NEW YORK -- The requests, in staccato bursts, escalated in intensity and volume.
"Take your weak s--- home. This ain't no Scarsdale YMCA."
"Shut the f--- up, you Steve Harvey-looking m-----f-----."
"That's right. Keep talking. Unless you like them fake teeth."
"Both of you shut the f--- up and play."
"All y'all shut the f--- up."
It was, in other words, the typical afternoon soundtrack at the basketball courts on West Fourth Street in Greenwich Village. For all the $10 million brownstones and precious teahouses and farm-to-table restaurants within a long jumper of the court, "The Cage" remains an essential streetball outpost. The best ballers in the area not under NBA contract -- and sometimes a few who are -- still converge here for pickup games on this slanted court with mercilessly tight rims and fencing for sidelines. They still grimace at the occasional miscast handball that interrupts the games to 12. They still allow a "volunteer parks commissioner" to try to hustle a $10 permit from the gawking tourists. They still think that, deep down, it's only through a miscarriage of justice that they are not in the pros.
On this Wednesday last month, the passenger manifest includes former Lakers guard Smush Parker, best known, sadly, as Kobe Bryant's personal piñata. While mulling his next move after playing in Croatia and Greece last season, Parker figured he'd "get some decent run" and came from his apartment in New Jersey. (Parker joined the American Basketball Association's Jersey Express last week.) His braids shrouded in a piratical head scarf, he pulled up for deep jumpers that flitted gently through the net, threw two perfect, whistle-inducing no-look passes, picked the pocket of the opposing point guard and generally reminded the crowd that, despite its boundless self-confidence, there remains a long staircase separating elite streetballers from elite basketball players.
But late in Parker's second game, he was eclipsed as King of The Cage when a player on the opposing team cut to the basket and caught the ball at the free-throw line. To this point Chris Staples had played unremarkably. He had made a few jumpers and missed a few others. He had thrown a sloppy pass that ticked off the fingers of Steve Harvey-looking m-----f----- and hit the fence, out of bounds. He had taken a possession off from defense, bending over and wiping sweat from his brow with his BALLER FOR LIFE T-shirt while his man scored. This did not endear him to his teammates.
Physically, he didn't distinguish himself either. Staples, 26, stands 6-foot-2 and has a lithe, athletic build, but that's standard issue at The Cage. (Perhaps you heard? This ain't no Scarsdale YMCA.) His ensemble of T-shirt, shorts and red high-tops was de rigueur, too. In terms of trash talk, Staples got worse than he gave.
But now as he caught the ball, he resembled a commuter who'd been stuck in traffic but suddenly had an open lane. Free of the congestion, he accelerated and, after one dribble, began to take off. Curling his tongue not unlike the Rolling Stones logo, he quickly achieved cruising altitude. He transferred the ball from one hand to the other and then back again, torquing his body. He rotated 360 degrees and, still treading on air, deposited the ball in the basket with such violent force that the fixture shook.
Those crusty basketball purists lament that the dunk is "worth only two points," but in this case, it wasn't even worth that, as the games go by "ones." Still, the rarest of sounds momentarily descended on The Cage.
Mouths formed "O's." The dozens of players on the sidelines waiting for the next game exchanged looks, as if seeking confirmation that what they had just seen had really happened. This wouldn't be replayed on the Jumbotron. There would be no GIF to access by game's end. But this unassuming outsider no one could recall seeing before at The Cage had just enlivened a pickup game with a sick 360 dunk. The interval of silence was a quick one. The responses varied. "Holy s---" was in heavy rotation.
Staples' cover was now blown. There would be no postgame bets, no hustling for money, the way there often is at the gym. Still, it was worth it. Staples had flown in from Atlanta to play at one of the seminal streetball venues. And he awed the crowd. In one move, Staples showed how it's all possible. How, despite never having played in college, he can rightfully call himself a professional basketball player. How he can make a six-figure income barnstorming the world. How he can do it by mastering just one shot.
"People ask me what I do," he says. "I tell them the truth: I dunk for a living."
Throw "Chris Staples" into a search engine and, unless you're looking for the frontman for Discover America, you don't get much. Genial and outgoing, Staples is a delightful guy, but never did much to pierce the public consciousness. In a clan lousy with athletes -- his first cousin is Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley -- he barely qualified as a jock in his own family.
"Athletically," he says, "I was definitely a late bloomer. These guys who talk about dunking in seventh grade or whatever? That wasn't me. I think I was 16."
Blessed with a soft set of hands and what he modestly calls "decent speed and jumping ability," he played high school football in Michigan. As a wide receiver, he went to Wayne State in Detroit and then transferred to Eastern Michigan in Ypsilanti.
"I liked football," he says, "but I didn't love it."
He was playing basketball at the campus rec center when a friend asked if could throw down a reverse dunk. Aided by a vertical leap later measured at 44 inches, he pulled that off, no problem.
What about a windmill? That's even easier.
Take off from the free-throw line? Yup.
By the end of the session, Staples had performed a battery of dunks usually reserved for those peppy guys on trampolines, tasked with "energizing" crowds during the timeouts of NBA games. Football seemed even less fun after that. It was Julius Erving who once said, "When you feel yourself go up above the rim for the first time and put the ball through, there's nothing like it. You want to do it again and again and again." Staples can relate.
Staples turned his attention to basketball and, on the basis of his athleticism, he earned tryouts for professional teams in the United States and Europe but never played competitively at a high level. While Staples has the basketball skills of a decent Division II player, he has the good fortune of living in an age yet to lose its fascination with the dunk.
