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, we ask some of our favorite dunk enthusiasts in various entertainment realms to share stories about their favorite throwdowns of yore. Please check the italicized short bios for more information about our contributors!
I know it’s completely cliché to write about The Dunk when asked to ponder a particular slam, but it’s impossible for me to write about any other. I’m a lifelong New York Knicks fan and was in middle school when it happened, so it’s therefore imprinted on my psyche.
John Starks was not great. I love him — he is still my favorite player of all time — but he wasn’t great. We all know this.
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Michael Jordan was great. Perhaps more than any other athlete, he represented greatness. His baseline is greatness. He doesn’t even have to realize it after he wakes up on any given morning; it’s just how it is for him. Greatness is the air he breathes.
Not Starks. John Starks bagged groceries. John Starks floated in the purgatory that is the CBA. John Starks was a hothead, he was hard to understand, and he could and often would shoot you out of a game. But Starks’ lack of greatness is exactly why The Dunk is The Dunk and not a dunk, and that’s why I’ll always stand by it as one of the greatest moments of my formative years.
I can never be and will never be Michael Jordan. I am not great, and I don’t live a life of greatness. In my chosen profession (comedian) I make a living and try to do interesting things, but I’m not a Jordan. It isn’t easy for me. I often wonder if I should quit. I’m far from a level where greatness is my baseline. Nothing is automatic for me. I’ll never feel like Jordan.
But I can feel like Starks — I can be the guy who messes up, who maybe doesn’t belong, who feels like he has to fight just to prove he should be in the league. And like Starks, I can scrap and persevere, and if I do so, I may on occasion have the chance to achieve greatness.
Because John Starks was never great. But on certain nights, he could be. And The Dunk was Starks at his greatest. The Dunk was never just a dunk. It was a regular guy on a grand stage, managing for just a fleeting fraction of a second to become so great that he managed to be greater than the greatest. Starks is me. Starks is you.
Let’s go Knicks. Jerian Grant for president.
Jensen Karp owns Gallery1988 and is a comedy writer who has been paid to write jokes for things like the ESPYs, the VMAs and VH1's "Candidly Nicole." His book, "Kanye West Owes Me $300," comes out next year on Crown Books.
My favorite dunk is from 1989, and it constantly gets overlooked when discussing the greatest jams of all time. When Tom Chambers of the Phoenix Suns appeared to actually fly, climb onto, and posterize Mark Jackson, then of the Knicks, it gave hope to white dudes everywhere. And it wasn’t just that he dunked on the man who may deserve to be dunked on, it’s that he used Jackson’s shoulder to bolster himself even higher and closer to the rim.
It’s almost like in a video game, where you can jump by pressing X, then jump even higher by pressing the button again mid-air. Chambers scored 36 points that night and the Suns only won by two points, which technically means this fourth-quarter dunk was the game winner. Jackson, since he’s a predictable sort, has since argued it’s an offensive foul, but that’s probably just because he was embarrassed that you could actually perform the dunk on the 1991 Sega Genesis game "Lakers vs. Celtics and the NBA Playoffs." Either way, it’s the best and let’s make sure it’s included in the discussion, OK?
I still remember to this day how I felt when the first WNBA game started. I had the ball and a Sheryl Swoopes jersey. The Cleveland Indians had just lost in the World Series to the Atlanta Braves, and my little sports heart was still broken. I was getting older (I'm 13 in April 1996) but I was still mesmerized by the fact that the WNBA was even happening.
That brings us to Lisa Leslie's dunk. Lisa was one of the premiere players of the league, along with Swoopes and former Connecticut Huskie, Rebecca Lobo. Leslie had been known to dunk in high school and in college, so it was just a matter of time. It's not some crazy Tomahawk dunk from the foul line. It's a 1987 straight-up dunk. BUT it's a moment. A huge moment. It's a moment that says, "Hey, we're here whether you like it or not."
