim. It was an old backboard, anyway." Perhaps UPI didn't want to snitch on Haywood -- dunking was illegal in the NCAA, so that could have led to the "driving jump shot" description.
Not surprisingly, the early days of the renegade ABA produced one -- actually, two -- of the great moments in the history of exploding backboards. Pittsburgh's Charlie Hentz became the rare player to dismantle a pair of backboards in the same game. He did it in November 1970 against Carolina, once in the second quarter and again in the fourth. Discrepancies exist about what happened after the second dunk. In Terry Pluto's Loose Balls, a classic oral history of the ABA, former referee John Vanak remembered the game continuing and finishing, "probably about 3 a.m." But reports from the time of the game refute that account. The AP noted how Hentz broke the first one with a dunk, and a wooden backboard replaced the original that exploded into "thousands of pieces of glass." And then, "With 67 seconds remaining in the game, he tried the same stunt at the other end of the court -- with the same result. The two teams figured that was enough and agreed to end the game at that point," with Carolina in the lead, 122-107.
Not even Dawkins took down two boards in one game. But his reputation as the King of Carnage lives on. Dawkins's two backboard annihilations maintain a special spot in that odd corner of basketball history, perhaps above later examples like Jerome Lane's "Send it in, Jerome" slam for the University of Pittsburgh in 1988.
It seemed like the basketball gods put Dawkins on a court to do exactly what he did in 1979. At the end of Wolf's 1978 column, he asked Johnson to predict the next player to bring down a backboard. Dawkins, Johnson replied. "If anybody can do it, he can. But I told him, 'When you tear a rim down, then you can call yourself Dr. Dunk or whatever.'"
The videos of his dunks also played a role in how we remember Dawkins. We saw clips of Dawkins' opponents cowering and fans reacting with shocked and delightful expressions, the type of film that didn't exist for Johnson or Haywood or Hentz.
But most of all, credit Dawkins's imagination and vocabulary for his lasting impact on the world of shattered glass. Dawkins knew the power of the dunk, but also of words. And he knew when a player pulled down a rim and sent glass flying onto the floor and into the faces of friends and foes alike, it deserved to be remembered as the "Chocolate-Thunder-Flying, Robinzine-Crying, Teeth-Shaking, Glass-Breaking, Rump-Roasting, Bun-Toasting, Wham-Bam, Glass-Breaker-I-Am-Jam" -- and not as a "driving jump shot."
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Shawn Fury is a writer in New York City and the author of Rise and Fire: The Origins, Science and Evolution of the Jump Shot -- And How It Transformed Basketball Forever, available in February 2016 from Flatiron Books.