The history of the slam dunk: from outlawed move to beloved highlight | Basketball


It seems impossible to believe, but there was a time when basketball largely forbade the dunk. From 1967 to 1976, high school and college players were outlawed from slamming the ball through the rim. Instead, they would have to lay the ball up or simply drop it through the hoop as they soared through the air. Now, as we look forward to this weekend’s NBA Slam Dunk Contest, the ban seems silly, especially when considering the eye-popping highlights created by the likes of Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, Shawn Kemp and Vince Carter.

But such was the state of things a half-century ago. In an era when the game was changing rapidly, when players like the 7ft 2in Kareem-Abdul Jabbar were dominating instead of the shorter, more ground-bond hoopers like Bob Cousy, the dunk was seen as taboo among “purists,” against the very nature of basketball itself. Though that perspective wasn’t shared by many of the players.

“It didn’t make sense,” says Terry Tyler, a former Pistons double-digit scorer, who played for the University of Detroit under coach Dick Vitale when the dunk was banned by the NCAA. Tyler later participated in one of the first-ever NBA dunk contests in 1986 (won by the diminutive 5ft 7in guard, Spud Webb, over teammate Wilkins).

“The people who made that decision probably never played basketball before,” he says. “In their minds, it wasn’t fair. But this is something to this day that goes on in sports – people make the wrong decisions.”

Tyler says he first dunked a basketball when he was 13. He hadn’t started playing organized hoops in high school yet, but when he stuffed the ball through the basket, he almost couldn’t believe what he’d done. “It was a great feeling,” he says.

It’s believed that the first-ever dunk in organized basketball occurred in 1936 (before that it was all one-legged push shots and layups). Joe Fortenberry, a 6ft 8in Texan, performed one in the Berlin Olympics for the US basketball team on the way to winning the sport’s first-ever gold medal. At the time, the shot was likened to a roll dipped into coffee by Pulitzer Prize writer Arthur Daley of The New York Times. Less than a decade later, in 1944, the first dunk was recorded in college basketball when 7ft center Bob Kurland of Oklahoma A&M threw one down. “It wasn’t planned,” Kurland told the Orlando Sentinel in 2012. “Just a spontaneous play.”

At that time, the dunk wasn’t considered a highlight. Rather, it was often seen as a sign of disrespect to your opponents. Celtics Hall of Famer Satch Sanders played for Boston from 1960 to 1973. According to Sanders, if a player went up for a dunk, defenders would try to injure him by running under his legs as soon as he left his feet. “It was an unwritten rule,” Sanders once said.

Nevertheless, some of the league’s best would use the dunk as part of their repertoire, including Sanders’ teammate Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, who could reportedly dunk from the free-throw line without much of a start. The tallest and most athletic players in the NBA only increased their dominance by taking advantage of the dunk. Dunks were worth the same amount of points as any other field goal – three-pointers had yet to arrive in the league (1979 in the NBA, 1986 in college) – but they were very different from other shots. Their value was – and is – as psychological as it was mathematical. A sign of superiority of the opponents a player soars over.

Michael Jordan’s dunks became part of his legend
Michael Jordan’s dunks became part of his legend. Photograph: Nathaniel S Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

But when Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) began making headlines in high school and college in the 60s, basketball officials began to fret. So, the ban began. In fact, the decade-long “no dunk rule” is often cited as the “Lew Alcindor Rule.” Some, including its namesake, considered the ban – which never reached the NBA – to have racial motives. While the rulemakers who outlawed the shot said they did so because it caused injuries and did not “display basketball skill – only height advantage,” Alcindor thought otherwise. Back then, he told the Chicago Defender, “To me the new ‘no-dunk’ rule smacks a little of discrimination. When you look at it … most of the people who dunk are Black athletes.”

Further adding fuel to that fire, about a year before the dunk was banned, Texas Western’s men’s team, which included an all-Black starting lineup, beat an all-white University of Kentucky team for the collegiate national championship. This added to the belief that the ban was racially motivated.

Tyler does not believe race was a factor. Instead, he saw the ban as simply taking away certain players’ advantages, particularly Abdul-Jabbar’s. “Black guys weren’t the only guys who could dunk,” Tyler says. “White guys could dunk, too. Bobby Jones, Tom Chambers – these were guys who came into the league who could dunk. Period. Even Larry Bird could dunk!”

One thing was sure though: college and high school players had to develop different skillsets around the basket when the dunk was removed from the game. “It made me focus more on the fundamentals of making what we called ‘power layups,’” Tyler says. “We had to concentrate on taking the ball to the hole and going through the defense, getting used to the contact and laying the ball in.”

Abdul-Jabbar, on the other hand, relied on finesse more than power. Though tall, his frame was slighter than, say, Chamberlain’s. So he developed his infamous “skyhook” in college. The shot was almost unguardable when he took it to the NBA, and he used it to become the league’s all-time scoring leader, a record he kept until LeBron James broke it this month.

In 1976, the dunk was brought back to the high school and collegiate game. Perhaps not coincidentally, pro basketball soon held its first-ever dunk contest. The ABA put on a dunk showcase during its All-Star game in Denver that year. Julius Erving won, leaping from the free-throw line, flying 15ft in the air, and slamming the ball home. The following season after the ABA and NBA merger, the NBA held its own dunk contest, won by former ABA player Darnell “Dr Dunk” Hillman. The NBA brought it back in 1984 (again in Denver, won by Larry Nance). It’s been going ever since, featuring winners such as Jordan, Wilkins, Kobe Bryant, Carter and Webb.

“The more creative the dunk, the more people gave attention to you,” says Tyler. “And these young men today are making it that much more exciting. It’s like going to Yankee Stadium and watching Aaron Judge hit home runs.”

Over the decades, the dunk remains epic, beloved. A moment of TNT explosiveness. Other legendary dunkers include Darryl Dawkins, the player who said he was from Planet Lovetron, named his dunks and shattered backboards (leading the NBA to develop the break-away rim). The “Big Aristotle,” Shaquille O’Neal, also broke his share of backboards while dunking. Jordan earned his nickname “Air” because he could leap and slam like no other. Wilkins was the “Human Highlight Film,” and Carter was “Half-Man Half-Amazing” for his aerial antics.

But when it came to his own career, Tyler says he loved both seeing and finishing ally-oop dunks –a play made famous later by the likes of Kemp and Gary Payton. “One of my all-time favorite dunks would always be from the lob,” Tyler says. “And dunking it backwards.”

While men get the most shine for dunking, female players have thrown down slams with authority too. Lisa Leslie of the LA Sparks did it first in the WNBA in 2002. Since then, players like Michelle Snow, Candace Parker, Elena Delle Donne and Brittney Griner have showcased the skill. As a high school senior, Griner, the women’s game most prolific dunker, did so 52 times in her final season.

Basketball is constantly evolving. From its origins via the game’s creator Dr James Naismith, to innovations like slam dunks, the Eurostep, the killer crossover and now the step-back three-pointer, creativity is always part of the equation. With the dunk – from the windmill to the tomahawk to the 360 jam – that’s especially been the case.

“It’s exciting to watch,” says Tyler. “Basketball fans from high school to college to the pros, they come to see it. I hope they never do anything dumb like that again and outlaw it. The dunk will always be part of basketball – it always should have been part of basketball. So, keep doing it!”

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