The most bittersweet moment of Marqus Blakely's hoops career is the dunk that first rocketed the Vermont star to Internet prominence.
To Blakely, the 2007 America East title game will always be the day favored Vermont lost by one to Albany and blew a chance to play in the NCAA tournament. To everyone else, that game is best remembered for the soaring one-handed fast-break slam Blakely unleashed over an unsupecting Albany defender, keeping the crowd buzzing the whole day and landing him on ESPN's SportsCenter that night.
"A lot of people ask if the dunk I had against Albany is my favorite dunk, and a lot of it comes down to that we didn't win the game," Blakely said by phone earlier this week. "It was one of the best dunks I've probably ever had, but at the same time we weren't able to go to the NCAA tournament."
Blakely's reputation as an aerial showman has only grown since then thanks to the 6-foot-5 senior's ever-growing YouTube library of acrobatic dunks. There's the half-court alley-oop pass he threw down in transition against Maryland Baltimore County as a sophomore. There's the time he nearly ripped the rim down with a two-handed slam against Colorado last season. Or there's the tomahawk fast-break slam against Maine last week in which he posterized a hapless Black Bears defender.
Maybe the Blakely dunk that his coaches remember best is one he pulled off during Vermont's Midnight Madness celebration a few years ago on the eve of the first day of practice. He lined up two teammates in in the paint in front of the rim, took a running start and leapt over both of them to throw down a huge dunk, winning the intraquad dunk contest but nearly giving his coaches heart attacks in the process.
"They were definitely very worried, but they've also seen some of the things I've been able to do in games and out of games," Blakely said. "As much as they were worried about all of us getting hurt, they were trying to show the crowd a good time too."
There were few signs Blakely would develop into such an accomplished showman back when he was an underclassmen at Metuchen high school in New Jersey. As a sophomore, he stood only 5-foot-8 and couldn't jump high enough to get the ball over the rim. Both his parents were tall and had sports backgrounds, but neither had Air Jordan-esque genes to pass down to him.
"I was definitely a late bloomer," Blakely recalled. "My junior year, I stretched out to 6-2, 6-3 and that's when I started taking basketball seriously. And obvioiusly, I started dunking. Being a short person, I'd always wanted to dunk since I was little."
Blakely has been more than just a novelty act at Vermont, leading the Catamounts in scoring and rebounding the past two seasons and earning conference player of the year honors both times.
Fueled by the desire to qualify for his first NCAA tournament as a senior, he has put up 17.6 points and 9.2 rebounds per game this season, propelling Vermont (18-8, 9-3) to a first-place tie with Stony Brook atop the America East standings.
Blakely would like to be known nationally as more than just a dunker, but he knows it's not possible unless he develops perimeter skills to go with his slashing and leaping abilities.
"It's on me because I haven't proven I can hit an outside jumper yet," he said. "Once I do that, I'll be thought of differently."