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First look at Darryl Dawkins remains firmly etched in memory

I remember being at the old Chicago Stadium to watch the Bulls in the 1976-77 season.

I was courtside when the warmup lines for the players started. The Bulls were playing the 76ers, who featured serious dunkers such as Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Joe ‘‘Jellybean’’ Bryant (Kobe’s dad) and Harvey Catchings.

But there was this huge guy I never had seen before, barely had heard of. I remember that the net almost tore apart and that there was lint floating in the smoky air when he dunked.

It was second-year man Darryl Dawkins, of course, and he was just about to turn 20.

He had been, just before Bill Willoughby, the first player drafted straight out of high school and allowed to play immediately in the NBA. Moses Malone also was drafted out of high school, but he played two seasons in the ABA before coming to the NBA.

In time, the trend-setting Dawkins, who was selected fifth overall by the 76ers in 1975, would be followed by college-skipping stars-to-be Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Amar’e Stoudemire and LeBron James.

Of course, he also would be followed by duds such as Leon Smith, Kwame Brown, Eddy Curry and Robert Swift. The transition to the bigs from the littles is a treacherous one, and the NBA stopped taking high schoolers in 2005, demanding the kids get at least one more year of seasoning — or merely life — before joining the pros.

There’s no question Dawkins himself, a 6-11 man-child, could have used more (and better) coaching before entering the league. His defense was middling, and his offense consisted pretty much of rebounds, back-downs and dunks.

He shattered backboards and ruined nets with his humorously- named monster dunks, but he started only 232 games in his 14-year career.

His career shooting percentage was an amazing .572 because it’s hard to miss from two feet. He was called ‘‘Chocolate Thunder,’’ a nickname he embraced and one he said Stevie Wonder, a blind man, gave him.

The reason I knew so little about him before that game in December 1976 was because almost nobody saw him play in high school and because he had totaled 90 points and 49 rebounds as a rookie in 1975-76.

As gigantic and athletic as Dawkins was, he wasn’t the player on the 76ers anybody came to watch. That was ‘‘Dr. J’’ — Erving — who had come over from the ABA and had an Afro and gravity-defying game that were from another planet.

It was saddening to learn that Dawkins died Thursday of an apparent heart attack in Allentown, Pennsylvania, at just 58. To some us old-timers, he seemed eternally young.

He could be funny and goofy — wasn’t he from the planet Lovetron? — but, man, he could be a violent force to deal with, too. In Game 2 of the 1977 NBA Finals, with 76ers playing the Trail Blazers at the Spectrum, Dawkins squared off with Blazers enforcer Maurice Lucas in what looked like a heavyweight battle-to-the-end. That ruckus was potentially so dangerous that simply to see it was to know fighting in the NBA couldn’t go on.

Indeed, Dawkins threw a sucker-punch left hook at the Blazers’ Bob Gross and accidentally hit one of his own teammates, Doug Collins, causing a cut under Collins’ eye that would needed four stitches to close.

Astoundingly, Lucas and Dawkins were fined a mere $2,500 for their fight, and no suspensions were handed out. They both played in the next game and in all six of the Finals games, with the Blazers winning the title 4-2.

If that same bench-clearing — coaches included — nationally televised brawl occurred today, there might be whole seasons lost and fines heavy enough to fill a Brinks truck or two.

I’m not sure if Dawkins even played in the  game I watched almost 40 years ago at the Stadium. But I do know that he dunked viciously in warmups and that I was astounded.

He looked out at the crowd after each massive hammer with an expression that said, ‘‘Here I am.’’

And that’s something, for sure.

Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.

Email: rtelander@suntimes.com