Many people applaud it as the most spectacular shot in basketball, although purists warn that it is dangerous and gauche. Pure or impure, the dunk is back from its Rip Van Winkle in the NCAA's closet, but what is it back as? Entertainment? A frivolous footnote? College basketball's version of swine flu?
Prohibition forced the dunk into the speakeasies of the playgrounds when it was outlawed in 1967, but now that it is again legal, everyone is bellying up to the rim and slamming down a shot. Players today are faster and stronger and jump higher, and many teams have dunkers down to the 12th man. Alabama's 5'9", 141-pound freshman guard, Kent Looney, can slam with two hands. The University of Louisville Cardinals call themselves the Doctors of Dunk. A subculture is developing around the shot, and fans are discussing its practitioners the way they might compare All-America candidates.
Debate about the dunk is nothing new. Its mystique is such that when the NCAA reinstated it this season, but continued to ban it in pre-game warmups, the advocates cried that was like giving them the cake without the ice cream. Conservatives, meanwhile, warned that it was only a matter of time before someone named Elevator Risin' would spray a crowd with shrapnel from a shattered backboard. What has happened, of course, is a little of this, a little of that. The dunk has won some and lost some.
Most people see the dunk as a statement of sorts, like driving a sports car or wearing denim to the office. Coaches, concerned only with statements that produce W's, are ambivalent, but players love it, probably because entire groups, such as little old ladies and jockeys, cannot do it. Says Jerome Whitehead, Marquette's 6'10" center, who hung on the rim at Drake and almost pulled down the entire basket and backboard, "It's the shot that expresses the dominance of the big man—an expression like wanting to kill somebody. To beat them bad." And as for destroying a backboard, that might be the ultimate expression, claims Tennessee All-America Ernie Grunfeld. "I've never seen the backboard shattered, but I've always wanted to do it," he says. No wonder Chuck Neinas, the Big Eight commissioner, sent out an urgent memo before the season's start, instructing teams to have a spare backboard and goal at each game.
Injuries have occurred, but have not affected the dunk's popularity. Clint Richardson of Seattle suffered a severe hand cut while trying to block a dunk. Bill Blakeley, North Texas State's coach, recalls that one of his former players at Christian College of the Southwest, Claude (Snowflake) English, gashed his head on the rim while dunking. Following repairs, Snowflake commented, "It was worth it." Ironically, a coach almost suffered a serious injury: Virginia's Terry Holland, a former star at Davidson, demonstrated a dunk to his players and his whistle caught in the net. "I almost hung myself," said Holland.
Generally, coaches agree that those who would ban the dunk to prevent injury are overreacting. "Fools are the only people who get hurt dunking a ball," says Auburn Coach Bob Davis. "And they are going to get hurt anyway." "Most of the trouble," says Washington State Coach George Raveling, "comes from those little pygmies trying to impress their girl friends."
The Shot is formidable. Ohio State Coach Elon Miller describes a dunk by Indiana's Kent Benson: "I thought he was going to tear down the building." After Auburn's Mike Mitchell slammed one, LSU Coach Dale Brown said, "It was like a catapult, like one of those things they used in medieval warfare." Says David Greenwood of UCLA, "It really takes courage to stand in there and try to block a dunk." Marv Harshman, the coach of Washington, agrees. "I tell my players, 'Hey, you've got to give up your body.' But if I was out there, I'd probably get out of the road, too."
Currently, the University of Detroit is leading the broken-rim sweepstakes. At last count the flamboyant Titans had broken 20, and they cost $30 apiece. The team's equipment manager, Dominic Volpe, is so miffed that he will not talk to Coach Dick Vitale.
The dunk can break a team's spirit as well as a rim. "When you stuff one," says Iowa Forward William Mayfield, "you are telling your man that you can take him." In Alabama's first game of the year the amazing Looney went over Purdue's seven-foot center, Joe Barry Carroll, and dunked a rebound that helped turn a 12-point deficit into a 17-point Alabama victory. "It's got to be an awful feeling when your man dunks over you in front of 15,000 people," says Kenny Carr of North Carolina State. After Marquette's Bo Ellis stuffed against Penn State, breaking open a tight game, losing coach John Bach said, "It was like he drove a stake into my heart." It might be that the coaches' divergent views on the play depend on whose ox is getting dunked.
Could it be that the colleges are shooting field goals with record-setting accuracy because of the dunk's return? Says Norm Ellenberger, New Mexico's coach, "I can't think of a higher percentage shot than sticking your arm through the rim with the ball in your hand." Players like freshman Center Lavon Mercer of Georgia, shooting .592 from the floor, and Georgetown's Tom Scates make many of their points off the dunk. "If it weren't for the dunk, Scates might not be playing," says Penn Coach Chuck Daly. "It's his only shot."
