IT'S THE SUMMER OF 1989, and Chris Webber is about to dunk on my head. We're in Palo Alto, Calif., at something called the Stanford High Potential Basketball Camp, but it's fair to say the high potential designation applies to only one of us. Webber, a broad-shouldered, 6'8" high school sophomore, is already one of the top prospects in the country; later in the week he will win the camp dunk contest by throwing down a leaning 360 that causes Stanford men's hoops coach Mike Montgomery to look as if he's just found religion. I, on the other hand, am a skinny, 5'10" sophomore with a questionable left hand.
This is an article from the Feb. 25, 2008 issue
Webber catches the ball at the foul line and, using a screen, makes a power move to his right. I hear my teammate—the one who's supposed to be guarding Mr. Bigtime Prospect—yell something that sounds a lot like "Switch!" So I do, stepping into the path of the oncoming Webber and preparing to ... well, I'm not sure what I intend to do. I settle on a sort of half jump, half duck, as if bracing myself for a Gatorade shower.
Moments later I'm drenched, metaphorically speaking. And as I lie under the basket looking up at Webber, who is hanging from the rim, I realize something: In the instant before he leaped, Webber smiled. It was a gentle smile, one that seemed to say, Relax, this won't hurt a bit. I remember wondering, as I looked up, what it felt like to be him. Pretty damn good, I imagined.
Nearly 20 years later I'm still wondering. Like a sizable chunk of sporting America, I remain intrigued by the dunk, even if I'm not always sure why. After all, I've seen a million of them, replayed on the highlight shows and casually dropped in on NBA layup lines and shoved down my throat by anthropomorphic mascots hurtling off trampolines. Yet I can't look away. A novelty in the 1960s and '70s, the dunk enjoyed a heyday during the Air-inflated '80s and, inevitably, became overhyped and overexposed. Still, there's something hypnotic about it. For men, it's like cleavage; we've seen acres of it, but that doesn't stop us from looking again. It's part instinct, part the lure of the unattainable and part the hope that we'll see something spectacular. What other shot boasts an entire lexicon? Jam, slam, flush, throwdown, cram, bang, windmill, stuff, rock the rim, 360, posterize, facial, hammer, skywalk, boomshakalaka, talk to God, and on and on.
The dunk is the easiest shot in basketball, really, but also one that relatively few can make, requiring a combination of height, youth, leaping ability and coordination. A 60-year-old can run a marathon, and almost anyone can get lucky and hit a hole in one or a half-court heave, but no one lucks into a dunk. Either you can do it or you can't. And considering that only about 4% of American males are taller than 6'2", there are an awful lot of can'ts out there. Even for those who can pull it off, dunking is a fleeting skill, generally possible only between the ages of about 17 and 34. Even making the NBA does not guarantee entrance to this club. Steve Kerr, the 6'3" former Chicago Bulls guard, never dunked in a game. "When I would speak at camps," he says, "the first three questions I always got were, 'What was it like to play with Michael Jordan?' 'What's your shoe size?' And 'Can you dunk?' It was always difficult to explain to kids that, yes, I do play in the NBA, and, no, I can't dunk."
This is not to imply that Kerr is one of those who denigrate the dunk as "just two points." Jams are "incredibly fun to watch," he says, adding that he and his high school buddies used to put up a nine-foot rim so they could throw down, which is sort of like PGA pros playing miniature golf to finally get that ace. But, hey, a cheap thrill is better than no thrill, right?
Some in the hoops community don't share Kerr's admiration for the dunk. "It's very bad for the game," that most esteemed of basketball men, John Wooden, once said. "If I want to see fancy play, I'll go see the Globetrotters." This is the fate of the shot: alternately celebrated and derided and, at one time, banned (from 1967 to '76, by the NCAA). Perhaps we're now entering the jam's postmodern period, when the shot itself no longer evolves but our feelings about it do.
SOMETIMES A DUNK is more than a dunk. Think of Darryl Dawkins laying waste to a backboard, Julius Erving performing a flyby on Michael Cooper, Vince Carter leapfrogging Frenchman Frédéric Weis on a jam so humiliating that his country's media dubbed it le dunk de la mort ("the dunk of death").
