HE WAS 6'1" AND 42, WITH THREE KIDS AND SMALL PALMS. HIS GOAL: LEARN TO JAM—HOWEVER LONG IT TOOK
This is an article from the June 1, 2015 issue
WHEN JOE FORTENBERRY, a farm boy from Happy, Texas, threw one down at the West Side YMCA in New York City on March 9, 1936, he may not have been the first man to dunk a basketball, but he was the first to do it in an aesthetically stirring way, and in front of the right people. Cameras of that era were too crude to capture the split second when the rules of both Newton and Naismith were bent, so it was fortuitous that New York Times writer Arthur J. Daley was at the Y that day covering the tournament that would decide which Americans sailed to Berlin for the Olympic debut of the 45-year-old sport. This new "version of a lay-up shot," Daley wrote, "left observers simply flabbergasted. Joe Fortenberry, 6-foot 8-inch center ... left the floor, reached up and pitched the ball downward into the hoop, much like a cafeteria customer dunking a roll in coffee."
Seventy-nine years later, the feat that Daley unwittingly named "the dunk" still flabbergasts. But how it felt to Fortenberry, a pioneering barnstormer whose name we've forgotten despite the gold medal he and his teammates won, remains a mystery. "He never talked about being the first person to dunk," says 65-year-old Oliver Fortenberry, the only son of Big Joe, who died in '93. Indeed, the famous dunkers throughout history have been either reticent on the subject or unable to adequately express how it felt to show Dr. Naismith that he'd nailed his peach baskets too low. After more than a year of rigorous research on the subject, I've concluded that the inadequacies of modern language—not the ineloquence of the dunk's practitioners—are at fault. In the eight decades since Fortenberry rocked the rim, words have repeatedly fallen short in describing the only method of scoring, in any sport, that both ignores one of its game's earliest tenets and, in its very execution, carries a defiant anger.
Which is why, on April 1, 2014, I dedicated myself to dunking a basketball for the first time. So that I could live it, breathe it, perhaps take a crack at it with my pen. I had tossed this idea around for years, realizing with each passing birthday that my chances of success were dimming. However, on that April Fool's Day (a coincidence) I spent three hours on the court and at the gym, with a promise to myself to return several times each week until I threw one down like Gerald Green. Or at least like Litterial Green, who played in 148 NBA games between 1992 and '99, and who, like me, was born in the early '70s, stands 6'1", 185 pounds and is at no risk of having DUNKER carved into his epitaph.
I gave myself six months to dunk because that was the low end of the "six to eight months" prescribed on the website of Brandon Todd, a 5'5" former D-III star who set the same goal for himself in 2005, and then, at age 22, accomplished it. When I first contacted him, Todd perfectly expressed the more shallow reason behind my goal: "When you can dunk, it means you're a good athlete. Period. It takes away any subjectiveness." I also chose six months because I am prone to tragic spells of overconfidence.
The things I had going for me: an understanding spouse; a modicum of leaping ability, flashed during the occasional Motrin-supported pickup game; proximity to one of the world's best training centers; and, again, an understanding spouse. The forces working against me included (but were far from limited to) my average hand size and arm length, a lower-back injury I suffered while playing semipro football in 2009, and my age. I was 42.
My wife of 11 years knit her brow in confusion when I raised this idea. She wanted to care but could not muster the attention span, for she had given birth just three weeks earlier to our third daughter. I would be needed at home in the coming weeks. Although I look back today with pride at how I balanced that responsibility with the far less important dedication to dunking, I knew at the time that I would miss a lot of bath times and diaper changes so I could ride my bike to the gym or to local playgrounds, with no guarantee that I would even come close to my goal.
Justifying these selfish priorities in my head as I stuffed a ball into my backpack and pedaled away from our home would turn out to be one of the most formidable obstacles in my path. I must have whispered, What the f--- am I doing? as many times as I leaped toward one of the rusty rims scattered around the south Los Angeles beach community where we live. That latter number tallied somewhere around 5,000, according to my journal. Many of these jumps were attempted while wearing a weighted vest that pulled me downward, the same way that home pulled me sideways.
