Many people applaud it as the most spectacular shot in basketball, although purists warn that it is dangerous and gauche. Pure or impure, the dunk is back from its Rip Van Winkle in the NCAA's closet, but what is it back as? Entertainment? A frivolous footnote? College basketball's version of swine flu?
Prohibition forced the dunk into the speakeasies of the playgrounds when it was outlawed in 1967, but now that it is again legal, everyone is bellying up to the rim and slamming down a shot. Players today are faster and stronger and jump higher, and many teams have dunkers down to the 12th man. Alabama's 5'9", 141-pound freshman guard, Kent Looney, can slam with two hands. The University of Louisville Cardinals call themselves the Doctors of Dunk. A subculture is developing around the shot, and fans are discussing its practitioners the way they might compare All-America candidates.
Debate about the dunk is nothing new. Its mystique is such that when the NCAA reinstated it this season, but continued to ban it in pre-game warmups, the advocates cried that was like giving them the cake without the ice cream. Conservatives, meanwhile, warned that it was only a matter of time before someone named Elevator Risin' would spray a crowd with shrapnel from a shattered backboard. What has happened, of course, is a little of this, a little of that. The dunk has won some and lost some.
Most people see the dunk as a statement of sorts, like driving a sports car or wearing denim to the office. Coaches, concerned only with statements that produce W's, are ambivalent, but players love it, probably because entire groups, such as little old ladies and jockeys, cannot do it. Says Jerome Whitehead, Marquette's 6'10" center, who hung on the rim at Drake and almost pulled down the entire basket and backboard, "It's the shot that expresses the dominance of the big man—an expression like wanting to kill somebody. To beat them bad." And as for destroying a backboard, that might be the ultimate expression, claims Tennessee All-America Ernie Grunfeld. "I've never seen the backboard shattered, but I've always wanted to do it," he says. No wonder Chuck Neinas, the Big Eight commissioner, sent out an urgent memo before the season's start, instructing teams to have a spare backboard and goal at each game.
Injuries have occurred, but have not affected the dunk's popularity. Clint Richardson of Seattle suffered a severe hand cut while trying to block a dunk. Bill Blakeley, North Texas State's coach, recalls that one of his former players at Christian College of the Southwest, Claude (Snowflake) English, gashed his head on the rim while dunking. Following repairs, Snowflake commented, "It was worth it." Ironically, a coach almost suffered a serious injury: Virginia's Terry Holland, a former star at Davidson, demonstrated a dunk to his players and his whistle caught in the net. "I almost hung myself," said Holland.
Generally, coaches agree that those who would ban the dunk to prevent injury are overreacting. "Fools are the only people who get hurt dunking a ball," says Auburn Coach Bob Davis. "And they are going to get hurt anyway." "Most of the trouble," says Washington State Coach George Raveling, "comes from those little pygmies trying to impress their girl friends."
The Shot is formidable. Ohio State Coach Elon Miller describes a dunk by Indiana's Kent Benson: "I thought he was going to tear down the building." After Auburn's Mike Mitchell slammed one, LSU Coach Dale Brown said, "It was like a catapult, like one of those things they used in medieval warfare." Says David Greenwood of UCLA, "It really takes courage to stand in there and try to block a dunk." Marv Harshman, the coach of Washington, agrees. "I tell my players, 'Hey, you've got to give up your body.' But if I was out there, I'd probably get out of the road, too."
Currently, the University of Detroit is leading the broken-rim sweepstakes. At last count the flamboyant Titans had broken 20, and they cost $30 apiece. The team's equipment manager, Dominic Volpe, is so miffed that he will not talk to Coach Dick Vitale.
The dunk can break a team's spirit as well as a rim. "When you stuff one," says Iowa Forward William Mayfield, "you are telling your man that you can take him." In Alabama's first game of the year the amazing Looney went over Purdue's seven-foot center, Joe Barry Carroll, and dunked a rebound that helped turn a 12-point deficit into a 17-point Alabama victory. "It's got to be an awful feeling when your man dunks over you in front of 15,000 people," says Kenny Carr of North Carolina State. After Marquette's Bo Ellis stuffed against Penn State, breaking open a tight game, losing coach John Bach said, "It was like he drove a stake into my heart." It might be that the coaches' divergent views on the play depend on whose ox is getting dunked.
Could it be that the colleges are shooting field goals with record-setting accuracy because of the dunk's return? Says Norm Ellenberger, New Mexico's coach, "I can't think of a higher percentage shot than sticking your arm through the rim with the ball in your hand." Players like freshman Center Lavon Mercer of Georgia, shooting .592 from the floor, and Georgetown's Tom Scates make many of their points off the dunk. "If it weren't for the dunk, Scates might not be playing," says Penn Coach Chuck Daly. "It's his only shot."