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Bet You Wish You Could Dunk

Though it may be reaching the end of its evolution, the jam -- or stuff, windmill, skywalk, throwdown, 360, boomshakalaka -- is still the most admired and, for many of us, elusive shot in hoops

Posted: Wednesday February 20, 2008 11:45AM; Updated: Friday February 22, 2008 11:31AM
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Off the court Howard doesn't pose as a mild-mannered reporter, but to win last weekend's All-Star dunk contest, he donned a cape and flew to the hoop like the man from Krypton himself.
Off the court Howard doesn't pose as a mild-mannered reporter, but to win last weekend's All-Star dunk contest, he donned a cape and flew to the hoop like the man from Krypton himself.
Greg Nelson/SI
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By Chris Ballard

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.

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").

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