Dunk History: Shawn Kemp, Alton Lister and how memory works

Shawn Kemp points at Alton Lister, who will now reside off-screen forever. (Screencap via NBA)
Shawn Kemp points at Alton Lister, who will now reside off-screen forever. (Screencap via NBA)

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.

Today, Dan Devine recalls Seattle SuperSonics star Shawn Kemp's furious facial on Golden State Warriors center Alton Lister from Game 4 of the 1992 Western Conference playoffs.

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Alton Lister got an MVP vote in 1983.

Now, that might not mean much. Media members often cast odd year-end votes; this is why players now give themselves awards. And it was just the one vote, a curious one coming after Lister averaged 8.4 points and 7.1 rebounds in 23.8 minutes per game, mostly off the bench, for Don Nelson's Milwaukee Bucks.

Even as an outlier, though, it suggests that the 7-footer from Dallas was, at one point, someone who could get an MVP vote. That he was, at one point, a difference-maker whom someone believed merited recognition.

For a while, Lister did matter, especially on defense. He blocked 100 or more shots in each of his first eight seasons; only 10 players logged more swats during the 1980s. He ranked first or second in defensive rating (an estimate of how many points a player allows per 100 possessions) every season from 1982 through 1986, and finished in the top 10 in total rebounding percentage three times.

Lister's one of only seven players in the history of Arizona State's men's hoops whose number is retired. He was chosen to represent the United States in the 1980 Summer Olympics, only to miss out due to America's boycott of the Moscow games. When Bob Lanier, the legend behind whom Lister came up, retired in 1984, he said he was leaving because Milwaukee finally had someone who could fill his shoes. It was a joke — both Lanier and Lister wore size 22s — but there was some truth to it, too. He really helped in that '82-'83 season.

After 17 pro seasons, Lister started a coaching career that's taken him from community college to the NBA to the Philippines; he still runs workouts. He's dabbled in the chicken-wing space. He appears in Garner's Modern American Usage, helping clarify whether writers should use "hardy" or "hearty." He's achieved all this and more, and before two weeks ago, I knew none of it.

I had to look it all up, because since I was nine years old, the only result my brain has provided for the search term "Alton Lister" is Shawn Kemp reducing his very essence to rubble.

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You've seen this dunk. You've probably seen it a million times. It's inspired everything from T-shirts to art to art on T-shirts. It's one of the great acts of dunking violence in NBA history.

It's a perfect encapsulation of Kemp's spellbinding mixture of size, athleticism, power and sheer malice. It's the quintessential expression of his ability to combine those ingredients into a doomsday device ready to detonate on defenders at a moment's notice. There are many great Shawn Kemp dunks — I recommend using between 10 and 25 minutes to watch these two supercuts — but this is the Shawn Kemp dunk.

Kemp crackles from the moment he leaps to corral Sarunas Marciulionis' miss. The Warriors almost have Ricky Pierce bottled up along the left baseline, but Kemp, bouncing around the right elbow, offers an escape. With four Warriors below the foul line when he catches the pass, Kemp has entirely too much runway. Dribble, gather, one-two and he's already in the air; Lister's dead before Kemp's sole touches paint. (Frankly, he was probably dead before Kemp's first NBA start; as he'd later admit, Lister was "never the same" after rupturing his right Achilles tendon in 1989.)

But what made Kemp — only 22 here, not yet an All-Star, his peak just coming into view — so damn compelling was that when he had you dead to rights, he didn't just make the quick, sure kill. He started finessing the joystick so he could deliver a fatality.

He doesn't just go up, over and through Lister. He cuffs the ball as he rises. He puts his knee in Lister's chest. He cocks his right arm aaaaaaall the way back, and brings the ball straight down through the hoop as the light bulbs flash and the crowd roars.

And then he lands on his feet, perfectly poised, and delivers that crouching double point, the proto-Cam'ron meme. The icing on the icing on the cake that, just kidding, is really just three tiers of straight-up icing.

As amazing as the most famous angle of the double point is, I like this one, shot from Kemp's right, even better. I've indicated Lister with red arrows:

Shawn Kemp identifies the victim. (Screencap via NBA)
Shawn Kemp identifies the victim. (Screencap via NBA)

The perspective nearly puts you in Lister's shoes; the effect is jarring. It's like you're in a first-person shooter, taking heavy fire from an obscenely powerful boss character, and that boss character is Shawn Kemp. You are Alton Lister, your screen will soon fade to black, and you will return to your last save point to try again. You will never succeed.

This is how I remember Kemp — all-devouring, all-swaggering, all-pointing — even though I know how his story played out. And this is how I remember Lister — specifically, the wide-eyed shock on his face as he attempted to get himself up:

Alton Lister has seen things no man should have to see. (Screencap via NBA)
Alton Lister has seen things no man should have to see. (Screencap via NBA)

This is what truly transcendent dunks do. They stop time, trap the breathtaking moment in amber, and allow you to live forever in that space between anticipation and exultation.

What Shawn Kemp became later and what Alton Lister was before don't matter here. Here, they are just opposing forces in an eternally unfair fight. Mjolnir and a box nail. We know how it will end, how it must end, but we'll never stop wanting to watch the hammer drop.

"Now, as [Kemp] goes up, you'll notice Alton Lister got knocked over," goes the narration of the replay. "A lot of people would think, 'Should that be a charging foul?' No! There is a dead area under the basket where players are not supposed to be, and if the guy driving to the basket runs into him and knocks him down, that's not considered a foul, because that is kind of a dead territory, and that's what you see when Kemp hits Alton Lister."

In my memory, Alton Lister never left that dead territory. He lives on that baseline, perpetually puzzling over why his life just flashed before his eyes.

What the eternity of the "Lister Blister" and my subjective memory of it miss, though, is its larger context, the story behind the slam and Kemp's subsequent sneer. As Todd Dybas of the Tacoma News Tribune describes it, "Lister delivered a stern foul on Kemp in game two, which led to a typical NBA fight of accuracy-free punches."

Thanks to the magic of the Internet, we can revisit the fracas in question right here:

Neither Lister nor Kemp got tossed for their roles in the scuffle. Kemp made his two free throws and sank a jumper on the ensuing possession that Seattle got handed thanks to Lister's flagrant foul. Golden State would go on to win that game, though, and that stuck in Kemp's craw.

"That was a playoff game, and we were giving out some pretty nasty fouls in that fourth quarter right there," Kemp later said when recalling his dunk on Lister. "So what you seen was a little frustration coming out of me."

It was also, amazingly, a case of mistaken identity, as Kemp later told Dybas:

“I didn’t hate [Lister's] guts. I didn’t see the video from the game before this. I felt kind of bad. Because the dunk should have been on [Tim] Hardaway. I thought it was Alton that was grabbing me, but it was actually Hardaway grabbing me [during a Game 2 fight].

"Alton, I feel bad, man. I should have directed that toward [Hardaway] because it wasn’t even you that grabbed me and I took all my frustration out … I had been waiting this whole game."

We're sure that two-decades-later almost-apology makes Lister feel worlds better.

Kemp went extra hard because he remembered the wrong guy grabbing him in a fight. Lister became a distant memory because his body could no longer execute the rim-protecting directives of the pre-injury days, when he might've actually been able to make that play. And because of those combined faulty recollections, basketball fans got something special — an unbridled jolt of joy that we'll never forget.

Sometimes, when memory doesn't work, it works pure magic.

More Dunk History:

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
LeBron James rises up and Damon Jones 'gets banged on'
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
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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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