The year was 1984.
The protocol for patient visitation at the University of Medicine and Dentistry (UMDNJ) in Newark was to register and wait for visitor’s pass. Traditional accompaniments during a visitation could include reading materials, flowers, candy or some other delicate dainty. However, on this particular visit the request was for 20 pieces of Popeyes Fried Chicken, biscuits, mashed potatoes, rice and more. This request might not seem out of the norm for a group – except it was for one patient.
The patient was 6’11″ New Jersey Nets center Darryl Dawkins.
I arrived with this contraband. Dawkins sat up in his hospital bed after recovering from surgery and his smile gleaned from ear to ear. Like an animal eyeing its prey, he smacked his lips together and licked his fingers. He was content. Once finished, his enlarged hand tapped my 165-pound frame and said, “Thanks, my friend.” Just then, two nurses arrived like homicide detectives seething to solve a crime. They asked what that smell was. Dawkins projected that Cheshire Cat smile and queried, “What smell?” A friendship was cemented.
Dawkins and I first met at a Lakers-Nets game on Dec. 5, 1984. We discussed his career and new product called “Chocolate Thunder.” It was an energy drink that also came in tablet form. I invited Dawkins to appear on a show called the Extra Point. With a logo patterned after the now-defunct United States Football League (USFL) and a Chocolate Thunder Poster in the background, we discussed everything from “Double D’s” early playing days to having been named in a rap song by Kurtis Blow with the lyrics “….Bill Russell didn’t take no junk and Darryl Dawkins got a monster dunk!…” The taste test rounded out the interview.
“Sir Slam” later asked me to work for a company where I constructed product displays and organized personal appearances. For a 19-year-old, having a cable show and working for an NBA celebrity while in college was great. During that time my relationship with Dawkins flourished. I attended games and shared dinner with him at his Harmon Cove condominium in Secaucus.
When the Irvington basketball team won the state title in 1993, we needed a keynote speaker at the ring ceremony. As a school board member, I called my friend Darryl. Letters were exchanged from New Jersey to Apartment 12 on Lucrezia-Vinci in Forli, Italy, where he resided because he was playing oversees. He accepted the invitation. The man from “planet Lovetron” spoke to the athletes and stayed for the entire event. He made the youth feel special and treated all around him with kindness. He was a true ambassador.
Dawkins passed away on Aug. 27, 2015. He was one of the most down-to-earth people I called a friend, not just an acquaintance. He was blessed not only with athletic prowess, but a giving spirit and passion for life. Who would have thought my memories would have started with a hospital visit and Popeyes fried chicken?
My friend will be missed, but the lessons about resilience and passion for life will be carried on for years to come.
Editor’s Note: Perry Schwarz, who is in his 25th year of teaching at Seton Hall, contributed this piece. He is an adjunct professor in the College of Communication and the Arts, teaching Oral Communication and Oral Rhetoric. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @perry_schwarz.