I THOUGHT I needed a rim. But what I found I really needed was a constellation of them. Having choices would prove useful because of the daytime obstacles, like elementary school PE students and our own kids' afterschool activities; and the nighttime obstacles, like chain-link and padlocks, that I encountered. My training windows were narrow, so I learned to employ these outdoor rims strategically, the way the skateboarders in Dogtown and Z-Boys timed their secret sessions at drained swimming pools. The six or seven courts nearest our house featured rims measuring anywhere between 9 feet and 10'2", a variance that allowed for different kinds of practice. The blisters and flayed calluses that soon bloodied my hands instructed me in the value of breakaway rims. Because a Snap Back wasn't always available, local residents may have spotted a sweaty fortysomething man rubbing Vaseline on his hands in the corner of their child's favorite playground last year. Sometimes he wore a weight vest that made him look like a jihadist. What I'm saying is, Thanks for not calling the cops.
My early efforts were clumsy. Jumping willy-nilly as high as I could, I occasionally felt my finger graze the underside of the rim. Most times I did not. What I did feel early on was a firm self-awareness that I was a two-foot jumper (like Dominique Wilkins, Vince Carter and myriad Slam Dunk champions with whom I have nothing else in common athletically) as opposed to a one-foot jumper (see: Julius Erving, Clyde Drexler, Michael Jordan). This meant that my best shot at dunking would be to elevate like an outside hitter in volleyball—stepping forward with one foot, quickly planting my trailing foot next to it and propelling myself upward off both.
Less helpful was my early realization that I was a two-hand dunker, in light of my inability to palm a basketball. It's common knowledge among dunkers that throwing down with two hands is harder than with one; the former requires a higher vertical leap. So as I flailed haplessly at the rim last spring with one hand, I felt not just discouragement but also fear. Fear that I would miss big chunks of my kids' early years on earth just so I could come up embarrassingly short on a senseless goal that my wife and I would later estimate consumed 15 to 20 hours a week. And fear that I had shared this idea with my editors way too soon.
FOUR TIMES a week, from April through October, I embarked on 90-minute explosive lifting sessions based on the years I'd spent working as a strength coach to college and pro volleyball players. Squats, squat jumps, deadlifts, lunges, box jumps, sprints.... Three or four days a week I visited one of my local blacktops, where I tried to dunk tennis balls on 10-foot rims or throw down basketballs and volleyballs on lower ones. One month in, I could dunk a tennis ball on a 9'10" rim. I considered this a better-than-good start, not realizing that compared with dunking a basketball, this tennis-ball jam was akin to a child scrawling the diagonal line that begins a capital A on his first day of learning the alphabet.
About 100 yards away from this 9'10" breakaway rim was a brown, oxidized, immobile 9'1" version, a hand-ruining iron maiden where I practiced (and practiced) the timing and the hand and wrist work required to dunk. I knew early on that my regulation dunk, if it ever came to pass, would have to come from a lob of some sort—a bounce to myself, either off the blacktop or underhanded off the backboard—after which I would control the ball with one hand just long enough to flush it. Mastering the placement and the delicate timing of such lobs would prove to be a quixotic pursuit in and of itself. But it was necessary, not just because of my hand size (7¾ inches) but also because I needed to keep my arms free so I could swing them at takeoff, adding lift to my leap.
A two-foot Dominiquean jump, a perfect lob (and I mean per-fect) and a quick flush with my right hand—that was my only shot. My odds, I sensed, were extraordinarily s-----.
If anything came to surprise me about this journey, it was the sheer volume of physical pain. I had taken on impressive physical feats before. I had run a sub-3:30 marathon back in 2003 after putting in the hundreds of training miles required. I'd done some of the most grueling weight training on offer, most of it either on the beach or at The Yard, a nearby temple of athletic performance where Kobe Bryant and Tom Brady, among others, have kneeled with exhaustion. But the physical toll of trying to dunk made the marathon and the semipro football and the parenting and everything else I'd ever attempted seem like mere rubber-band snaps to the wrist. The lifting didn't hurt as much as the jumping, the banging of my quadragenarian appendages into the ground, taking off and landing 50 to 200 times a day. My legs never got used to this bludgeoning, never got better at recovering from it, despite my daily foam-rollering, stretching and icing. Even on my off days, a quick game of tag with my kids or a bike ride to the park meant daggers in my thighs and a gait like Fred Sanford's.
"The approach you're taking is right," I was told by 38-year-old Grizzlies forward Vince Carter, whose first dunk in a career defined by gravity defiance happened on the outdoor courts at Ormond Beach (Fla.) Elementary, after "thousands" of failures. "That's how I started. Tennis ball. Then a volleyball. Then a girls' ball. Finally I took a dodgeball. I dunked that and said, 'You know what, I'm gonna try it.' Next thing you know...." He shrugged and smiled, the gray whiskers on his jaw sinking into a dimple.
