Darnell Hillman — Pacers Legend & Style Icon

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Earlier this week I got the incredible chance to talk with Darnell Hillman or — if you know anything about basketball — Dr. Dunk. It was amazing to listen to his life stories and rather nonchalant recount of going up against Julius Erving and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the same slam dunk contest and coming out on top.

We chatted about so much, from his days traveling with Olympic track stars, being drafted into the army, winning back to back ABA championships with the Pacers, the story behind the rise and fall of his award winning afro, and more. So let’s take a look back 51 years ago when a California native helped change the perception of sports in Indiana.

Hillman was born on August 29, 1949 in Los Angeles, and was raised in San Francisco. Now, you might think that someone with a resume boasting two ABA championships that basketball was his calling, but Hillman’s favorite sport growing up was actually football. Despite his rather impressive arm, he recalls…

 “As a youngster, I wasn’t really big, weight wise, but I was always tall and lean. And I love football. My dad was a football player. And an example is I threw the football 70 yards in the air in high school. But because of my height every time I went to a playground, the director at these playgrounds forced me into the gym. They’d say ‘If you’re gonna play on this playground, you got to go into the gym, and play for an hour every day…’ and that’s what eventually directed me toward basketball.”

But with his insane athletic ability and vertical, Hillman was on both the track and field and basketball team when he went to San Jose State. His talents even awarded him the chance to travel with the 1968 Olympic track and field team.

“I was on the San Jose State College track and field team. And on that team, we had three world class athletes from the 1968 Olympics, Tommy Smith, John Carlos and Lee Evans. You see ABC’s Wide World of Sports come on – and the two American athletes standing on the podium with their fisted gloves raised. Those are my teammates, Tommy Smith and John Carlos.

Unfortunately for Hillman though, his collegiate athletic endeavors were cut short with his drafting into the Army during his junior year. During his time in the military, Hillman played basketball on the United States World Championship team in Yugoslavia in 1970.

After serving his time in the army, Hillman remembers seeing American political activist Angela Davis’s afro. Hillman hated having his hair shaved, and wanted to sport an afro as well, in order to “…support and make a statement about, and keep true to his culture.”  And apparently Hillman is not wired to do anything halfway. Hillman was able to grow an impressive, award winning 13 ½ inch diameter afro. But, despite his hair not interfering with his record breaking shot blocking ability, he remembers his coach at the time having an issue with his locks.

“After I got it growing out, he called me in after practice one day and told me he wanted me to get a haircut. So I went to the barber and had the barber trim maybe a quarter of an inch off, came to practice the next day and he fined me $300 and he said, ‘I want you to get a haircut.’ So, I went back to the barber and had him cut it all off. And when I came into practice, Coach was a little annoyed. ‘What’d you do? Why’d you cut it all? I didn’t want you to cut it all off!’ And I looked at him and pointed my finger and said, ‘You know, I comb my hair seven to nine times a day. It’s well groomed. I keep it out of my face. You have guys on the foul line and can’t see the free throw line because their hair is so long. But you choose me, to make me get a haircut and it’s cost me $330. I’m not cutting my hair again. Period.’  And then I grew it back out. Gave my stamp.”

Now, you may have noticed that athletes have become these sort of fashion icons. It’s become popular to watch these athletes come into and leave the arena and look at what they’re wearing. “What’s Lebron Wearing? What’s Westbrook wearing?” I asked Hillman “Is that something new? Were basketball players always that stylish off the court? What do you think has changed”

According to Hillman, really nothing has changed. ABA stars knew about fashion too.

He recalls him and his fellow teammates sporting psychedelic print, bell bottoms, silk shirts, fur hats and coats, leather jackets, and maxi jackets. He remembers it being hard though to come across a maxi jacket given his 6’9 stature.

“Maxi jackets were real popular back then to the athletes. We could get ours specially made. It’d be tough to go in and find one off the rack. So you found a place you can make your Maxi and was fitted to you and it went to the top of your ankles. You’re making a statement, looking like Shaft.”

Whether or not Hillman admits that he was flashy with his fashion off the court, when it came to his dunks, he knew what it took to make a well executed and stylish affair. He was never concerned about the crowd when dunking though. He said he was always concerned about the look of the dunk as he was a bit of a “perfectionist” in that area. He wanted it to be something that not a lot of other people were doing at the time. And, funny enough, dunking wasn’t necessarily something that came to him naturally. Thanks to his high school teammate, Willie Wise, who also made it to the ABA a couple years prior to Hillman, he learned how to dunk – and by the time he was playing professionally, he was doing it better than anyone.

After the ABA merged with the NBA, there was the first ever NBA Slam Dunk competition. During the season-long affair, Hillman was able to beat the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving. Although he did not receive his trophy until five years ago (which was a whole fiasco), he stated…

“You know, it set a mark and a level for me, of course. Playing and competing against these guys out on the floor,  I jumped higher than them. But those guys were all favorites because of their scoring abilities and the names that they had. So in beating them, of course, that was very rewarding.”

I could tell from his tone that he had a smirk on his face as he recalled beating Abdul-Jabbar in Milwaukee — the city where Abdul-Jabbar’s team, the Bucks, were based — during an All-Star game dunking contest performing his “Rock the Cradle” dunk.

“…he had gained the crowd’s appreciation, so I had to get the crowd back and I had to have a dunk that was just gonna get them screaming and hollering so I started off with “rock the cradle” and beat him there and then went to the finals in Portland, against Larry McNeil.”

All of his stories were told with this nonchalant recollection that I found very entertaining. I guess, though, when you have a resume that impressive, it just becomes another “day in the life of.”

Apparently, Hillman also has a knack for motorsports. His father owned a chrome plating shop in San Francisco. He recalled memories of watching those chrome plated hot rods racing for “pink slips” and his fathers 32’ Ford T-Model Roadster. And it was just a couple of years ago that Hillman had a once in a lifetime experience that his 10 year old self would never believe.

“Oh, it was two years ago, we went out to the 500 during the qualifying week, and Bob Netolicky and I were taken out there by Scott [Tarter], and Scott set up for us to get to go around in the two seater. (…) I’ve always wanted to go 200 [mph] on the ground. (…) Once I’m getting out of the car, he’s getting out of the driver’s seat, and he takes his helmet off. And I’m like ‘Oh my God, it’s Mario Andretti!’ (…) I said to Mario, ‘You’re one of those that kind of like to break all the rules. And don’t follow directions out here…’ and he smiled and laughed. And he took me and Netolicky up to 197 miles an hour.”

The only downfall according to Hillman was that they were only 3 mph short of joining 200 miles an hour club, costing him the chance for a pretty exclusive ring.

My conversation ended with us talking about his legacy on the Pacers. He attributes a lot of that success to his fellow teammates.

“I personally  don’t make anything of it, myself. I think what really set that standard that you’re speaking of is the group of players that we had during that time. We were all committed to one thing – that was winning championships. And we understood that we had to do it together. It was not going to be one individual player, or one or two guys. It was always a team upset. And I think that set the standard for all the other sports that are around here had it not been for the Pacers’ success here during those early days.”

It wasn’t that long ago when Indy hosted the Final Four. Hillman remembers hearing from people about how much they loved and appreciated the “…convenience, hospitality…the Hoosier hospitality” and the incredibly, energetic and dedicated sports atmosphere here in Indiana.

We’re excited to have Darnell attending our third annual INDFW so we can show him our version of an all-star event. And while there may be a shortage of layups, the finale show will definitely be a slam dunk!

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