Favorite dunk of all time? There's so many to choose from. This came to mind right away. It's extremely aggressive. He steps over him and kinda pushes afterwards. There was some real anger there. He treated Ewing like a little dude.
EDITOR'S NOTE: We can’t disagree with anything that Hannibal wrote, but it should be noted that he has acted as a poor basketball influence in the past:
(To be fair, to us Bulls fans, sometimes Mike Dunleavy Jr. is all we have anymore.)
A 22-year-old Shawn Kemp, built entirely out of missiles and rage, vaporized Alton Lister in the 1992 playoffs. Lister, age 83 at the time and dead, was a former Sonic, having been traded to the team in 1986 for beloved scarecrow-come-to-life Jack Sikma, a move Sonics fans hated because it was like trading your favorite child for Alton Lister. Two years of Lister frustration ensued before he was shipped to Golden State to suck real bad there.
But all the sucking was forgotten — indeed, everything was forgotten; in fact, there stopped being anything to forget — when Kemp destroyed Alton Lister. Because of that dunk, there never was an Alton Lister. Nobody named Alton Lister existed. Letters can't even form the words "Alton Lister."
It was quite an emphatic dunk.
Dunking on Rasho Nesterovic is sort of like scaling the highest peak in Delaware. Still, the Sonics faithful, we to whom faith has been largely a failed joke of an exercise, have this Kevin Durant dunk to see what might have been, what once was, and what could one day be.
Erik Charles Nielsen
Comedian and actor Erik Charles Nielsen played "Garrett" on "Community," and his stand-up has been seen on "Conan." Raised in Palm Bay, Fla., he now lives in Los Angeles with his wife. In his heart, his favorite dunk is secretly Darrell Armstrong’s 1996 Slam Dunk Contest layup.
The first time Shaquille O’Neal broke an NBA backboard, I missed it. I had started watching basketball in the 1991-92 season, which was a bad year for the Orlando Magic, but excellent timing in terms of boosting my credibility as a fan. When Shaq got drafted, my classmates started paying a lot more attention to the sport, and while my familiarity with Anthony Bowie and Terry Catledge did little for me socially, I was always the kind of kid who liked feeling a little better informed than his peers.
Anyway, I missed the game against the Suns in which it happened, and heard about it the next day in school. When I got home, it was all over the news. I had envisioned the familiar broken-glass scenario, with the hoop torn from its lodging, but this was something entirely different: the entire support folding in backward, like a turtle retreating into its shell, seemingly saying, “Nope, I’m not sticking around for any more of THAT.”
I found myself missing fewer and fewer Magic games as the season continued. Two months later, Shaq obliged again, violently dismantling the entire backboard against the Nets. Given the alternative, the Phoenix stanchion’s tactical retreat seemed wise.
Of course, all this backboard-breaking was as much a sign of O’Neal’s rawness as it was of his power: he was fouled on the way up in the New Jersey game, but both demolitions were the result of him hanging on the rim. But they made one thing clear: this guy was not just a promising young center, he was something entirely outside of the parameters of the game.
The NBA had to widen the lanes and change the goaltending rules over Wilt. The changes Shaq brought to the game were relatively modest: the NBA reinforced its backboards that summer. Wilt was too big for the other basketball players of the time. Shaq was too big for the equipment of basketball.
I suspect a lot of the mixed feelings Shaq evokes come from the fact that it didn’t seem entirely fair to win with him. He wasn’t massively better than Hakeem Olajuwon or David Robinson at that point, but he seemed more like a ringer than either — like the NBA version of the 10-year-old rec league center with a suspiciously full mustache. Moving from team to team didn’t help, and his insistence on presenting himself in the media as a jovial purveyor of dad jokes just seemed weird for a guy in his early twenties. (Funny how that got more palatable when the alternative was Kobe Bryant.) But something about Shaq just didn’t seem sporting.