"How old were you?"
"It was seventh grade. No, it was sixth grade. I was, what, 12 or 13?"
Joe Fortenberry was 18 or 19 when he first dunked. "He was 6'7" back then too," said his son, Oliver. "He and his friends would practice on a barrel ring or a wagon-wheel ring nailed to a barn."
For legions of daydreaming mortals like me, unblessed with the height or hops of a young Fortenberry or Carter, the dream of dunking still has a strong gravitational pull. Brent Barry, who is not only a 43-year-old dad and a neighbor but also the 1996 NBA Slam Dunk champion, nodded knowingly when I brought this up over coffee last fall.
"There's something about dunking a basketball that lures us in," he said, reflecting on his first jam, during lunch period his sophomore year at De La Salle High in Concord, Calif., back when his driver's license read 5'11", 112 pounds. "It stokes the imagination. It's something you always dream of doing. I have a friend whose father, at age 50, is trying to dunk."
Barry, who retired from the NBA in 2009, recalled that a few days before our sit-down he "drove out to the Clippers' practice facility, wearing sneakers and board shorts, just to get my basketball fix in. Between games I pick up a ball. In the back of my mind I'm thinking, You're 42, man; can you still? So I do a little power dribble and, sure enough, throw it down. I put the ball down and walked out. I can still do that. That's good."
Unfortunately, I'm not the 6'7" son of a Hall of Famer, so I had to resort to desperate devices—like Hennessy, an inexpensive cognac that, according to one of the two NBA players who recommended it, "will give you that Yah! That bounce. That little bit of meanness you need." The minibar-sized bottle that I downed 30 minutes into an intense session on a sweltering day last summer had no effect other than scorching my esophagus and releasing from my pores an aura that, as my six-year-old put it, "smells like medicine."
After four months of failing to pull off anything even resembling a real dunk, the planets aligned on Aug. 9: Nineteen or so failed attempts into that afternoon, I dunked a soccer ball on a middle school court whose rim measured 9'11". (Naismith's original basketball, incidentally, was a soccer ball.) Video from that afternoon shows me standing there, looking confused, in the moment afterward. Did that just happen? Failing had become so routine that even this small success felt foreign.
The soccer dunk was fool's gold, of course. I knew I could never swing my arms that pendulously, that fast, while palming a basketball. The good news: I had reached that height despite jumping, as Brandon Todd would describe it, "wrong."
I sent a video of my soccer ball dunk to Todd, the #fivefivedunker, who informed me that I was leading with the wrong leg. I'd been taking my last big step with my left foot, which, as a righty, was like swinging a bat cross-handed. A few days later I encountered a blogger and 43-year-old dunker named Andy Nicholson who showed me, among many other things, that I wasn't the only one with blood on my hands. Nicholson was one of dozens of YouTubers, young and old (mostly young), who were documenting online their attempts to dunk. "Yes!" he yelled when I told him about the open sores on my fingers. "Those are badges of honor!"
Like Todd and me, Nicholson was a two-foot jumper, and he echoed what Todd had told me was another flaw in my technique: "Your next-to-last step has to be a lot bigger. That big leap forward with your right foot—your penultimate step—that's what allows you to explode off the ground." To demonstrate, Nicholson sent me a video of Carter's performance at the 2000 NBA Dunk Contest, which was a bit like showing a Monet to a finger-painting kindergartner and saying, "No, like this."
The way Arthur J. Daley and the other spectators at the Y felt when Fortenberry dunked—that's how fans at the Oakland Arena felt on Feb. 12, 2000, when Vince Carter shoved his forearm into the rim and swung there by his elbow. What only the initiated noticed about Carter's dunk was that if you froze him during his approach, he looked like Bob Beamon. Carter long-jumped some 12 feet, right foot leading the way, before landing for a nanosecond and blasting off into his two-footed ascent.
"That big step before the explosion," Carter explained to me, "is for the sole purpose of getting height above the rim. Ever since I was a kid trying to dunk, I never aimed for the rim. I tried to jump toward the top of the backboard. Aim for the moon and get the stars, right?"
"What single piece of advice," I asked Carter, "would you give a teenage kid—or a 43-year-old [as I had turned by then]—who is trying to dunk?"
"Put in the work. It's muscle memory, first and foremost. Trainingwise, people say, 'You gotta do this, you gotta do that.' I didn't believe in that. I never worked on my legs in high school or middle school. I would just go through this routine over and over, visualizing that day when you dunk on the court. And then you live in that moment."
