In the off-season the league also reduced the amount of contact that defenders may have with offensive players by severely limiting hand checking. It's a move the NBA's better shooters obviously endorse. "If players can come off a pick and not get bumped or held, you're going to see them hit more jumpers," says Miller.
Think of how the gunslingers of the past would have salivated over a 22-foot three-point shot and curtailed hand checking. Begin the roll call, and you'll find it's hard to stop: Collins, Bobby Dandridge, Gail Goodrich, Pete Maravich, Bob McAdoo, Jon McGlocklin, Calvin Murphy, Rudy Tomjanovich, JoJo White.... "You can't even list them all," says Nugget general manager Bernie Bickerstaff. "The league had so many guys who just buried the open jumper. Certain players today shoot as well as anybody from the past, but there just aren't as many of them."
One clear advantage the current generation has over its predecessors is that big men are better shooters than they were 10 to 20 years ago. The 6'9" McAdoo, the best-shooting big man of his era, wouldn't be such a rarity today, when players like the Knicks' 7-foot Patrick Ewing, the Rockets' 7-foot Hakeem Olajuwon, the New Jersey Nets' 6'10" Derrick Coleman and the San Antonio Spurs' 7'1" David Robinson are comfortable shooting 20-footers. Nonetheless, it's becoming increasingly clear that the NBA has entered the Dunk Ages, an era when jamming the ball through the net is far more glamorous than tossing it in from long distance. And while the dunking is being elevated, outside shooting is becoming, if not a lost art, at least a fading one.
"This is a generation of dunkers," says former Piston star Isiah Thomas (page 114), the vice president of basketball operations for the expansion Toronto Raptors. "Players are learning how to dunk as opposed to learning how to play. Sometimes you watch a game and you ask yourself, Why can't anybody shoot anymore?"
A number of answers come to mind:
Dr. J. That's right, Julius Erving, one of the game's immortals, is indirectly responsible for the shooting decline. Erving turned dunking into an art form, and he was so good at it that a generation of players grew up trying to imitate him. Instead of shooting hundreds of free throws in the driveway or at the playground, many of today's NBA players grew up hanging from the rim and practicing their 360-degree midair spins. Instead of pulling up for the jumper, they went to the hoop at every opportunity. After Erving came Michael Jordan, who took the dunk to yet another level, and gradually the jump shot became an afterthought for many developing players. Shooting leaves no room for the creativity that has become such a large part of the sport. Good shooters do it the same way almost every time. Where's the fun in that?
"People didn't realize that there was a lot more substance to Dr. J's and Michael's games," says Bickerstaff. "Michael became a great jump shooter, and Dr. J got to the point where you couldn't lay off him. They had complete games, but a lot of kids growing up only want to copy the spectacular stuff. I've got a young son at home, and all he talks about is throwing it down on somebody."
Collins and his son, Chris, now a shooting guard at Duke, gave a clinic for some youngsters two years ago in which the elder Collins discussed proper shooting technique, which his son demonstrated. "Chris took about 25 three-pointers, and he must have hit 18 or 20 of them," says Doug. "Shot after shot, swish, swish, swish. When we were done, we took questions, and the first thing they wanted to know from Chris was, 'Can you dunk?' "
Kids aren't the only ones who are taken with the dunk. Madison Avenue is just as impressed, which is why jamming has become the fastest route to riches and fame. Winning the slam-dunk contest at the 1991 All-Star Game got Boston Celtic guard Dee Brown a sneaker commercial. "It's the dunkers who wind up on the posters," says Charlotte forward Larry Johnson, "not the jump shooters."
Fascination with the dunk isn't limited to the NBA. When Dream Team II played in the world championships in Toronto in August, the most popular players among the international fans were Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal and Seattle SuperSonic forward Shawn Kemp—because they were the most spectacular dunkers. The long-range shooting of Majerle, Miller, Price and Dumars drew appreciative applause, but O'Neal's and Kemp's rim-rattlers brought the house down.