We’ve all seen dunks that left us speechless. Especially if you witnessed them in person. I knew this was true, sort of vaguely, but that realization crystallized for me when I read Bruce Feldman’s article about a then unknown Tracy McGrady throwing down on a top basketball recruit, James Felton.
Entering the camp, McGrady was a 17-year-old mystery from central Florida, unmentioned on most top-500 recruiting lists. So everyone in the gym took notice as he slowed at the top of the key to wait for the much-hyped Felton. When the big man caught up, McGrady stared him down, then took off a couple of strides inside the free throw line. Felton jumped too, but just as his fingers grazed the ball palmed in his opponent's right hand, McGrady whipped it down to his waist. In the next instant, he grabbed it with his left and windmilled it through the hoop so fiercely that it should have dented the floor. By the time the unheralded prep landed, he was the next big thing. Dozens of fans and players tumbled onto the court, yelling and high-fiving, temporarily halting the game. All Felton could do was shake his head, scratch his cheek and try not to look the victim. But the damage was done. The country's most-sought-after big had been owned. "It was one of the best basketball moments of my life," recalls Odom. "An I'm-ready-to-get-drafted type of move. I'd never seen anyone do something like that, not even in the NBA."
Feldman’s story ends sadly. McGrady goes on to be a multi-millionaire All-Star while James Felton’s life falls apart. Feldman traces their career arcs from this moment and while the construct might be artificial, the central concept, that some dunks are big enough to change the way we think, is not.
In much less maudlin terms the story left me thinking about the dunks I remember most from my life as a sports fan. We all have these moments stored away in our minds but we remember lots of them from television viewings. Which, to be honest, is not the way a dunk was truly meant to be experienced. With a catchphrase or an attempted witty quip from a desk-bound anchor. It strips away the primordial fury of the dunk. The soaring through the air, the unexpectedness of it, the sheer power. When you’re watching highlights on television you’re expecting to see the otherworldly. Watching a game in person when something spectacular happens, that’s when the true impact of the dunk is felt. So here are the three dunks I remember most.
The first wasn’t during a game or any particular athletic event. We’d just come back from summer break and were freshmen in high school. My best friend, Ian, had spent the summer refining his dunk attempts but none of us had seen him be successful so far. Then, during lunch break, he took a basketball and dunked. Having a friend your same age who could dunk suddenly makes you realize that you’re getting older. An actual friend who could dunk? Wow. Sex was sure to come soon. Even if, you know, it wasn't. I know the first guy able to grow a mustache gets a lot of pre-adolescent tail, but the first guy who could dunk in your high school? All of a sudden the sky was the limit for Ian. Chicks dig big verticals.
The second also happened in high school. My school, Martin Luther King, was playing Shawn Marion’s team from just up the road in Clarksville. During warm-ups Marion’s head almost touch the rim on the lay-up line. He was very thin and gangly and his arms and legs seemed a bit disjointed from the rest of his body. Even now when you watch Marion play on television there’s something a bit awkward about the way his body moves. So imagine this same movement during his junior year. It was a summer league game and a guy on the team, Jamie, was supposed to have the back side of the rim covered. Then, out of nowhere, it happened so quickly I could barely tell what was happening, a lob was in the air and Marion came soaring from what seemed like the roof of the gym. It was unbelievable. The most explosive athletic move I’d ever witnessed up to that point. Jamie never saw it coming. Which was probably fortunate because at least this way he only ended up with Marions nuts on the back of his head instead of his face. Marion hung on the rim and straddled him for a moment before coming back to earth. Every player on both teams just stopped playing. Except for Jamie who was trying to run back up to the court.
During the next timeout he said to my friend D.J., “How come you didn’t yell backdoor?”
And D.J., whose mouth was still agape, said, “Because I wanted to see what happened.”
From that day forward everyone knew that there were good athletes and there were great athletes and there was a tremendous line between the two.
Finally, during my sophomore year at George Washington University, GW and Xavier were locked in a very tight game that would decide the outcome of the A-10 West. There was a breakaway and then-sophomore James Posey of Xavier got the ball. Only GW’s 6’7 brute Spaniard, Antxon Iturbe, stood in the way. Iturbe had a vertical leap of about 24 inches on a good day so he had no hope to challenge Posey at the rim. Instead of fouling him as hard as he could, Iturbe decided to set up in the middle of the lane and take a charge. Only Posey never slowed down. Instead Posey took flight just inside the free throw line, cocked the ball behind his head, slammed into Iturbe and never stopped going. It appeared he might float all the way into the white retaining wall behind the basket. Instead he reached the rim and slammed the ball with such force that a raucous Smith Center crowd went completely silent. You could hear a pin drop all of a sudden. Even the white kids from parochial high schools who had been taught to take charges their entire lives didn’t speak. There was no foul called because I think the referee was too shocked to call the charge. But I’ll never forget that moment of complete silence that followed the dunk. I’d never before, and never have heard again, a home arena go so silent in an instant, all in awe over the awesome power of a dunk. To this day, every dunk I’ve ever seen is compared to that one single dunk that doesn't even exist in cyberspace anymore. And all have been found lacking.
The Wrong Side of Great [ESPN]