When I ask them how one dunks, the boys all raise their hands, some jumping up and down. They expound strategies, from holding the ball with two hands to achieving the right balance to "getting lots taller." Finally, Mohammed asks his own question. "So," he says, earnestly, "are you going to tell us how to do it now?"
JULIUS ERVING once said, "When you feel yourself go up above the rim for the first time and put the ball through, there's nothing like it. You want to do it again and again and again." Wilkins says throwing down made him feel like a king. The year after that Stanford camp where I played with Webber, I dunked for the first time. I didn't feel especially regal, but then I relied on a slightly deflated ball and a half-court run-up. Soon enough, though, I had a repertoire of five or six dunks. In the following years I practiced dunking often and implemented it rarely. At Division III Pomona College I had a total of one dunk, and it was in a jayvee game. Against Cal Tech. And I traveled on the play.
Still, it was always something I took pride in. So last year, when, at 33, it took me a half-dozen attempts to weakly wedge one home, it was unsettling, a reminder of my athletic mortality. And I wondered, If a weekend warrior like me takes it this hard, how does a man for whom jumping is a livelihood and an identity take it?
Few things are as sad to watch as the aging of an athlete, and none declines faster than a leaper. Remember Erving, in that shameless pay-per-view one-on-one game against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, missing a one-handed slam? (If the answer is no, you're lucky.) Or how about the 38-year-old Michael Jordan—Michael Frickin' Jordan—clanging a wide-open breakaway jam in the 2002 All-Star Game? As Baron Davis puts it, "Your hops are the first thing to retire," and it happens before our eyes. Consider: At the All-Star break Nuggets reserve forward Linas Kleiza had more dunks (40) than Vince Carter (35). What a surprise that Carter wasn't voted onto the '08 East All-Star team. "When that jumping ability dissipates," says Wilkins, "you're just an ordinary guy."
So how do NBA players deal with it? Warriors assistant coach and former Indiana star Keith Smart—you remember him from his role in that hit movie Baseline Jumper for the NCAA Title—is now 43, and he describes his last dunk with the mixed emotions most people feel watching a child graduate from college. "I was 37 years old, and it was a one-hand squeaker," says Smart. Once a high flier who threw down 360s, he felt his legs start to go after his playing career ended. "When I became a coach, my goal was always to dunk by the first day of training camp," Smart says. "Then it was by the first game, then by the New Year. Finally, we played down in Florida [not long after New Year's] and I got warmed up and did it. That was the last one." The psychic toll was steep. Smart stopped playing even in pickup games. "I got frustrated not being able to do what I used to do."
The Cavs' Eric Snow isn't there yet, but he knows the day is coming. The 6'3" guard used to unwind some nasty dunks—windmills and the like—but at 34 he's on the downside of his career. After a recent practice, with ice on both ankles and one knee, he said that he has a bet with teammate Damon Jones, also 6'3": The first one to dunk in a game gets dinner from the other. Said Snow, "That bet's been going for three years now."
It got so that Snow felt like he was losing his rep. So when younger Cleveland players doubted him, he brought in a DVD of dunking highlights from his Michigan State days and stuck it on repeat on the TV in the locker room. "They thought I could only do those simple dunks," he said, "so I had to show them some proof."
Now, Snow said, "there are only certain days I feel up to doing it [in practice]," but it remains important to him. "It's different if you're 6'8" and 34 years old. Donyell Marshall is 6'9". Dunking's not a big deal to him. It's only a big deal to me because I'm smaller." Snow paused, then looked out on the court and pointed. "I never could do that, though." There, at the near basket, James was ripping off a series of astounding dunks. He was shirtless, all corded muscle, the embodiment of youth and athleticism. As a crowd of teammates and reporters gathered, he rose again and again, each time delivering a ferocious finish: a 360, a two-hander off the backboard, a power one-hand extension, each accompanied by a prodigious thunk!
Later I asked James what he thinks it will feel like when he can no longer jam. He talked about watching his sons grow up, then made a joke and finally said, "Maybe that will happen one day"—as if he might ward off aging like just another weak double team.
THE DUNK is important; it is unimportant. Last month, after sitting out the first half of the season as a free agent, Webber signed with the Warriors. He's 34 now, with knees weakened from surgery. Never an outrageous leaper, he has become increasingly grounded.