Three weeks after I received that counsel, on a rare afternoon when I felt fully rested, I dunked a volleyball on a 9'11" rim. Again, I knew I could never swing my arms while palming a basketball the way I'd swung them while palming that volleyball, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't feel badass. Thirteen failed attempts later, I did it again. Then two more times, each one an unexpected thunderclap. All of the explosive Olympic lifting I'd been doing was paying off, but my problem wasn't going anywhere: How could I get my hand and a basketball over the cylinder? A lob to myself off the backboard? A big bounce off the blacktop?
Imperfect as my two options were, I had to choose one and commit. I didn't have time to play around. I had kids to raise, other projects to work on, an impending hip replacement to schedule.
What if someone lobbed it for me, though? This would violate my criterion that I do this all by myself—but no one has ever claimed that those Clippers who throw home Chris Paul's lobs aren't dunking. I didn't decide on this third option; not yet. But it was on the table. My main task was still finding a way to jump higher.
THE DAYS and jumps and deadlifts rolled on, rep by rep, protein shake by protein shake. Six months became seven, then eight. To protect my right hand, I began wearing a canvas gardening glove with the fingers cut off; it soon became stained with blood. The rims where I toiled belonged to me now, such that I barely noticed the toddlers wobbling nearby, the skateboarders swirling around me as day turned to dusk, the elderly couple ambling arm in arm, looking for all the world like my wife helping me to the shower on the morning after a double day.
I grew so desperate that I fell victim to a hoax, a fake tweet from @NASA promising that on Jan. 4 earthlings would experience a short period of weightlessness. If you think I was above circling the date and scouring the Internet to find my precise window of zero gravity, you are mistaken.
Early in my mission, my editor had given me a book, Jump Attack, by Tim Grover, personal trainer to Jordan, Dwyane Wade and myriad other NBA stars. I'd ignored it at first; I knew plenty about how to jump higher. When I finally opened it last December, I was further dissuaded. The exercises Grover prescribed to increase one's vertical leap looked either nonsensical (hold a deep lunge for 90 excruciating seconds) or sadistic (the series of rapid-fire bursts and landings that he'd named "attack depth jumps"). These self-immolations, Grover wrote, would last for three months.
When I phoned Grover and explained what I was up to, he dug right in. Helping people do the physically impossible is his stock-in-trade. "Everybody these days, they want it quick and easy," he said in his round-voweled Chicago accent. "They want gratification right now."
Grover had not built his empire by misleading clients or blowing smoke between their glutes. So I took it to heart, and felt a burst of hope, when he said, "I'd be shocked if you do everything in this book and you're not dunking." Which was all I needed to hear. I followed the Jump Attack program to the letter, and my training in December, January and February looked and felt nothing like what had preceded it. I spent a month doing those nonsensical lunge holds (and squat holds, push-up holds, chin-up holds). I trusted those holds, and the tendon-testing leg workouts that lasted 2½ hours and left me tasting my own broken-down muscle in my mouth. I trusted all of it because I was living in that moment, as Carter put it, when the hammering of Carter's "muscle memory" into my body finally would bear fruit and I'd pitch the ball downward into a 10-foot hoop like a cafeteria customer dunking a roll in coffee.
After a one-week recovery period in January following Phase 1 of Jump Attack, Phase 2 brought an increase in intensity and time investment. This was the last stop before Phase 3, the wilderness where those attack depth jumps lived. (Attack depth jumps: Rest on your knees in front of a box; explode to your feet without using your hands; immediately jump onto the box; immediately jump as high as you can off the box, landing on the balls of your feet. Repeat. Many times. No blacking out allowed.) Phase 3 brought dramatic increases in both explosiveness and hip flexibility, two critical ingredients that I started to feel working in tandem. I emerged both confident and in dire need of another one-week recovery period, which I spent playing with our kids and mouthing the syllable Ow. In early March, I returned to the rims with a friend whom I'd asked to toss lobs to me. There would be no more lifting. From here on, I just jumped and recovered, jumped and recovered, attacking this tiny window of three or four weeks before my time away from the gym began to sap my strength. It would be over at that point, all over, whether I wanted it to be or not.
