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Bet You Wish You Could DUNK
February 25, 2008
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
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February 25, 2008

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

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The half-life of a generic NBA fast-break jam might be one replay, but a transcendent dunk such as Davis's lives forever. The NBA featured it in a commercial at the start of this season, the Warriors reproduced it on a poster they handed out at their home opener, and clips of it have been viewed more than a million times on YouTube. Almost a year later, wherever the Warriors go, people ask Davis about the dunk. "Kids, adults, everyone," he says. "They say, 'That's the guy who dunked on the big guy.'"

Here's the thing, though: Davis's slam was only one basket, and not even an important one. At the time the Warriors were up by 20 points with less than three minutes left. And the dunk had no lasting impact—Golden State lost the next two games and the playoff series. It was a beautiful moment, certainly, but did it matter? Just as Dawkins's first backboard-shattering jam came during a loss, Davis's feat simply punctuated a blowout.

But then dunks have been eclipsing the rest of the game for years. That's why Vince (What Defensive Stance?) Carter was the leading All-Star vote-getter for four seasons, why Mars Blackmon sold all those shoes. Blame ESPN or Nike or whichever corporate entity you like, but it doesn't change the fact that the slam is embedded in U.S. culture. So embedded, in fact, that some people want to dig it out.

TOM NEWELL has a revolutionary idea, insofar as any idea your own father had more than 45 years ago can be revolutionary: Raise the rim. Newell, a former assistant with a number of NBA teams and coach of the Japanese national team, is the son of Pete Newell, the renowned former coach of San Francisco, Michigan State and Cal. Tom, who like his father believes that the dominance of big men is killing the game, raises some interesting questions. Is the decline of the U.S. national team the result of players practicing backward slams rather than backdoor cuts? Do we crave the dunk at the expense of other, more dynamic plays? And if the jam were rarer, would we appreciate it even more?

Last summer, Newell the younger staged an exhibition at the University of Washington called For the Love of the Game, in which two teams of collegians and low-level pros—from the CBA and overseas teams—played with 11-foot baskets, making dunks prohibitive. Newell deemed the game a great success, but if you view the video, it's hard to get too excited. It's like watching an eighth-grade team: lots of standing around as clusters of players reach for rebounds like tossed bridal bouquets, then try to hoist the ball back up.

One advantage of 11-foot rims, however, would be that only certain NBA players could throw down, which means no more Rasho Nesterovic "dinks." Not surprisingly, though, pros scoff at the idea of raising the rim. "Ridiculous," says the Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James. "That's like taking the deep pass out of football." Even players one might expect to welcome raising the rim—which is to say, nondunkers, which is further to say, short white guys—don't all buy in. Kerr calls the 11-foot rim "unimaginable."

And the Suns' Steve Nash doesn't entirely agree with the purists' perception that the league needs more play-the-right-way guys. "The truth is we need more of those, but we still want the spectacular finisher," Nash said last year. "People say they want the league to have more [fundamental play], but if they're going to choose one, they're going to go with the badass dunks."

Ironically, it is the badass dunkers who tend to downplay the slam, for fear it might define them—a problem that never troubled, say, Julius Erving. Ten years from now Davis may be remembered for his jam over Kirilenko, just as fans remember John Starks (lefty slam on Jordan), Tom Chambers (surreal head-at-the-rim dunk) and Dominique Wilkins (who wasn't defined by one dunk so much as by all of them). "Once you get labeled a dunker, it's hard to get rid of the stigma," says Wilkins, who at 48 claims he can still dunk. "They start thinking that's all you can do." Indeed, in 1996, when Wilkins was left off the list of the 50 greatest players in NBA history, it might have been partly because of his reputation as a jammer. "For me it's a travesty," he says. "You don't get 26,000 points on dunks alone." (Though the Orlando Magic's Dwight Howard appears to be trying.)

That's why some of today's top players try not to be recognized as dunkers. Witness last weekend's Rising Stars Dunk Contest, won by Howard, a true star, but otherwise featuring a bunch of guys—Gerald Green, Jamario Moon, Rudy Gay—who won't be appearing in Hanes commercials anytime soon. Jordan made his career on the jam; now James tries to make his career in spite of it. Shortly after entering the league, James was lobbied hard by one of his sponsors, Sprite, to enter the dunk contest, but he declined. "I just felt like I was in the NBA to showcase my talent and all phases of my game," James says.

So we've come to this strange intersection: great leapers preaching, Dunk as I say, not as I do. "I try to encourage [the complete] game," says Wilkins, now the Atlanta Hawks' vice president of basketball. "Dunking is secondary. That's just a tool I used for intimidation." Wilkins will never let his sons, Isiah, age 12, and Jacob, 1, dunk on lowered rims. Says the Human Highlight Film, sounding more like the Human Rec League Coach, "I tell my kids, 'You aren't able to dunk now, so you better work on other parts of your game.'"

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