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Sundvold rationalizes his failings with lower mathematics, the power of three-point thinking. "When I was in high school and college, dunking was a big deal," says Sundvold, recalling those heady days at Blue Springs and Columbia, Mo. "But for a 6'2" white kid, no matter how high you jumped it wasn't high enough. I stopped practicing dunks and started firing 30-footers. Their shots only count two."
Some are persistent dreamers, still clinging to fantasies of flight. Brooks jams on nine-foot playground baskets in California during the summer, just to know the feeling. Before Price suffered a torn ligament in his left knee this season, he and Cavalier teammate Kerr would hold regular dunk contests after shootarounds. "The first one who dunked, no matter how ugly, won," Price says. The competition sometimes lasted as long as most marathons.
For a few, there was a momentous, terminal grounding—some crisis of airborne confidence or a crash landing before a giggling crowd. This happened to Ainge, in 1985. "I went up for a dunk on a break in Hartford, and my leg gave out," Ainge says. "It was ugly and embarrassing. Then I came downcourt for another one, and I threw this one off the back rim. I vowed never to try it again."
Cheeks also remembers his last dunk. It occurred when he was with Philadelphia, in the final seconds of the 76ers' Game 4 victory over the Lakers for the 1983 NBA championship. It climaxed a fast break and put an exclamation mark on Cheeks's only title. "That was all emotion," Cheeks says. "I had been on a team of dunkers, guys like Julius Erving and Moses Malone and they were always telling me to dunk. Except for that night, I just enjoyed watching them."
This admirable restraint and objective self-evaluation is noticeably absent from some athletes of Group 3 and, in particular, Group 4 (Lousy Dunkers). Bird, for instance, pressed his luck in the final minutes of Game 5 of the opening playoff round last season, blew a jam, and the Celtics were eliminated by the Knicks. Willis has gained some renown for his rim-clattering nonslams. Two seasons ago at Dallas, after he missed a slam, the ball caromed 10 rows deep into a Reunion Arena crowd, which set the unofficial distance record for a nondunk. Hawkins bruised his wrist in November, stuffing against Indiana. "This doesn't happen to Charles Barkley," he said to reporters. "Maybe I should stop."
Maybe he should, as have the stratosphere-jaded veterans who now make do with sea-level layups. The Celtics' former guard Dennis Johnson, who's 6'4", made it a point to dunk once every season, just to show his teammates he could. Drew did that for a while, then stopped. "In my early years I was pretty frisky," he says. "But I got more aches and pains with age. For me, landing wasn't the problem. I never got up that high. But I'd slide on my instep and sprain an ankle on the way up."
If it is any consolation to Drew and the others, nondunkers have certain advantages over the earth orbiters. This information comes from no less an authority than professor Douglas Kirkpatrick, a senior member of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and a division chief for Space Systems Analysis for the Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs.
According to Kirkpatrick—whom you may recognize from his cameo performance in those Michael Jordan sneaker commercials done by Spike Lee—players who don't dunk the ball actually travel faster through the air than those who do. At least from a strictly horizontal perspective. "It's basic physics," says Kirkpatrick, who has been jumping for years but has yet to touch the rim. " Jordan comes in at 11 to 12 miles per hour horizontal velocity and converts this to the appropriate vertical velocity. Those with less propellant in their leg muscles have less momentum transfer, so they don't convert the speed. They continue to travel at a speed closer to their original horizontal velocity."
Efficient horizontal vectors may be nice, say the nondunkers, but they don't get shoe-endorsement contracts. "There aren't too many Air Affords out there," says the Mavericks' earthbound guard.