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March 11, 2019

Former Sixer Johnny Dawkins still at home in Philly

Former Sixers' star was guest at Fran Dunphy's final home game

Sixers College Basketball
0311_Johnny_Dawkins_Sixers_USAT Derik Hamilton /USA Today Sports

Johnny Dawkins, formerly a Sixers' star, is now the head coach at UCF.

Being the perfect guest, Johnny Dawkins knew it would’ve been downright rude to come into his old town and spoil Fran Dunphy’s Temple farewell party, even though his precocious son, Aubrey, apparently never got the memo.

So as much as he hated seeing his Central Florida team turn the ball over 18 times, while his 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall pulled off the nearly impossible trick of being invisible in Saturday’s 67-62 to Dunphy’s Owls, Dawkins was as gracious as ever.

After all, his fondness for Philadelphia goes back nearly three decades, back to when he was running the offense alongside Charles Barkley, Hersey Hawkins and Rick Mahorn for Jimmy Lynam’s Sixers.

“I always love to come back to Philly,” said Dawkins, whose 23-7 Knights had knocked off No. 8 Houston and No. 20 Cincinnati, before going down before a raucous Temple crowd which toasted Dunphy at every turn. “I have a lot of fond memories of being here. I loved this town. They treated me great. I always remember the fans and how passionate they were about sports. Whenever I land at this airport there’s always a big smile on my face.”

While it took awhile to get over the disappointment of the loss before he came out to address the media, the 55-year-old Dawkins said that was tempered because of his respect for Dunphy. 

“He’s probably one of the coaches in the game I’ve known the longest,” said Dawkins, who grew up in Washington , D.C. “ I knew him when he was an assistant at AU (American University) and I used to train up there.

“He always treated me great. After the game I wished him and his team well and congratulated him on the win.”

“He was playing at Mackin High and we tried to recruit him,” recalled Dunphy, following a win that may have punched his 23-8 team’s ticket to the NCAA Tournament. “He decided to go to Duke.”

That’s where a young Philadelphia guard first noticed him and became enamored of his play, never imagining they’d cross paths down the road. 

“I grew up watching Johnny when Duke was playing,” smiled Aaron McKie, the man who’ll be taking the reins from Dunphy after this season. “He was different because he was a left-handed basketball player and he was really good.

“I got the chance to watch him when he played here a little bit, but I just knew him from afar then. Eventually we got a chance to sit down and talk.”

While their NBA careers intersected only briefly in the mid-90s, Dawkins wrapping up an eight-year career in Detroit just about the same time McKie’s was getting underway in Portland, it’s a mutual admiration society. 

“Aaron’s always been a class guy,” said Dawkins, who was never the same after tearing his ACL his second season in Philadelphia, though he did return to play four more seasons. “He’s a winner. With Coach Dunphy retiring he’s a great successor. He’s going to do a great job.”

It’s a job McKie confesses he never envisioned. 

“I think about our lives and our careers and where we’ve come from,” said McKie, who prepped for this moment serving six years as a Sixers assistant, before joining Dunphy’s staff in 2014 “He’s a D.C. guy. I’m a Philly guy. I’m sure he never imagined being a coach, because I never imagined being a college basketball coach, let alone a coach period You think you’re just going to play basketball and that’s it.

“But it’s in your blood. It’s a great opportunity. Not only for us to run a program but to impact kids’ lives, as our lives were impacted.”

In Dawkins’ case, the life he’s most impacting is his son’s, which has turned out to be an even better experience than ever expected. 

“I talked to a few coaches — like Steve Alford  about that," said the 6-1 Dawkins, referring to coaching 6-foot-6 ½ Aubrey, who transferred from Michigan to UCF when his Dad got the job. “They said it would be an amazing experience, but I wasn’t sure because I never coached him before. He’s said ‘You’ll regret it if you don’t coach your son.’ I brought him with me and it’s been better than I could’ve ever imagined. Not just the coaching, but to also have that time back you lose when your son or daughter goes off to college

“As a parent I get that time back. There’s nothing like that.”

As a coach he’s working with a player who can shoot from distance, draining six three-pointers while scoring a career-high 36 points in this one. That was never Johnny’s forte, though, he was precision passer, averaging 5.5 assists over his career, reaching 6.9 assists or better five times.

“We’re two different players,” said the coach, who after serving as Mike Krzyzewski’s assistant at Duke for a decade went 156-115 in eight years at Stanford and is 66-34 in his three seasons at UCF “He’s a lot longer than I was, but we both had very good athleticism.

“He shoots the ball better I did. He has that added weapon. I could make shots, but not at that range.”

The player acquired in 1990 from San Antonio for fan favorite and future Hall of Famer Maurice Cheeks, who then helped lead those Sixers to the Atlantic Division title under Lynam, can also relate to his son on a different level. He knows what it’s like to play with a giant.

Among his Philadelphia teammates were 7-foot-7 Manute Bol and 7-foot-6 Shawn Bradley, giving him a better understanding of the 7-foot-6 Fall, a native of Senegal.  

“Big guys with that kind of size, they’re unique,” said Dawkins on a rare day when Fall was a non-factor due to foul trouble, scoring just two points with five rebounds and no blocked shots. “Having played with those guys I have a better perspective about who they are and ways to utilize them. That definitely benefits me coaching.”

Just as being tutored by men like Krzyzewski, Larry Brown (at San Antonio, where he spent his first three seasons) and Lynam steered him in that direction. 

“I’ve had some amazing coaches throughout my life,” said Dawkins, a career 11.1 scorer after being an All-American at Duke. “Those guys definitely influenced my decision and of course I love the game.

“The first time I put a ball in my hands I fell in love with it and I still feel the same way about it now. Having coaches like that only enhanced that.”

The coach then gathered his team following a disappointing loss to try to get them ready for the upcoming American Athletic Conference tournament, saying goodbye to a city filled with warm memories.

“We had a chance to win the Atlantic Division my first year here and hang a banner there,” said Dawkins, who keeps in regular touch with former teammates Barkley, Hawkins, Mahorn and Scott Brooks, as well as Lynam. “Memories last for a lifetime.

“That’s what it’s all about, leaving a legacy.”

He’s got nothing to worry about here, if anything enhancing it this day by playing the perfect guest in Fran Dunphy’s house. Johnny Dawkins Philadelphia legacy, marred by an injury that cut short what promised to be a brilliant NBA career, is secure.

Aubrey Dawkins, you've got a tough act to follow.

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