More recently it was the Golden State Warriors' Baron Davis climbing the ladder in Game 3 of the Warriors-Jazz second-round playoff series last spring. Late in the fourth quarter the 6'3" Davis drove the left baseline as Utah forward Andrei Kirilenko, who is 6'9" and has arms longer than goalposts, soared in from the weak side. Davis launched off both feet, leaned into Kirilenko and threw down a righthanded hook dunk so nasty, so goddamn-he-didn't-just-do-that electrifying that Kirilenko might as well have been bronzed in mid-slam—with Davis's left elbow jammed into his nose—and the statue shipped to the Museum of Historic Dunks, there to be enshrined in the Little Men Disgracing Big wing.
You'd have thought Davis's teammates had just witnessed a horrible car accident. Forward Matt Barnes turned away, hands to his head. Center Adonal Foyle scrunched up his face as if smelling rancid meat. The Bay Area was delirious. The next morning the San Francisco Chronicle's headline read ABOUT FACE! The story carried not one but three photos of the slam.
The half-life of a generic NBA fast-break jam might be one replay, but a transcendent dunk such as Davis's lives forever. The NBA featured it in a commercial at the start of this season, the Warriors reproduced it on a poster they handed out at their home opener, and clips of it have been viewed more than a million times on YouTube. Almost a year later, wherever the Warriors go, people ask Davis about the dunk. "Kids, adults, everyone," he says. "They say, 'That's the guy who dunked on the big guy.'"
Here's the thing, though: Davis's slam was only one basket, and not even an important one. At the time the Warriors were up by 20 points with less than three minutes left. And the dunk had no lasting impact—Golden State lost the next two games and the playoff series. It was a beautiful moment, certainly, but did it matter? Just as Dawkins's first backboard-shattering jam came during a loss, Davis's feat simply punctuated a blowout.
But then dunks have been eclipsing the rest of the game for years. That's why Vince (What Defensive Stance?) Carter was the leading All-Star vote-getter for four seasons, why Mars Blackmon sold all those shoes. Blame ESPN or Nike or whichever corporate entity you like, but it doesn't change the fact that the slam is embedded in U.S. culture. So embedded, in fact, that some people want to dig it out.
TOM NEWELL has a revolutionary idea, insofar as any idea your own father had more than 45 years ago can be revolutionary: Raise the rim. Newell, a former assistant with a number of NBA teams and coach of the Japanese national team, is the son of Pete Newell, the renowned former coach of San Francisco, Michigan State and Cal. Tom, who like his father believes that the dominance of big men is killing the game, raises some interesting questions. Is the decline of the U.S. national team the result of players practicing backward slams rather than backdoor cuts? Do we crave the dunk at the expense of other, more dynamic plays? And if the jam were rarer, would we appreciate it even more?
Last summer, Newell the younger staged an exhibition at the University of Washington called For the Love of the Game, in which two teams of collegians and low-level pros—from the CBA and overseas teams—played with 11-foot baskets, making dunks prohibitive. Newell deemed the game a great success, but if you view the video, it's hard to get too excited. It's like watching an eighth-grade team: lots of standing around as clusters of players reach for rebounds like tossed bridal bouquets, then try to hoist the ball back up.
One advantage of 11-foot rims, however, would be that only certain NBA players could throw down, which means no more Rasho Nesterovic "dinks." Not surprisingly, though, pros scoff at the idea of raising the rim. "Ridiculous," says the Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James. "That's like taking the deep pass out of football." Even players one might expect to welcome raising the rim—which is to say, nondunkers, which is further to say, short white guys—don't all buy in. Kerr calls the 11-foot rim "unimaginable."
And the Suns' Steve Nash doesn't entirely agree with the purists' perception that the league needs more play-the-right-way guys. "The truth is we need more of those, but we still want the spectacular finisher," Nash said last year. "People say they want the league to have more [fundamental play], but if they're going to choose one, they're going to go with the badass dunks."
Ironically, it is the badass dunkers who tend to downplay the slam, for fear it might define them—a problem that never troubled, say, Julius Erving. Ten years from now Davis may be remembered for his jam over Kirilenko, just as fans remember John Starks (lefty slam on Jordan), Tom Chambers (surreal head-at-the-rim dunk) and Dominique Wilkins (who wasn't defined by one dunk so much as by all of them). "Once you get labeled a dunker, it's hard to get rid of the stigma," says Wilkins, who at 48 claims he can still dunk. "They start thinking that's all you can do." Indeed, in 1996, when Wilkins was left off the list of the 50 greatest players in NBA history, it might have been partly because of his reputation as a jammer. "For me it's a travesty," he says. "You don't get 26,000 points on dunks alone." (Though the Orlando Magic's Dwight Howard appears to be trying.)
