On the John
Originally published in NUVO Newsweekly on February 25, 2006
To Dunk. To throwdown. To Jam. To rise up beyond all reason and stuff a ball through a hoop. Straight poetry in the athletic form in the forum of basketball. Pure expression from the artisan, pure entertainment for the fan. To combine the most incredible athletic feats with the most challenging and beautiful artistic creations. Slaaaaaaam Dunk.
The first great in-game dunk I ever saw came in the late 80’s during a game between the Bulls and the Knicks. Their epic playoff battles were still a few years down the road; in the meantime both teams were exploring the possibilities of building around their young stars Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing. As it would happen, the first Great In-Game Dunk I ever saw actually involved both players in the roles that they would perfect in the 90’s: Michael as attacker and victor, Patrick as the constant warrior, ever so noble in defeat.
The dunk came in the midst of a Bulls fast break. Bulls’ point guard Sam Vincent was pushing the ball on the left side, while Michael was running a step ahead of him on the right side. As Michael passed the three point line, he pointed towards the basket with his right hand, and seeing this, Vincent quickly lobbed the ball towards the hoop. The Knick D was a step slow, with MJ darting past Mark Jackson as Ewing stepped forward to front Vincent.
But Vincent had already thrown the oop.
In a flash, Michael was in the air, ever-rising, catching the ball in the middle of his elevation, and when he slammed the ball home, the tip of his near-bald head was above the bottom of the backboard. He hung on the rim, and because he had to duck underneath the backboard to avoid hitting his head, he found himself NEARLY SIDEWAYS on the other side of the backboard. Now he had to avoid falling on his side, and thus he swung back under the glass, right into the 7’1” Ewing, who took Jordan’s knees right across his face as Michael regained body control.
[AUTHOR’S NOTE: FF to 1:38 of this Jordan “top 40” reel for the dunk on Ewing]
I was with my dad at the time, I but a wee seven year old watching hoops with his pop, and though I needed my dad to explain to me why MJ had held onto the rim rather than letting go, I knew that I had just witnessed something spectacular. Oh, to be a sports fan coming of age in the age of His Airness.
The most exciting normal play in sports is the home run, but for pure mind-bending, awe-inspiring, expletive-creating madness, nothing tops a great slam dunk, particularly one born out of the action and reaction of a single basketball situation. You can recreate within yourself the act of hitting a ball over a fence or catching a long TD pass, but there’s no way to recreate Dominique unnecessarily and awesomely attacking in traffic so that he can dunk over three confused defenders who were sure that he would settle for the open jumper.
The Slam Dunk. A product of athleticism and competition and pure human expression that ultimately lives in the imagination. One of my favorite moments in sport is the moment when a basketball player has the ball on the break with no defenders in front of him. It is that moment, after the pass yet before the lift off, where we are waiting for the dunk. And then, within the span of a single second, we advance from a state of anticipation to one of ground level unanalyzed amazement, and as the player runs back up the court while we cheer him on, our brain is trying to properly compute the image of a person leaping two and a half feet above the ground, spinning his body around in a complete circle, and then slamming a ball through a metal circle ten feet in the air with one hand all in the span of half a syllable.
The dunk is the only play in sport that allows the performer to apply his own creative touch. You’ll never see Barry Bonds do a 360 spin approach before hitting a home run, and you’ll never see Peyton Manning toss the ball behind his back to himself before throwing a touchdown pass, but if you watch long enough you might see Andre Iguodala leaping from behind the basket, catching an oop off the back of the backboard, and then ducking underneath the backboard and basket before slamming down a thunderous reverse jam all in the midst of a single jump.
How did he do that? That is the question that sets dunking apart from other impressive athletic feats. The best dunks feature an actual human being contorting his body and engaging in extraordinary displays of pure strength, agility, and athleticism, and the viewer is not left simply wondering how he did it, but also wondering how he even thought of it. It’s not just the execution of the feat that amazes us, but also the invention of the idea itself. Dunks turn the inconceivable into the unbelievable, the ultimate fusing of body and mind. In other words, everything that makes us human.
Copyright 2006, jm silverstein
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