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Darryl Dawkins, The NBA's 'Chocolate Thunder,' Has Died

His power and talent tested the nuts and bolts of basketball — literally. Darryl Dawkins, who became famous for backboard-shattering dunks after he was the first NBA player to skip college altogether, has died at age 58.

Lehigh Carbon Community College, where Dawkins coached for two seasons, says:

"LCCC community is saddened by the passing of Philadelphia 76er legend and former LCCC basketball coach Darryl Dawkins. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Dawkins family."

From Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley Live:

"Dawkins, who had many ties to the Lehigh Valley, was pronounced dead at 11:19 a.m. Thursday at Lehigh Valley Hospital in Salisbury Township, the Lehigh County Coroner's Office said."

No cause of death has been determined; an autopsy is scheduled for Friday.

Nicknamed "Chocolate Thunder," Dawkins played 13 seasons in the NBA after being drafted out of high school by the Philadelphia 76ers in 1975. From the start of his pro career, Dawkins was capable of soaring above other players and arriving at the rim with unstoppable force.

At 6 feet, 11 inches and more than 250 pounds, he broke two glass backboards in one month during the 1979 season — prompting the NBA to adopt a new rule making it a finable offense to shatter a backboard.

A native of Orlando, Fla., Dawkins was part of the 76ers' playoff teams of the late 1970s and early 1980s, alongside Julius Erving and World B. Free. But he was traded to the New Jersey Nets after six seasons — and one year before Philadelphia broke through to win the NBA championship in 1983.

With his ferociously powerful play in the lane and a flair for outlandish outfits, creative nicknames ("Sir Slam," "Dr. Dunkenstein"), and wild theories ("I'm from Lovetron," he often said, claiming otherworldly status), Dawkins can in some ways be seen as an early version of Shaquille O'Neal. But unlike Shaq, Dawkins never claimed an NBA title.

A player who brought incredible raw power into the league as a teenager, Dawkins has been the subject of many stories among NBA players. In one anecdote, Bobby Jones told ESPN about the time he smelled smoke after a Dawkins dunk, when Jones played for the Denver Nuggets:

" 'This is the truth — I'm smelling smoke,' Jones says. 'I'm smelling something burning. The nets weren't on fire or anything, but as I looked up there, because of the friction his dunk had caused, I could see these tiny little silk strands sort of drifting through the air. I thought, "Boy, I'd like to have a guy like that watching my back." ' "

Dawkins was 20 at the time.

After his NBA career, Dawkins played several seasons in Italy before taking several coaching positions and serving as an ambassador for the NBA. From 2009-11, he was the head coach of the men's team at Lehigh Carbon Community College. Dawkins also gave his time to charity and community efforts, including the Autism Speaks campaign and the Special Olympics.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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