I was still doing 200 calf raises every night, only now I did them with a 50-pound sandbag on my shoulders. Soon I began doing them one leg at a time, creating the sensation of twin blowtorches charring my posterior lower leg. The calf raises, though, weren't what caused the Achilles pain that had sprung up in February. That sting, combined with pain deep in my left knee, turned my quest into a race against the clock. What would I reach first: my goal or the nearest urgent care center? Which would survive intact: my corny belief in hard work or my patellar tendon?
When a scheduling conflict arose with my usual lobber, another friend, Jeff West, a 45-year-old neighbor whose daughters are the same ages as mine, offered to jump aboard my journey to irrelevance. He also ended up injecting a crucial element that I hadn't realized was missing. Fun.
I had allowed what began as an adventure to turn into hard labor, an eternal grind. I realize now that one of the reasons I had trained and jumped in solitude for so long was embarrassment, fear that passersby would judge me for embarking on this vain vision quest.
I had worked alone in this vacuum for so long that when Jeff, in our first session together, began responding to my near misses with stuff like, "You are right there! You got this, bro! You just have to visualize it!" it hit me as if Jordan himself were saying it.
Dunking became a game again. After my closest misses I'd hop around and swear like a golfer whose playoff putt had lipped out. These outbursts were no longer harsh self-admonitions but celebrations of my progress, acknowledgments that I was getting tantalizingly close. I could feel my legs gaining in bounciness. I could feel my hips, quads and calves learning to fire simultaneously. My original lobber returned to the scene and suggested I try dunking in the morning instead of the evening, when the batteries in our old bodies are as low as the ones in our phones. I added this sage advice to the long list of microdetails "that help you steal inches," as Todd had phrased it. "A quarter-inch here, a half-inch there."
March 27 was yet another in a long string of days, each feeling as if it would be the day. Fully rested and caffeinated, I arrived with Jeff at a court, recommended by Brent Barry, whose rim heights fluctuated but which I'd recently measured at 10 feet. The rims at New York City's famed Rucker Park, incidentally, both measured under 9'9" on a recent visit, which raises all sorts of questions about what a dunk is and what it isn't. The famed outdoor rims along Venice Beach, if lined up next to each other, would look like a graphic equalizer during a Ray Manzarek keyboard solo: 9'9", 9'11", 9'8".
After warming up, I proceeded to slam Jeff's best lobs off the back rim at least 10 times, watching these missed dunks rebound high over the lane and land somewhere near the three-point line. It's tough to express how difficult it was to pack up and walk away from the court on such days, to listen to my body when it told me it had reached the point of diminishing returns. To come up with yet another way to tell the wife: No, not today, Sugar. But I came reeeally close.
MY WARMUP on March 29 left me feeling hoppier than I'd expected, and not nearly as achy. After 10 devastating near misses, and several others that weren't as close, Jeff lofted the best lob I would see during this journey. I leaped, controlled it with one hand and—boodaloomp—in and out. I could have wept. "You got this!" Jeff implored. "You know you got this!"
Maximum force into the ground, I whispered to myself, a key reminder I'd picked up at The Yard.
Jump through the backboard.
Forty-five seconds later, when Jeff's next lob drifted into place, I reminded myself to mentally record what happened in the next half second so I could replay it whenever I wanted. Sure, I could always watch the video, but the lens in my mind provided a clearer view, a closer angle of the ball leaving my hand, shooting downward, denting the net.
The first sound I heard was Jeff's single clap of celebration. I erupted, sprinting to the iPhone that had captured the moment and thanking my friend, my wife, The Yard. It had taken 363 days.
Afterward, as planned, I delivered the footage to two judges so they could deem my dunk official. Barry's response came by text. "As Marv Albert would say: Yes! And it counts!"
When Oliver Fortenberry saw the video, he let loose a rousing, "Yes, sir!" that reminded me of a story he had told during our first talk:
"My dad tried dunking when he was in his mid-50s. Got a wild hair one day and went out in the driveway with a ball. We all followed him. He was wearing slacks and hard-soled shoes, and when he went up, his pipe and his tobacco flew out of his shirt pocket. He lost his balance and almost fell over when he landed. But he did it."
Joe would die some 30 years later, at age 82, but what he said that day as he stood in a puddle of dry tobacco—his clothes disheveled, the other Fortenberrys yelping a chorus of excited Yessirs—spoke to me in a way that can only be understood by those who blindly take on missions that exact a greater toll than was envisioned. "Well," he said with a grin, "that's the last time I'll ever do that."
Watch McKnight's journey to jamming—culled from more than 24 hours of video footage—at SI.com/longform