"Don't watch the popcorn; you just might miss something." -- Magic Johnson Johnny Dawkins also warns his audience to stay alert, just in case his only way to score happens to be juking by a couple of Carolina guards and swishing a jumper off Brad Daugherty's left ear lobe. Or perhaps he'll actually scrape his head on the rafters of some gym roof during a lob scene that makes you bless the invention of slo-mo replay.

Washington's latest glittering basketball star would like to leave each game victorious and each crowd in awe. Like Elgin Baylor, the hometown hero who devised basketball body language before Dawkins was born, he sometimes gets bored with the traditional ways of sailing a ball toward a hoop.

Usually, strangers are most dazzled that a wisp no taller and no wider than a stalk of sweet corn in the back yard is so comfortable among giants. Those most familiar with Duke's candidate for college player of the year shake their memories instead of their heads.

Haven't we seen that before?


At Sligo, maybe. Or Takoma Park. Or one of the dozens of other playgrounds on which Dawkins showed college-level skills long before he even thought of college. If you think a 7-foot ACC center is embarrassed after the 6-2 Dawkins has burned him on a lob from Tommy Amaker, think about the 30-year-old playground hotshot who got the same treatment when Dawkins was 15.

"When I was 11 and 12," Dawkins said the other day in the Duke basketball office, "I was playing against men 20 to 30 years old. I grew up going against players taller and better than I was. And they didn't give their respect easily. It was tough for them to see a little kid scoring and rebounding on them.

"I know they had to be thinking: 'You can't stop a little kid!' It made them more intense. I'd get shouldered and elbowed. I'd go up for lobs and end up out of bounds. Or on grass or dirt or asphalt. I'd find myself floating . . . floating . . . down."

Watching on television, Dawkins also was horrified at the ugly crash David Thompson took while leaping for a lob during North Carolina State's march to the NCAA title in 1974. His own experience at being not so gently nudged by frustrated rivals taught Dawkins not to try to break the fall with his hands.

Other valuable bones could be broken.

"You're better off riding it out," he discovered. "Trying to relax while tumbling head over sneakers from eight or so feet ."

Persistence is what got Dawkins such an early basketball education. Each time his father took to the playground, Johnny tagged along. The elder Dawkins found it distracting to have to pay attention to little Johnny, somewhere off in the distance, as well as to an opponent near his hip on the court.

So he would sneak off to his games while Johnny still was in bed.

Until . . .

"I'd get up long before he did. I'd put my clothes on and then, half asleep, I'd lay in front of the door. That way he'd have to step over me, almost hit me with the door, to get out of the house. That's when he realized how serious I was about basketball. He'd take me along again, and let me play."

Competitors for conference and national honors as well as contemporaries locally, Dawkins and Maryland's Len Bias never played against each other until college. Although he also attended Terrapins Coach Lefty Driesell's basketball camp, Dawkins chose the college for whom he could play most quickly: Duke.

Dawkins rose higher earlier than the Blue Devils, making most of the all-freshman teams after an 11-17 season. He leaves Duke as the only player in ACC history who has scored more than 2,000 points, grabbed more than 500 rebounds and accumulated more than 500 assists; at 29-2, his team is ranked No. 1 in the country.

Duke beat two other classy teams, St. John's and Kansas, in the preseason NIT and avenged both its losses, to Georgia Tech and North Carolina. It won the ACC regular-season championship, over Carolina, in his final appearance at home. Dawkins may be the only player in Duke history capable of being as creative on the court as the students are in the stands.

Slipping past a Steve Hale and double-clutching for a basket while a Joe Wolf lunges toward him comes rather easily, Dawkins having practiced such tricks for so long. Basketball courts are laboratories for the most dedicated players. Every now and then, Dawkins finds himself needing to invent a new scoring move -- and not in playground privacy but in the palm-dripping moments of an ACC tournament.


Such a time came during Duke's loss to Maryland two years ago in the ACC finals.

"It was a 360," Dawkins recalled. "First time I'd ever tried one. Adrian Branch who is 6-8 had bothered my shot one time down court. I'd missed, and gotten bothered. I knew I'd have to trick him next time. So, in the air, I showed him the ball and things got started."

What happened next defies belief for landlubbers. Also off the ground, Branch lunged for the ball, but Dawkins kept it from him. Like a record on a one-cycle turntable, Dawkins pulled the ball from Branch and twisted his body completely around.

"I laid it in," Dawkins says, as proudly as any scientist who has acted brilliantly under pressure. "I just laughed to myself on the way back up court . Wow! I couldn't believe I'd made it. I remember smiling. Briefly."

Of the thousands he has made at Duke over four years, that's the play Dawkins remembers most vividly. As you tell your public, Johnny, keep a keen eye peeled. Something even more heavenly might pop up.