Even the casual hoops fan has seen thousands of dunks from every coordinate plane on the court. We've seen dunks with props, dunks by mascots, dunks by women, dunks that have destroyed the backboard, dunks that have destroyed a man's spirit. The lineage of great dunkers has spanned nearly a half-century now, from Earl "The Goat" Manigault to David Thompson to Dr. J. to Dominique Wilkins to Michael Jordan to Vince Carter to Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, to Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. And yet there remains something almost inexpressibly magical about dunking. It is immune to the law of diminishing returns.
So much so that it has spawned its own micro-economy. There are dunk tours and dunk contests and outdoor dunk events, sponsored by companies like Sprite and Red Bull. Dunkers are hired out as entertainers at parties. And1, of course, puts so much value in the appeal of the dunk that in the past it has devoted its marketing budget not to NBA endorser/players but to Hotsauce, The Professor, High Rizer and the other dunkers and ball-handling wizards who headlined the company's various streetball tours.
Brandon Lacue, d/b/a Werm, for instance, was a marginal high school player in Florida who made a roster in a small Mexican league. But at 6-3 and endowed with the equivalent of Flubber, he became something of a cult hero as a dunker. He signed with And1 in 2009 and makes more than many professional players. In September, he performed at an event in Chicago to celebrate Derrick Rose's new shoe launch. Which would seem akin to, say, John Mayer's hiring other singers to commemorate his album launch. But then again, even if his doctor OK'd it, Rose can't do this:
In the case of Staples, he had a buddy videotape some of his dunks and sent around some links. Word spread through the dunking underground. Based on a video, Staples was chosen to be a member of Team Sudden, coached by James during the Sprite Uncontainable Game, held during All-Star weekend in Houston last February.
"Did I ever think I would be able to say that LeBron James was once my coach?" Staples says, anticipating the question. "No, I did not."
Last summer, Staples won $2,500 at a dunk contest in Charlotte, throwing down jams like this. More significant, he qualified for a contest during the 2014 All-Star weekend in New Orleans, where he stands to make $10,000. While most contests are winner-take-all, competitors often agree in advance to split the loot.
For all the cash dunkers can make at sanctioned events, the real money is made informally. Twenty years after Billy Hoyle, dunkers like Werm and Staples have become the modern-day equivalent of pool sharks. The thermodynamics of the basketball hustle go something like this: You play modestly -- sandbagging, the golf crowd would call it -- giving no indication of your hops. In between games you make a modest offer. Anyone think I can dunk without taking a running start? Pocket a few bucks. Play another game. Then offer a more elaborate wager. Who thinks I can dunk taking off from the free-throw line? Last year in Michigan, Staples made an easy $400 by throwing down four straight between-the-legs 360s.
Apart from the betting, dunking still has sufficient cachet that, as Werm put it, "Rich dudes will pay you to dunk." He claims that while recently at an event in China, he made an extra $20,000 performing on demand for some well-heeled courtside observers. ("The promoters pay us per dunk!") Where else has he made money dunking? "Africa, Turks and Caicos, China, Brazil, Indonesia," he says. "I get paid for my legs, all over the world."
Oh, and there was the trip to the Middle East when the son of an oil magnate compensated him handsomely for successfully dunking after jumping over the guy's Lamborghini. If the car dunk sounds familiar, you're likely recalling the famous Griffin throwdown over a Kia, with an assist from Baron Davis, during the 2011 NBA dunk contest. This is a sore topic among the professional dunkers.
"I like the NBA, but those dunks are no big deal to me," Staples says. "It's funny when they're holding up the 10s and cheering -- Wow! That's great! That's amazing! -- and I'm like, Meh."
If he entered the NBA contest?
"I win it, hands down," he says. "Easy. I don't think anyone in the NBA can do some of the dunks I can do."
Adds Werm: "You hear about [an NBA] guy who dunked over someone else? Right now, I'm working on a dunk where I jump over 10 people. ... The highest jumpers in the world are streetball dunkers."
With a few swipes on his phone, Staples calls up a series of his dunk videos. And he's right. Any of them would shame, say, Terrence Ross, the Raptors' guard who won the most recent dunk contest. As long as we're here, it's worth noting the role of YouTube. The same way the Internet has been devastating to pool hustlers, who once relied on stealth maneuvers, technology has made dunking anonymity difficult.
"I can't tell you how many times I'll dunk at a gym and see guys running off to grab their phones trying to find out [who I am]," Staples says.
On the other hand, Dunking Inc. is almost singularly well-suited to digital technology. If you're And1, for instance, you're not simply paying guys like Werm to take part in your Mix Tape Tours. You're paying them for the millions of downloads, views, shares, likes and retweets. It's also YouTube that has enabled dunkers to traffic internationally.
"I'm not saying I'm famous famous," Werm says, "but, yeah, I get recognized all the time. It's Werm! I seen you on YouTube!" (Sure enough, while Staples went undetected at the West Fourth Street court, the regulars immediately identified Werm.)
Like most dunkers, Werm is affronted by the suggestion that he's a one-trick pony, even if that pony is Pegasus. Dunking, he asserts, is just part of his basketball repertoire. Based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., he says he occasionally works out with the Miami Heat at their practice facility. It's easy to see how the thinking can be seductive. I can jump out of the gym. I can finish the fast break. I can hold my own on defense. I can hit an open J. Maybe ...
"In my eyes, I'm a 10," he says. "I can compete with the best. They're more fundamental, but I can play the same level. I just didn't get the recognition in college."
Staples is a bit more, well, grounded.
"People say, Why aren't you in the NBA? Well, playing in the NBA, that's one job in basketball. And I have another job in basketball," Staples says. "They're both great. I'm doing what I love and I make people happy. And, I mean, it's not like I'm struggling. The way I look at it: I'm a normal guy. It's just that I'm blessed with being able to fly. For a little bit, anyway."