OF COURSE, there are plenty of men for whom dunking holds no stigma but rather is an art unto itself. Once upon a time these jammers were playground legends, cats like Herman (Helicopter) Knowings and Earl (the Goat) Manigault and Demetrius (Hook) Mitchell, who at 5'11" would do 360s over cars to win dunk contests. They were never more than legends, though, celebrated only by word of mouth. Men like the Goat had a rep; today playground stars have reps. Opportunity awaits them above the rim: join a street-ball tour, film DVDs, perform at halftimes and, of course, gain instant international fame on the Web. A nickname is essential, so we have High Rizer and Elevator, and we've got Taurian (The Air Up There) Fontenette, whose surreal 720 jam has been viewed more than four million times on YouTube.
You don't even need to play street ball, or live near anything resembling "the streets," to join this act. In 2003 a 6'6" high school player named Henry Bekkering from the woodsy town of Taber, Alberta (pop. 7,671), entered a dunking contest at a Canadian high school all-star game. Of course, someone had a camera and uploaded clips to the Web. They're remarkable to watch: First Bekkering does a two-handed dip-it between-the-legs reverse, then on the next jam he sticks his arm elbow-deep into the rim a la Vince Carter, and on the final dunk he leaps over a camper standing a few feet in front of the basket. But the real holy s--- moment is Bekkering's final dunk, never seen in an NBA contest: He takes to the air from just inside the free throw line, leans at a 45-degree angle and jams lefthanded. Adding to the unlikely nature of the spectacle, Bekkering is as white as Mitt Romney.
The dunk is not always a faithful mistress, though. Bekkering, who was featured on television shows and magazine covers because of his jams, was on scholarship at Eastern Washington, but the coach didn't play him much. (He was also on the football team, assigned to the kick-blocking unit "like a little circus animal, sent in to jump high," he says with a laugh.) Maybe the expectations provoked by his dunking were too high. In 2006 he transferred to the University of Calgary, where this season he is averaging 20.5 points and three dunks a game as a fourth-year junior small forward. "I wanted to establish myself as a basketball player," Bekkering says of his decision to return to Canada. "In dunking circles they were always saying, 'There's that white kid who can jump.' That's not everything about basketball."
Bekkering may not have NBA talent, but Ronnie Fields sure did. Fields was a star at Chicago's Farragut Academy in the 1990s, playing alongside Kevin Garnett on the '94--95 city championship team. As early as the eighth grade he was competing in adult leagues and, in the words of his high school coach, William Nelson, "dunking on grown-ass men." His first two points as a freshman were on a 180 double-pump jam. Blessed with a 40-inch vertical leap, the 6'3" shooting guard scored 2,619 points in his high school career and tallied 372 dunks, numbers you can find alongside the giant mural of Fields that graces Farragut's gym wall, across from a mural of Garnett. The main difference in the two paintings is that Garnett is in a Minnesota Timberwolves jersey, while Fields wears his Farragut uni. You see, despite all his talent, Fields never developed a perimeter game. He didn't need one in high school, and he passed on college, where he might have broadened his skills. Lacking three-point range, and playing tentatively for fear of aggravating a neck injury he suffered in a car accident in 1996, he never made the NBA, instead toiling for teams like the Pennsylvania Valleydawgs of the USBL. For what it's worth, though, Fields remains a legend in Chicago. Says Nelson, "All the shorties want to dunk like Ronnie."
Ah, the shorties. No one is more fascinated by the dunk. At the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., there are rims set at six, seven, eight and nine feet. According to Matt Zeysing, the Hall historian, they are "probably our most popular element." There's a simple reason for this: Dunking is really, really fun. It's also very hard not to look cool when you do it.
Nowhere is this more evident than at Farragut. One night in January the Admirals played Clark High, a magnet school they outclassed in size and talent, and a jam contest quickly broke out among Farragut players. The first play of the game was a backdoor alley-oop lob and jam. By halftime the Admirals had six dunks, three of them by 6'10" senior Michael Dunigan, who'll play for Oregon next season. By the end of the third quarter Farragut had a 30-point lead and 11 dunks. After one thunderous Dunigan follow jam, three boys ran screaming out of the gym, as if they'd just seen a zombie, while women shrieked and danced and the man on the P.A. roared, "Wow! Did you see that dunk?"
Feeling the revivalist fever in this gym, you can see how Fields got sidetracked. In neighborhoods such as south Chicago, the dunk is a kingmaker. "Everybody knows the kid who can throw down," says Nelson. "You forget who's the great passer, the shooter. Look at my boys—probably seven of the 11 dunk, but three of them can really dunk. Those are the three that people come to see."
One of the nondunkers is Isaiah Williams, a 6'1" senior guard. In four years he's thrown down only once in a game. "People always tell me if I dunked more often, it would separate me from other players," he says, "but it's just not part of my game."
Part of his game? Go further down the hoops ladder, to boys in the seventh and eighth grades, and everyone expects dunking to be a part of his game. At Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley, Calif., all 14 members of the seventh-grade boys' basketball team raise their hands when I ask how many of them believe they will one day throw it down. This includes 4'8" Mohammed Aledlah, a cheery 12-year-old with sheepdog bangs who is wearing a girls' uniform because the boys' are all too big (and his shorts still hang down well below his knees).
Like all seventh-graders, these boys have strong opinions. On dunking, this is what they believe: That it's the easiest way to score, because you can miss a layup but "you never miss a dunk." That they'd rather be able to slam in traffic than drain three-pointers, because throwing down "makes you more popular" and, well, it would be really fun (and here there is much acting out of tremendous jams). That LeBron doesn't enter the dunk contest because it's called the Rising Stars Dunk Contest (duh!), and he's a real star. That Jordan is the greatest dunker ever, and "didn't he once do it from half-court?" That Nash would be way, way more popular if he could jam. And that the idea of an 11-foot rim is really stupid—so stupid that "someone should get in trouble" just for proposing it.