That's why some of today's top players try not to be recognized as dunkers. Witness last weekend's Rising Stars Dunk Contest, won by Howard, a true star, but otherwise featuring a bunch of guys—Gerald Green, Jamario Moon, Rudy Gay—who won't be appearing in Hanes commercials anytime soon. Jordan made his career on the jam; now James tries to make his career in spite of it. Shortly after entering the league, James was lobbied hard by one of his sponsors, Sprite, to enter the dunk contest, but he declined. "I just felt like I was in the NBA to showcase my talent and all phases of my game," James says.
So we've come to this strange intersection: great leapers preaching, Dunk as I say, not as I do. "I try to encourage [the complete] game," says Wilkins, now the Atlanta Hawks' vice president of basketball. "Dunking is secondary. That's just a tool I used for intimidation." Wilkins will never let his sons, Isiah, age 12, and Jacob, 1, dunk on lowered rims. Says the Human Highlight Film, sounding more like the Human Rec League Coach, "I tell my kids, 'You aren't able to dunk now, so you better work on other parts of your game.'"
OF COURSE, there are plenty of men for whom dunking holds no stigma but rather is an art unto itself. Once upon a time these jammers were playground legends, cats like Herman (Helicopter) Knowings and Earl (the Goat) Manigault and Demetrius (Hook) Mitchell, who at 5'11" would do 360s over cars to win dunk contests. They were never more than legends, though, celebrated only by word of mouth. Men like the Goat had a rep; today playground stars have reps. Opportunity awaits them above the rim: join a street-ball tour, film DVDs, perform at halftimes and, of course, gain instant international fame on the Web. A nickname is essential, so we have High Rizer and Elevator, and we've got Taurian (The Air Up There) Fontenette, whose surreal 720 jam has been viewed more than four million times on YouTube.
You don't even need to play street ball, or live near anything resembling "the streets," to join this act. In 2003 a 6'6" high school player named Henry Bekkering from the woodsy town of Taber, Alberta (pop. 7,671), entered a dunking contest at a Canadian high school all-star game. Of course, someone had a camera and uploaded clips to the Web. They're remarkable to watch: First Bekkering does a two-handed dip-it between-the-legs reverse, then on the next jam he sticks his arm elbow-deep into the rim a la Vince Carter, and on the final dunk he leaps over a camper standing a few feet in front of the basket. But the real holy s--- moment is Bekkering's final dunk, never seen in an NBA contest: He takes to the air from just inside the free throw line, leans at a 45-degree angle and jams lefthanded. Adding to the unlikely nature of the spectacle, Bekkering is as white as Mitt Romney.
The dunk is not always a faithful mistress, though. Bekkering, who was featured on television shows and magazine covers because of his jams, was on scholarship at Eastern Washington, but the coach didn't play him much. (He was also on the football team, assigned to the kick-blocking unit "like a little circus animal, sent in to jump high," he says with a laugh.) Maybe the expectations provoked by his dunking were too high. In 2006 he transferred to the University of Calgary, where this season he is averaging 20.5 points and three dunks a game as a fourth-year junior small forward. "I wanted to establish myself as a basketball player," Bekkering says of his decision to return to Canada. "In dunking circles they were always saying, 'There's that white kid who can jump.' That's not everything about basketball."
Bekkering may not have NBA talent, but Ronnie Fields sure did. Fields was a star at Chicago's Farragut Academy in the 1990s, playing alongside Kevin Garnett on the '94--95 city championship team. As early as the eighth grade he was competing in adult leagues and, in the words of his high school coach, William Nelson, "dunking on grown-ass men." His first two points as a freshman were on a 180 double-pump jam. Blessed with a 40-inch vertical leap, the 6'3" shooting guard scored 2,619 points in his high school career and tallied 372 dunks, numbers you can find alongside the giant mural of Fields that graces Farragut's gym wall, across from a mural of Garnett. The main difference in the two paintings is that Garnett is in a Minnesota Timberwolves jersey, while Fields wears his Farragut uni. You see, despite all his talent, Fields never developed a perimeter game. He didn't need one in high school, and he passed on college, where he might have broadened his skills. Lacking three-point range, and playing tentatively for fear of aggravating a neck injury he suffered in a car accident in 1996, he never made the NBA, instead toiling for teams like the Pennsylvania Valleydawgs of the USBL. For what it's worth, though, Fields remains a legend in Chicago. Says Nelson, "All the shorties want to dunk like Ronnie."
