Oct. 03, 2011
Oct. 03, 2011

Table of Contents
Oct. 3, 2011

  • The Bills are a shocking 3--0—take that, Pats!—thanks to a Harvard-bred quarterback and a spirit of togetherness that reflects their city

  • One of the game's true icons, a player so esteemed that the NFL's Man of the Year Award bears his name, Walter Payton retired in 1988 as pro football's alltime leading rusher. But even to those closest to him, he had always been an enigma, and in his final years the mysteries deepened



I don't remember how I stumbled across Matt O'Neill's blog,, last February, but I knew instantly that I had to bookmark it, if only out of solidarity. O'Neill has always wanted to dunk, just as I have always wanted to dunk, just as every other American male born, tragically, without height or crazy hops has always wanted to dunk. There really are only two kinds of guys—those who can jump high enough (or are tall enough) to jam a basketball through a 10-foot hoop, and those who can't. As a member of the latter group I feel confident in saying that we all would, without hesitation, give up an internal organ in order to join the former. Not an essential organ, of course. But definitely a spleen.

This is an article from the Oct. 3, 2011 issue

Those of us who haven't dunked by the time we reach adulthood generally accept that we never will, but O'Neill, a slender, 6'1" former high school shooting guard, wasn't ready to give up. His purpose wasn't just to grab the rim, it was to hold on to something more. At 30 he wanted to chase one last youthful fantasy before giving himself up completely to adult responsibility. He knew there would be other accomplishments in his life, but he also knew that the grown-up kind aren't quite the same. "I was never a 10-year-old kid lying in my backyard dreaming of paying off my Visa card," he posted to the site.

So in February he began a six-month, self-devised regimen of running, weightlifting and other exercises designed to add inches to his vertical leap. An aspiring screenwriter, O'Neill also decided to keep an online journal of his efforts. I followed him eagerly but anonymously, rooting for him because when one ordinary guy makes it, we all do.

The early entries weren't encouraging. O'Neill posted a short video in which he tested his beginning vertical leap, and he barely touched the bottom of the net. The voice of his amused wife, Laura, came from behind the camera, suggesting that it might help to bend his legs next time. They measured the height of his reach at 9'3½", which meant he needed about another foot in order to clear the rim enough to dunk. I thought he had a better chance of growing a foot taller.

But O'Neill was undaunted, and if he could keep trying, I could keep following. Every few days brought a new post in which he revealed more about his workouts and himself. I learned that he was from Hopkinton, Mass., the starting point of the Boston Marathon, and grew up a Celtics fan. I learned that he and Laura live in Santa Monica, Calif., and that she gave him an iPhone for Christmas while he gave her Frownies, facial pads that smooth lines and wrinkles. "That's what she asked for," he wrote.

The training updates continued, sometimes comically. There were adventures with the weight machines at the gym, where he somehow developed a nosebleed while doing calf raises. There were 6 a.m. runs on the beach, including one when he tried to get Laura to join him and shoot video for a Rocky-style training montage. "But she didn't want to get up," he wrote. "So I just ran in the sand as the seagulls laughed at me."

In a bad movie this would be the point when I'd pull on my old basketball shoes, go to the gym and, uplifted by O'Neill's quest, find myself reverse jamming. Sometimes life isn't like a movie—even a bad one. I went, I jumped, and I quickly realized that the only hoop I'll ever dunk on is made by Nerf. I returned home and checked for O'Neill's next post.

A month after he had begun the blog O'Neill's leap had increased to 9'5". March brought the unveiling of the Strength Shoes, high-top contraptions with the toes raised several inches higher than the heels. O'Neill ran and jumped and skipped in them while Laura taped and laughed. But the unusual training seemed to work. By April 16 he had added another inch. O'Neill was still far from dunking but sure he was on the right track. "I guess I'm in the real meaty part of this experiment, or midpoint of a movie," he posted on May 18. "Stay tuned."

Then the posts stopped. The rest of May passed, then June, without a word. I was curious at first, then disappointed. I had thought that O'Neill was serious about trying to reach his goal, but maybe I'd been wrong about him. Maybe he had just lost interest.

July, which was to be the final month of training, came, and I wondered if O'Neill would suddenly reappear, miraculously able to dunk. Maybe it had all been an Internet hoax or a weird marketing campaign. But still there was nothing, so I finally sent an e-mail to the website, asking what had happened. Nearly two months passed without a response, until last week. O'Neill had come across my e-mail when he logged on to shut down the site. He left a phone number.

When I called, O'Neill explained that he had been laid off from his day job as a writer's assistant, and he felt the hours he'd been spending on training would be better used looking for work. There were grocery bills and rent to pay. "Life just kind of got in the way," he said. But the screenwriter in him says the script isn't finished. "This makes for a natural end of the second act, the lowest point of the story that I would then heroically overcome to eventually dunk," he says.

I don't want to tell O'Neill his business, but maybe this is the better ending, the one where the hero realizes that giving up the childhood fantasy is the mature thing to do. As much as a little boy dreams of soaring above the rim, a grown man has to know when to stay grounded. Which reminds me, it's time to go pay off my Visa card.

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