I wasn’t immune to that thinking. By the time the Magic were playoff contenders, I had decided that my favorite player on the team was Dennis Scott. (This seems natural, in that he was a slightly chubby guy who played on the perimeter, and I was a rather chubbier kid who avoided the paint because rebounds tended to land on my head.) A lot of the kids I knew stopped watching the Magic after Shaq left, but while I thought he got some ridiculous calls with the Lakers, I was never especially bothered by his departure. It seemed pretty clear he was too big for Orlando anyway.
Melissa Stetten is a writer and shellfish enthusiast from Los Angeles.
My favorite dunk of all time is from "BIG BABY" GLEN DAVIS! He seems to keep getting bigger each year, which is why this dunk is so special. The best part of it, however, is not the dunk, it's the reaction from the bench. I'm surprised Baby didn't hit the ground after this. He spends about 10 percent of his time on the court trying to get up after falling down:
Obviously, my favorite dunk of all time is Vince Carter’s 360 windmill from the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest. It is the perfect dunk. There is no other dunk, as there is no other band than The Beatles. But, because that is obvious and because it is a given, I’d like to talk about two dunks that aren’t dunks instead.
Dunking represents is the moonshot creativity and innovation that defines basketball as a whole. From peach baskets to dribbling to the 24-second clock, basketball has always been about evolution and invention. Dunking is reaching for more, literally and figuratively, and showcasing the impossible-made-possible. It’s the sweet spot between physical litmus test and inspirational challenge.
The arbitrary ten foot goal post just so happens to rest just-so out of reach but not so as to be pointless; the hoop provides a benchmark for all body types and allows creative flourish to be measured and respected for what it can add to the overall body of dunks at large. For as much as they’re all sometimes the same, every dunk is still very much its own creation. With that in mind, let’s look at two dunks-that-aren’t-even-dunks that capture this spirit.
Dwight Howard, “Superman”
Dwight Howard came into the league with a physique that basically shouldn’t exist. He’s too tall, he’s too broad, he’s too strong, but unlike many tall, broad, strong pivots of the past, Dwight was also a sky-walker. With a near-enough-that-it-makes-no-difference 40-inch vertical and terrific explosive power, Dwight became the staple figure of a new generation of power dunkers in the NBA.
The 2008 NBA Slam Dunk Contest was festooned with gimmick and novelty. Dunking had become prop comedy and the spectacle was overriding the art. Dwight wasn’t unaware, and played his part with costume and theme music. But where some spectacle was designed to distract a less-than dunk, Dwight’s was more matter-of-fact, worn with confidence and certainty that underscored the single-minded focus of what he had in mind: more up.
Dunkers have jumped higher, from further, reached longer, slammed harder and poster’d posters. But in that moment, it did not matter. “Superman” was BIG (coincidentally, the NBA’s slogan for the year) and defined, and dunking redefined, as it sent thousands of NBA fans to the rulebook to clarify, squabble over and dispute what actually *is* a dunk or not. It’s still debated today, but it still does not matter. “Superman” only happens when everything goes right. On that night, it did.
Shannon Brown almost jumps over Jason Richardson
But sometimes, everything doesn’t go right. Sometimes you reach for the unattainable and come up short.
2010 NBA Playoffs, Western Conference finals, eventual-champion Los Angeles Lakers vs. Phoenix Suns grudge match. NBA-listed 6-foot-4 but Kobe-stated 6-foot-1 (if that) Shannon Brown takes off from the dotted line and attempts to jump over 6-foot-6 Jason Richardson. Because why not? Because that’s what dunking is. Because if you don’t come at it with that attitude, with that confidence and that completely ridiculous certainty, you might be throwing it down, but you’re not elevating the game.
Brown’s attempt caught the front of the rim and couldn’t slip in due to how tightly he palmed the ball. One of the only times in NBA history the failed attempt is as exciting, and memorable, as the make.
Check back next week for Vol. 2!
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
• 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
• Dunk History, Season 1: Our 2014 series, collected
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