Ah, the shorties. No one is more fascinated by the dunk. At the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., there are rims set at six, seven, eight and nine feet. According to Matt Zeysing, the Hall historian, they are "probably our most popular element." There's a simple reason for this: Dunking is really, really fun. It's also very hard not to look cool when you do it.
Nowhere is this more evident than at Farragut. One night in January the Admirals played Clark High, a magnet school they outclassed in size and talent, and a jam contest quickly broke out among Farragut players. The first play of the game was a backdoor alley-oop lob and jam. By halftime the Admirals had six dunks, three of them by 6'10" senior Michael Dunigan, who'll play for Oregon next season. By the end of the third quarter Farragut had a 30-point lead and 11 dunks. After one thunderous Dunigan follow jam, three boys ran screaming out of the gym, as if they'd just seen a zombie, while women shrieked and danced and the man on the P.A. roared, "Wow! Did you see that dunk?"
Feeling the revivalist fever in this gym, you can see how Fields got sidetracked. In neighborhoods such as south Chicago, the dunk is a kingmaker. "Everybody knows the kid who can throw down," says Nelson. "You forget who's the great passer, the shooter. Look at my boys—probably seven of the 11 dunk, but three of them can really dunk. Those are the three that people come to see."
One of the nondunkers is Isaiah Williams, a 6'1" senior guard. In four years he's thrown down only once in a game. "People always tell me if I dunked more often, it would separate me from other players," he says, "but it's just not part of my game."
Part of his game? Go further down the hoops ladder, to boys in the seventh and eighth grades, and everyone expects dunking to be a part of his game. At Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley, Calif., all 14 members of the seventh-grade boys' basketball team raise their hands when I ask how many of them believe they will one day throw it down. This includes 4'8" Mohammed Aledlah, a cheery 12-year-old with sheepdog bangs who is wearing a girls' uniform because the boys' are all too big (and his shorts still hang down well below his knees).
Like all seventh-graders, these boys have strong opinions. On dunking, this is what they believe: That it's the easiest way to score, because you can miss a layup but "you never miss a dunk." That they'd rather be able to slam in traffic than drain three-pointers, because throwing down "makes you more popular" and, well, it would be really fun (and here there is much acting out of tremendous jams). That LeBron doesn't enter the dunk contest because it's called the Rising Stars Dunk Contest (duh!), and he's a real star. That Jordan is the greatest dunker ever, and "didn't he once do it from half-court?" That Nash would be way, way more popular if he could jam. And that the idea of an 11-foot rim is really stupid—so stupid that "someone should get in trouble" just for proposing it.
When I ask them how one dunks, the boys all raise their hands, some jumping up and down. They expound strategies, from holding the ball with two hands to achieving the right balance to "getting lots taller." Finally, Mohammed asks his own question. "So," he says, earnestly, "are you going to tell us how to do it now?"
JULIUS ERVING 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." Wilkins says throwing down made him feel like a king. The year after that Stanford camp where I played with Webber, I dunked for the first time. I didn't feel especially regal, but then I relied on a slightly deflated ball and a half-court run-up. Soon enough, though, I had a repertoire of five or six dunks. In the following years I practiced dunking often and implemented it rarely. At Division III Pomona College I had a total of one dunk, and it was in a jayvee game. Against Cal Tech. And I traveled on the play.
Still, it was always something I took pride in. So last year, when, at 33, it took me a half-dozen attempts to weakly wedge one home, it was unsettling, a reminder of my athletic mortality. And I wondered, If a weekend warrior like me takes it this hard, how does a man for whom jumping is a livelihood and an identity take it?
Few things are as sad to watch as the aging of an athlete, and none declines faster than a leaper. Remember Erving, in that shameless pay-per-view one-on-one game against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, missing a one-handed slam? (If the answer is no, you're lucky.) Or how about the 38-year-old Michael Jordan—Michael Frickin' Jordan—clanging a wide-open breakaway jam in the 2002 All-Star Game? As Baron Davis puts it, "Your hops are the first thing to retire," and it happens before our eyes. Consider: At the All-Star break Nuggets reserve forward Linas Kleiza had more dunks (40) than Vince Carter (35). What a surprise that Carter wasn't voted onto the '08 East All-Star team. "When that jumping ability dissipates," says Wilkins, "you're just an ordinary guy."
