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.
LeBron James’ career has been carefully planned since before he was doing between-the-legs dunks at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron. His on- and off-court presentation is calculated, from how he answers questions at press conferences to how he centers the NBA logo on his forehead when he wears a headband. Comparisons between him and Michael Jordan don't always fit, but in terms of staying “on brand,” they certainly rank among the most successful athletes.
Like any human, James has made a few missteps here and there during his time in the limelight. The debacle that was "The Decision" was undoubtedly the biggest and divisive mistake of his career from a PR standpoint. After losing in the 2011 Finals, he lashed back at critics, saying they would have to return to the same problems of their lives the next day, while he was "going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that." For the most part, though, James sticks to the script ... so when he breaks from his public character, it is all the better.
After being on the receiving end of a Dikembe Mutombo elbow during the 2004-2005 season in his first stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers, James was forced to wear a protective mask. In a February game against the Miami Heat (10 years ago!), Damon Jones lobbed a pass to Eddie Jones in the corner, but James intercepted it. Damon Jones was the only thing between James and the rim. James passed ahead to Jeff McInnis, who set up James for one of the best dunks of his career:
After making a meek attempt at contesting the freight train with a head of steam roaring down the lane, Jones comes to his senses far too late and tries to get out of the poster. He merely gets swatted away by the future league MVP. In addition to the embarrassment of getting dunked on, Jones also was called for a foul and appeared to have injured his face on the play. This was not a good day at the office for him.
James, on the other hand, gets an emphatic high-five from none other than the late Robert “Tractor” Traylor. As he walks to the bench, James surveys the scene and actually manages to keep a straight face for a while, but breaks into a big smile after taking off his mask:
The dunk was so nasty that it made LeBron straight up laugh at his competition.
Standard operating procedure calls for superstars to “act like they’ve been there before,” which is usually sound advice. But for a play of this magnitude, it was refreshing to see LeBron take a moment to recognize his own otherworldly talent. He took off his game face and showed us who he was: just a supremely gifted 20-year-old having the time of his life playing against the mere mortals of the NBA.
The dunk was so great that Heat center Shaquille O’Neal, who sat stone-faced on the bench during and after the play, later provided commentary and made sure to poke fun at his teammate during the many replays.
“You know, D-Jones never had a chance, and the minute I saw it happen, I knew they were gonna be showing that dunk over and over and over again," he said. "From every angle they have. Down low. Up high. Slow motion. You name it, they’ll run it. Those are the kind of plays that live with you forever and ever. But I guess things could have turned out worse. We could have lost the game. But damn, did D-Jones get banged on.”
The legacy of the dunk extended past the game, as Jones was a free agent and signed with the Cavs in the summer of 2005. Jones, who had played for a staggering nine teams in his first seven seasons, found a home with James and the Cavs, staying in Cleveland for three seasons. He took the old adage “If you can’t beat them, join them” to heart, and was rewarded with a trip to the Finals in 2007.
Surprisingly, Jones and James developed a friendship that continued past Jones’ playing days; Jones is now one of James’ closest friends and works for the Cavs as a shooting consultant. It is a pretty remarkable show of humility to befriend the man who put you on a poster. Is there any precedent for a close friendship developing after one side was so thoroughly embarrassed?
The closest thing I can think of is the “Seinfeld” episode "The Pilot," where fictional Jerry Seinfeld is playing a fictional version of the fictional Jerry Seinfeld in a series titled “Jerry.” After getting into a car crash with a driver who has no insurance, the judge orders the other driver to become fictional-fictional Jerry’s butler. Jones becoming LeBron’s friend is the equivalent of LeBron crashing his car into Jones and then making Jones one of his best friends. While being friends with LeBron is obviously infinitely better than being a butler in a meta-TV sitcom, they are perhaps equally bizarre.
After throwing down a dunk like that at AmericanAirlines Arena, is it really surprising that LeBron took his talents to South Beach in 2010? Well, as we’ll see, there was at least one other reason behind King James making Miami his home for four years.
Paul Palladino is a mobile alerts/social editor for Yahoo Sports, and the author of "No Boys Allowed: The Definitive Case Against the NBA Age Limit."
More Dunk History:
• Shawn Kemp, Alton Lister and how memory works
• Chris Webber, Charles Barkley and a poster preserved
• Young Wolf Andrew Wiggins goes straight for Rudy Gobert's neck
• Rajon Rondo leaps past Dwight Howard, ascends to All-Star status
• Blake Griffin defines 'Mozgov,' picks up Stoudemire's mantle
• Vince Carter defies gravity, belief in the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest
• Dwyane Wade welcomes Anderson Varejao to his 'Kodak moment'
• Paul George's 360 windmill causes stir on press row
• Michael Jordan, Mel Turpin and 'Was he big enough?'
• Von Wafer and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad dunk
• Dr. J 'jams the jinx,' makes Boston Garden sing different tune
• LeBron James takes flight, sends JET to crash landing
• J.R. Smith expresses himself by pulverizing Gary Neal
• Some of our friends' favorite dunks, Vol. 1: Chris Gethard, Hannibal Buress, Jensen Karp and more
• Dunk History, Season 1: Our 2014 series, collected