SCHNECKSVILLE, Pa. - Darryl Dawkins excuses himself from the conversation and accepts the glowing cell phone from an approaching player.

"It's Muhammad," the player says. "He called to say him and Tommy broke down and they might not make it on time."

It's Friday afternoon, 20 minutes before Lehigh Carbon Community College officially starts practice. Every other player is accounted for, except Muhammad, the backup center, and Tommy, a two-guard gunner.

To summarize, said the emissary: Muhammad is with Tommy because Muhammad had to pick up Tommy from the hospital, where Tommy spent the previous night, missing a game, because he contracted an infection after attending an indoor water park. Muhammad took Tommy's car, which had a hole in the radiator, which Tommy was supposed to have fixed except Tommy got this infection, see, and had to go to the hospital . . .

Dawkins holds up his hand and puts the phone to his ear. It's not Muhammad.

"Tommy? Uh-huh. Yeah? Muhammad with you? All right. You guys get a ride. Get here as soon as you can."

He hands the phone back and sighs.

"I've heard every excuse," Dawkins says. "That's coaching."

This is his coaching, his tortuous road to the top. Dawkins and his Cougars (12-9) visit the Community College of Philadelphia tonight at 8 o'clock.

But really, what is Dawkins doing here, 10 minutes north of Allentown? Why did he answer an Internet ad this summer to deal with nonscholarship gym rats?

It isn't the small-time money, which, he says, he doesn't need.

Chocolate Thunder wants to coach in The League.

"Eventually, I want to get to the NBA," Dawkins says. "I want to be on somebody's bench. I know I can help the big guys. I have a lot of basketball knowledge."

He wants to be an assistant in charge of big men . . . in the league where he rhymed and rapped and quipped and quoted himself into a caricature of a big man, a poster child for promise unfulfilled, a walking argument against allowing high schoolers direct access to the NBA after the Sixers made him the fifth overall pick in 1975.

"People always remember me as 'Chocolate Thunder,' the entertainer," Dawkins says. "No one forced that on me. I brought that on myself. I always understood the value of marketing. I always was me; I didn't dance to anybody else's tune."

Now, he's having trouble finding a dance partner.

"It could hurt you in the NBA," Dawkins says. "They want the right image."

It might happen, one day. Dawkins is 53, and he has coached, without terrible distinction, in semipro and minor leagues - the Newark Express in the ABA; the Winnepeg Cyclone, of the International Basketball League; the Pennsylvania ValleyDawgs, of the USBL, based in Allentown.

But he has coached, and he is coaching. If he develops a few talented underachievers - a player like hefty Carlos Pujols, his lightfooted, quick-handed center at LCCC - maybe word gets around to the right people.

"Anything is possible," says Sixers general manager Ed Stefanski, whose connections with the Sixers and Nets - Dawkins' primary NBA teams - give him a thorough perspective on the matter. "This is a sign that Darryl is putting in the time and the effort to coach. At least, I can't see any way this could hurt him."

Stefanski stresses that seldom do GMs make assistant-coaching hires. That usually is done by head coaches, who choose their lieutenants as carefully as politicians choose advisers. After 14 years in the NBA, Dawkins has plenty of connections. He is trying to convince them that "Planet Lovetron is closed for repairs - maybe permanently," and that "I grew up."

But, for now, he deals with Tommy and Muhammad and the allegedly faulty radiator.

Lehigh Carbon sits off Route 309, between the Schnecksville Diner and the Trexler Nature Preserve. Its 7,000 students greatly outnumber the locals, who number about 2,000, less than 1 percent African-American. Dawkins lives in nearby Whitehall, his base from which he coached the ValleyDawgs.

On Thursday night, in front of about 50 fans - mainly parents and friends of the players - Dawkins' hodgepodge squad outhustled an undersized Central Penn team to earn its fifth straight win.

ESPN recently featured Dawkins' odd job, and, obligingly, Dawkins donned a loud, busy suit. Thursday, with no cameras rolling, he wore an LCCC golf shirt and slacks.

His team played without Angel Vargas, perhaps its best player, because Vargas was deemed academically ineligible after the first semester, Dawkins said.

His team played with Orlando Santiago, a 21-year-old freshman who put his carpet-cleaning business on hold, along with his part-time job at Ross Dress For Less, to get a degree. He's a 5-7 fireplug on skates, and he heard that the basketball team was holding tryouts.

In January.

That's right: Dawkins held tryouts in January.

"Needed a backup point guard," Dawkins says.

Santiago, 3 weeks into his college career, played about 20 minutes Thursday, in place of or alongside Jake Weylon, a Steve Nash wannabe and a 1,000-point scorer who torched the unsuspecting Silver Knights.

For that matter, all 11 players played Thursday. All played real minutes except for the 11th man, whom Dawkins started (briefly) in the second half.

"Guys that come to practice and work every day deserve a chance to play," Dawkins says. "Parents and grandparents who come to games say, 'When's Joey going to play? When's Billy going to play?' Everybody deserves a chance."

This is a family affair for Double D. His current wife, 31-year-old Janice, a Lehigh Valley native, directs the water-cup dispensing during timeouts that are handled by Nick, 7, and Alexis, 6, their children together. Tabitha, Dawkins' 14-year-old stepdaughter, is there, too. All are at practice the next day.

"We are a very close family," Janice says.

There are no secrets. From anyone.

Dawkins practices with the gym doors open. He coached his pros and semipros to win, threatening their paychecks; his main objective here, he said, is to keep these guys in school. He'll holler, and chastise, and make them run, but he is nothing like the taskmaster most coaches can be . . . unless he's pushed.

Against Central Penn, the Cougars had more floorburns than field goals in the first half.

The previous game, there was too little hustle for Dawkins' liking. The next day's practice was a trash-can affair. Trash cans were posted around the gym, so when players threw up, they would have a receptacle handy.

There were no hard feelings.

"They're grateful to have somebody who's been around and done things," Dawkins says.

His theory:

"If you give me a minister who knew from the time he was 11 years old he was going to be a minister - never had a drink, never had a girlfriend, never did anything wrong - that's fine. He knew he was going to be a minister.

"But the minister for me is the minister who had a couple of ups and downs, who might have jumped at somebody, might have had a drink. 'Cause we all ain't what we started out as. That's the minister for me."

That's the pitch Dawkins will take to the playground and summer leagues this offseason, his first recruiting of the Lehigh Valley's top high school talent.

That's the coach for Angel, who has taken 20 credits this semester, plans to attend summer school and hopes to be eligible for next season.

And that's the coach for Muhammad and Tommy.

Practice is 20 minutes from being over when Muhammad and Tommy pull up in the parking lot in a borrowed car. They leisurely stroll toward the gym. Janice, leaving with her kids, calls across the parking lot to Muhammad, "You'd better start running!"

He does.