As the summer wears on, with training camps and preseason play still off in (what feels like) the distant future, we turn our attention to the past. Join us as we while away a few late-summer moments recalling some of the most scintillating slams of yesteryear, the most thunderous throwdowns ever to sear themselves into our memories. This is Dunk History.
Television time for this 14-year-old, too cool to study high schooler back in 1997 was hard to come by — especially on a school night. But for some reason I either managed to con my parents into letting me watch preseason basketball or I just snuck into the office to watch the Los Angeles Lakers and Washington Wizards from the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas.
If “Basketball Twitter” was a thing back in the late ‘90s, head coach Del Harris would have been public enemy No. 1. Harris could get you 50-plus wins in the regular season — just enough to get your hopes up come April — only to sink your squad in the playoffs. The Lakers were entering Year 4 of the Harris era and a 19-year-old Kobe Bryant was heading into his second season on the cusp of superstardom.
To anyone reading this born after 1996, there was once a time when Bryant wasn’t a starter for the Lakers. Blasphemy, right? Bryant’s rookie season was a roller coaster of emotions for fans. On any given night, Bryant was either scoring 21 points off the bench or relegated to mop-up duty with the likes of Travis Knight and fellow rookie Derek Fisher.
Preseason games are meant for guys like Bryant to show the coaching staff all of the hard work they put in during the summer in hopes of earning more playing time. It’s also the one time a year for fans who don’t live in a city with a NBA franchise to see pro hoops in person.
Bryant delivered on both fronts.
With time winding down at the end of the first quarter, Bryant crossed over journeyman guard Jimmy Oliver and set his sights on the basket. Ben Wallace —either not knowing any better or proving that he didn’t give a damn even back in 1997 — stepped up in the paint and became the first person to find himself on a Kobe poster. Bryant took off from inside the free throw line and demolished Wallace with a ferocious dunk that got Hall of Fame broadcaster Chick Hearn just a wee bit excited:
“Slaaaaaam dunk! Wooooo!”
The Lakers would go on to win 123-121 in overtime (Do you know how hard it is to find final scores for preseason games from 1997?), but I honestly couldn’t tell you anything else that happened in the game. After the game, Harris was asked about Bryant:
"Kobe will have his ups and a downs," said Harris, "but he has tremendous talent and a wonderful will to succeed. He is one of the most competitive players I have ever coached. He gets upset losing an inter-squad game."
Those ups quickly outnumbered the number of downs as Kobe Bryant reached KOBE BRYANT status when Harris was fired in 1998 and eventually replaced by Phil Jackson the following season.
Harris would go on to never coach again in the NBA. Bryant would create several more posters over his next 16 seasons in the NBA. Wallace learned from the error of his ways and was a four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year before retiring in 2012. And I'm still too cool to study.
More from BDL's Dunk History series:
• Shaq literally takes down the Nets
• Gerald Green turns off the lights
• John Starks, the Chicago Bulls and 'The Dunk'
• Tom Chambers rising like a Phoenix and taking orbit as a Sun
• Taj Gibson starts the break, then breaks Dwyane Wade
• Joakim Noah makes Paul Pierce a memory
• Baron Davis unloads on Andrei Kirilenko, moves beyond belief
• Michael Jordan embarrasses, like, all of the Knicks
• Spud Webb shocks the basketball world
• LeBron James tries to take down all of Boston
• A young Kobe Bryant goes way over a young Ben Wallace