So how do NBA players deal with it? Warriors assistant coach and former Indiana star Keith Smart—you remember him from his role in that hit movie Baseline Jumper for the NCAA Title—is now 43, and he describes his last dunk with the mixed emotions most people feel watching a child graduate from college. "I was 37 years old, and it was a one-hand squeaker," says Smart. Once a high flier who threw down 360s, he felt his legs start to go after his playing career ended. "When I became a coach, my goal was always to dunk by the first day of training camp," Smart says. "Then it was by the first game, then by the New Year. Finally, we played down in Florida [not long after New Year's] and I got warmed up and did it. That was the last one." The psychic toll was steep. Smart stopped playing even in pickup games. "I got frustrated not being able to do what I used to do."
The Cavs' Eric Snow isn't there yet, but he knows the day is coming. The 6'3" guard used to unwind some nasty dunks—windmills and the like—but at 34 he's on the downside of his career. After a recent practice, with ice on both ankles and one knee, he said that he has a bet with teammate Damon Jones, also 6'3": The first one to dunk in a game gets dinner from the other. Said Snow, "That bet's been going for three years now."
It got so that Snow felt like he was losing his rep. So when younger Cleveland players doubted him, he brought in a DVD of dunking highlights from his Michigan State days and stuck it on repeat on the TV in the locker room. "They thought I could only do those simple dunks," he said, "so I had to show them some proof."
Now, Snow said, "there are only certain days I feel up to doing it [in practice]," but it remains important to him. "It's different if you're 6'8" and 34 years old. Donyell Marshall is 6'9". Dunking's not a big deal to him. It's only a big deal to me because I'm smaller." Snow paused, then looked out on the court and pointed. "I never could do that, though." There, at the near basket, James was ripping off a series of astounding dunks. He was shirtless, all corded muscle, the embodiment of youth and athleticism. As a crowd of teammates and reporters gathered, he rose again and again, each time delivering a ferocious finish: a 360, a two-hander off the backboard, a power one-hand extension, each accompanied by a prodigious thunk!
Later I asked James what he thinks it will feel like when he can no longer jam. He talked about watching his sons grow up, then made a joke and finally said, "Maybe that will happen one day"—as if he might ward off aging like just another weak double team.
THE DUNK is important; it is unimportant. Last month, after sitting out the first half of the season as a free agent, Webber signed with the Warriors. He's 34 now, with knees weakened from surgery. Never an outrageous leaper, he has become increasingly grounded.
I went to a Warriors practice a week after he signed. During a scrimmage he caught a ball on the break and headed toward the right side of the rim, uncontested. Up he went, but all he could manage was a finger roll. (Though, to his credit, it was an emphatic finger roll.) Webber didn't look all that different from the way he looked in 1989: same grin, same cherub's face. But once he started moving on the court, slow and methodical, it was clear this was not the same player. I was disappointed. Irrationally, I wanted him to remain lithe and springy, for if he did, maybe there was hope for me.
Afterward I caught up with him. He remembered the Stanford camp and the dunk contest. ("I think I tried to jump over some kid in a chair," he said.) He didn't recall dunking on me—why should he?—though he could imagine it. "I'm not surprised I smiled," he said. "I was probably just saying, Good effort, but I got ya."
The more he talked about dunking, the more nostalgic he became. "I remember leading the league in dunks a few years, and it just comes so easy," he said. Never mind that this is both hard to verify and unlikely—after all, Shaquille O'Neal was in his prime back then—because isn't getting older all about remembering things the way we want them, not the way they were?
As for now, Webber said he still gets the itch to dunk, though he rarely scratches it. "When I look at a lot of the younger guys and see what they do, I say to myself, Man, I know what that feels like." He paused. "At the end of the day, your mind tells you you can do it even though your body won't let you."
And maybe that's the ultimate appeal of the dunk. Close our eyes, and all of us can imagine doing it. Most of us never will, though, so we live vicariously through those who can, reveling in their ability to make the impossible look easy. We wish we could become one of them. Inevitably, they will become one of us. Welcome to the club, Chris.
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