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Spud Webb and the Year of the Dunk

Asher Price looks back at Spud Webb's iconic performance in The Year of the Dunk: A Modest Defiance of Gravity (Random House, 2015). 

This February’s NBA All-Star Weekend marks the 30th anniversary of the 1986 NBA Dunk Contest, a David-and-Goliath affair that made Spud Webb arguably the greatest pound-for-pound dunker of all time. In this excerpt from his "The Year of the Dunk: A Modest Defiance of Gravity (Random House, 2015)," Asher Price looks back at an iconic moment of not just the NBA, but also the ‘80s:

Nineteen eighty-six: a fun-sized Superman with close-shaven hair, dimples, and an adorable potato-chip of a name floats in his short shorts toward a basket.

It is the finals of the NBA Slam Dunk contest at Reunion Arena in Dallas. Before a crackling Saturday night sellout crowd of 16,573, in midair, is Spud, the unlikely corruption of the nickname Sputnik, earned by Anthony Webb as an infant, not for some obvious early ability to launch himself skyward but for his unusually large head. A native son—his parents own a convenience store in black South Dallas—he knows the scalpers who sold him the tickets he needed tonight to pack in his three sisters, two brothers, and mother and father. A good thing, too—he got a hometown discount.

The yolk-orange rim, like those on all official baskets, is 10 feet off the ground. Webb, at his perkiest, stands at 5'7": no taller than a parking meter, as one newspaper commentator has described him. In fact, arena security has turned him away more than once when he’s reported to road game locker rooms. He weighs 133 pounds and can’t even palm a basketball. But his legs—they are the thickness of bowling balls.

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A 22-year-old rookie, Webb finds himself squaring off against his far more famous Atlanta Hawks teammate Dominique Wilkins. Also known as the Human Highlight Film, he is, at 6'8" and 224 pounds, the defending slam dunk champion. Webb makes the league minimum, $70,000; Wilkins, $585,000. In regulation play, Webb normally feeds Wilkins the ball, yet on this early February night in Dallas the pair is trading acrobatics around the hoop, throwing down one jam after the other in a show of skywalking one-upmanship. The winner gets nearly a fifth of Webb’s annual salary: $12,500.

The judging panel is made up of several retired NBA players, former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, and, curiously, Martina Navratilova. Webb has dunked many times before—as far back as high school, at a height of only 5'3". In a sense, Webb’s lightness works in his favor: Putting aside paper planes and Wiffle balls (disqualified for their aerodynamic flaws), you can throw a lighter object farther than a heavier one. Force equals mass times acceleration, and Webb has less mass to carry skyward. But to lift his 5'7" frame to the rim, he must jump an extraordinary 42 inches off the ground, higher than your kitchen sink. And he faces the obvious physics problem encountered by any jumper: The moment your feet lose contact with the ground, you have no additional force to exert—even as the force of gravity is pulling you back to earth. His solution to all these problems is elegant in its ferocity: He gathers and applies all his muscle strength in the shortest time possible, about a tenth of a second—the time his foot plants before he shoves off toward the rim. In essence, little Spud Webb is exerting nearly four Gs to push off the ground, about the same acceleration a fighter jet creates as it blasts off an aircraft carrier.


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An avalanche of dunks. Spud, small, self-contained, starts loud, with a reverse slam he throws down so hard that the ball ricochets off his still-airborne head and flies back up through the basket, as if to announce that, yes, indeed, I can put it down. From there, it gets increasingly fancy: a short run-up to a two-handed double-pump dunk; a 360-degree helicopter one-handed dunk (a.k.a. “the Statue of Liberty”); a lob pass to no one that bounces high off the hardwood before Spud, in one fell swoop, catches it, spins 180 degrees, and jams—a nasty bit of self-dealing.


Countering, Wilkins executes some of the same muscular dunks that won him the contest the previous year: First a two-handed windmill dunk, in which the ball is spun around as if it’s in a washing machine before being thrown through the hoop; he manages, next, a dunk that starts as a windmill and ends as a one-handed tomahawk, the fierce piercing of the basket that not even vaguely recalls the American Indians; and then, beautifully, he performs a reverse dunk in which he reaches the ball down toward his ankles even as he is ascending through the Reunion Arena ether and then, swiftly, pulls it back and slams it behind his head just before making his way back to planet Earth.

A TV man asks Martina what she makes of the contest thus far. “In my next life,” she says, “I’d like to come back as a black basketball player.”

Webb has one final opportunity to best Wilkins. The crowd, now clearly in the corner of the little guy even as it respects the Highlight Film, starts chanting “Spud.” He moves to half-court, his lightly up-raised fist moving in small circles, Arsenio Hall–style, as he prepares for the coup de grâce: a one-handed overhand bounce pass that leaps from the ground, bounces off the backboard, and goes back into his outstretched, soaring hand. He snatches the rock as a quick, collective inhale whooshes through the arena, and slingshots it home.

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Martina goes nuts. Staubach goes nuts. America goes bananas.

And, as a six-year-old in New York City, I looked up from my GI Joes toward our bulky Sony television to witness the mini miracle. “Let’s go to the videotape!” shouted Warner Wolf, the WCBS sportscaster, and suddenly seeing the small, boyish man—only a few inches taller than I was!—dunk, I was captivated. In the odd pick-and-choose cultural moments imprinted upon a kid’s brain, Spud Webb joined a constellation that burned with the faces of Christa McAuliffe, the teacher chosen to board the Challenger space shuttle, which less than a month earlier had disintegrated on its way toward outer space; Ronald Reagan; the entire roster of the New York Mets, who would go on to win the World Series in October; and Billy Idol, whose “White Wedding” music video my two older brothers obsessively watched on MTV. That, for me, was the sum of 1986.