Lots of young white men have been dunking basketballs in northern Vermont this summer. In about a decade of watching and playing a lot of high school basketball in the Green Mountain State, I saw a total of four successful dunks in live game play. One of those, I remember, came in the 2002 boys' state finals between my high school, Brattleboro, and a northern rival, Spaulding. It was late in a close game at the University of Vermont's Patrick Gymnasium—filled to capacity with about 3,300 people—when a Spaulding player took off on a fast break and threw down a two handed jam. We, the Brattleboro fans, sat in an impressed, stunned silence as the Spaulding crowd went ballistic. For a lot of people there that night, it may have very well been the first dunk they'd ever witnessed live.
Still, this summer, lots of young white men have been dunking basketballs in northern Vermont. They've been throwing down tomahawks, 360s, between-the-legs, alley-oops, reverses. They've been doing it with ease.
They've been doing it on eight-and-a-half-foot rims.
The Mini Basketball League (MBL) began last summer, when three friends and recent graduates of Rice Memorial High in South Burlington, home for their first summer back from college, decided to make a full-flung organization out of a whimsical idea—the basis of which is that Vermonters playing basketball would be much more fun if the Vermonters could dunk basketballs.
"It makes it a different game," co-founder Connor McCormick told the Burlington Free Press last week, "so you can do the Blake Griffin stuff."
The 14-team league, which plays 3-on-3 ball, has its games in a backyard in Shelburne (pop. 7,000), on a 30-by-60-foot court surrounded by hockey-rink boards. Dan Morrissey, father of four, had originally built the court to serve as a miniature replica of the Montreal Forum. When his sons joined the league in its inaugural season last summer, they split games between Morrissey's Forum and a court (without walls) at co-founder Connor McCormick's house. This year, every game was played in the Morrissey backyard.
McCormick, along with Brian McClintock and Rob Elderton (Mr. Morrissey's nephew), established the league rules last year. This summer, they made a more concerted attempt at earning viral power for MBL: most of the teams bought matching NBA jerseys, and they designed a logo and set up Facebook and YouTube accounts. On YouTube, they edited game highlight videos spliced over Wiz Khalifa and Archie Eversole songs and sometimes Celtic string music. They chest-bump after alley-oops and often, with a hint of bashfulness, preen for the small crowd that usually lines the walls. This year, they had a dunk contest, an all-star game, and a USA-Canada game against a squad from Montreal. The online presence—along with the very spectacle of it all—got MBL featured on both SportsNation and The Basketball Jones this past July. Beyond those basic attractions, though, the league just looks like a lot of fun. It is also seems, at first glance, like exactly the sort of thing that former Vermont players would come up with.
By nature of the talent pool that it pulls from, Vermont high school basketball depends on what a lot of misguided hoops fans will call "fundamental skills" (that very idea is, of course, closely and messily tied to our state's demographics: Vermont is 95 percent white). Vermont hoops features set offensive plays and strong (usually man-to-man) defense. There is no shot clock. The state's top scorers each year are either beanpole centers who can shoot over everyone or pure shooters who've developed a quicker release than their opponents. There is no excess of power, speed, size, or hops. But now there is the MBL.
I'd guess, with apologies to the memory of Alexander Wolff's Frost Heaves, that the MBL is responsible for the most dunks in state history in just two seasons of play. That, of course, is a misleading estimation: when someone dunks on an eight-and-a-half-foot rim with an undersized basketball, is he really dunking?
Basketball, like any sport, is not self-selecting: you can't fake skill and ability. But if you're motivated enough, you can cheat the structure of the game (much as MBL's court may technically resemble any other, it is not a basketball court) to make your skill and ability appear to be something other than what they are. It's perfectly fun and perfectly harmless, but it's an inauthentic variation.
There is a quote, pulled from an August 2003 article in The New York Times, that approximately 80 percent of the people I attended high school with had in their AIM and Facebook profiles through the years. Many used it as their senior quote in the yearbook: "In Vermont, authenticity is all; they do not try to keep it real; they are real." It came from a report on the "style" of a state that had presented a formidable presidential candidate (a pre-war-whoop Howard Dean), and seemed to serve as a safety float of identity for young natives of a place that didn't always have a clear one.
Basketball in Vermont has a rather set identity, though. Dunks, when they occur, are something you'll remember. The Mini Basketball League is very much about Vermonters trying very hard to keep it real.