But the dunk is actually a difficult shot. "You have to get your steps down right," says Clemson's Stan Rome. "If you don't, it can be right embarrassing." Wiley Peck of Mississippi State dunked against Georgia and the ball came through the net, hit him in the face and knocked him out for over two minutes. One dunk by Rich Adams of Illinois was an "air ball," missing the entire basket and backboard, and Cincinnati's Brian Williams, all alone on a breakaway, did the same thing against Louisville, missing the rim but hitting an official squarely in the head. "A missed dunk can be a momentum stopper," cautions Coach Wayne Dobbs of Vanderbilt. At Boston College, Bob Zuffelato has one player, Louis Benton, who can jump over a Volkswagen, and another, 5'11" Guard Ernie Cobb, who is capable of stuffing backward, but he deems the dunk so treacherous that he has instituted a "Glassman's Club." If a player goes for a dunk and misses, he has to forget 'em and use the backboard glass on lay-ins. At Bowling Green, after his team missed several dunks and lost back-to-back one-point games, Coach John Weinert banned the shot altogether.
Interestingly, the extremes of dunking philosophy are to be found within the borders of one state. Only Kentucky's James Lee and, on occasion. Rick Robey, score on dunks for the tradition-bound Wildcats, who apparently believe that "If it wasn't good enough for Dan Issel, it's not good enough for us." For the Wildcats, class is glass, i.e., banking in soft lay-ins. "We just don't have that type of player," says Coach Joe Hall. In contrast, Louisville is always in the operating room trying to deliver a slam or two. "We're still in the business of filling the gym, and the dunk helps us do that," says Coach Denny Crum, noting that home attendance is nearly 2,000 a game higher than last year. The Cardinals have made 97 dunks, freshman Darrell Griffith leading the airborne assault with 39. There is a sturdy side basket in Crawford Gymnasium, the team's practice site. One day the Doctors tried to amputate the target with slam dunks. "We couldn't do it," says Griffith. "It was a big ol' heavy rim."
Albert King, the teen-age basketball prodigy and brother of Tennessee star Bernard King, was asked by Dave Anderson of The New York Times when it was that he discovered he was a good player. "Simple," answered Albert—in the eighth grade when he competed against older players who could dunk. "But I could dunk more ways than they could."
Counting the variations of the dunk is like trying to add up the number of cigarette brands these days. There always seems to be a new one coming out of the machine. In Punk Dunk you try to embarrass your man by dunking backward or some such. Funk Dunk denotes a number of flashy maneuvers, including Essie (Helicopter) Hollis' subspeciality, the Cuff Dunk. He holds the ball between his wrist and hand at hip level, then sweeps it into the basket. "I do it for the season ticket-holders," says the St. Bonaventure star. To do the Circle Dunk you wave the ball through 360° before the slam; to Rock the Baby, cradle the ball in one hand and pat it through the hoop with the other. For the Yo-Yo, first pump the ball back over the head several times; for the 360 and 180, you spin in a full or half circle before the slam. Finally there is, improbably, what Marquette Coach Al McGuire calls the Double Dunk. "That's what you see on the playgrounds where a guy dunks with one hand, catches it with the other and dunks it again before hitting the ground," says McGuire. "They ought to give four points for it, and there should be an automatic timeout so the crowd has time to applaud."
Seemingly each section of the country has a jump-and-pump artist with a claim to be the best. Marques Johnson of UCLA, Edgar Jones of Nevada-Reno and James Hardy of San Francisco ("An NBA-class dunker," says one coach) are tops in the West. Clydell Tucker of Oklahoma City is a candidate and so is Ray Williams of Minnesota, a player once frustrated by the no-dunk rule. "It was hard to live with," he says. "There were so many times I'd be flying up above the rim, ready to jam, when I'd hear this little voice saying, 'No, no, no.' " Occasionally, despite the voice, Williams has said "Yes," and picked up a technical foul. "Those slams always felt better than any technical could ever hurt," he says.
The player who might be tops nation-wide is James Bailey, Rutgers' 6'9" sophomore center, who has a remarkable 85 dunks this season. The Rutgers mascot, a 9-year-old named Joey Cabrallal, wears a T shirt supporting Bailey's candidacy. On the front it reads, JAMES IS THE NAME and on the back, DUNKIN'S THE GAME. In a recent match between Bailey and Cincinnati's Robert Miller, who has dunked as many as seven times in one game, Bailey scored on six stuffs, including a backward dunk off a lob pass from an appropriately named guard, Rodney Duncan.
There are a few flat-out dissenters on the dunk. Jack Avina, coach at the University of Portland, offers this reason: "I'm from the old school, and it bothers me that so many modern teams are involved in the facade of making a show. I hear my kids in practice, talking about 'face, face' [short for "in your face"], when one guy is shooting over another and putting him down. The dunk is another way of doing that. Sometimes players are more concerned about 'face' than with winning the game." Washington Coach Marv Harshman is such a spoilsport that he locks covers on the team's baskets so that intramural players cannot bend the rims trying to emulate the dunkers.
Norvell Neve, the Atlantic Coast Conference supervisor of officials, has another negative vote. "There is nothing the defense can do to offset the dunk, and that's not equitable," he says, adding that officials also have a problem deciding whether a player has hung onto the rim after a dunk, which is a technical foul. Al McGuire has a solution for this dilemma. "Electrify the rim," says McGuire. "If a guy's hand touches it, you leave the juice on until he turns blue."
Many coaches predict that the effect of the return of the dunk will not be fully known for three to five years, when players will have adjusted to it. Some of course believe it should never have been banned. Wendell Hudson, an assistant coach at Alabama, was an All-America for the Crimson Tide during the no-dunk period. "I know some guys it cost 10 points a game during the ban," he says. "All those tips bounced out."
Now tipping is for shorties and volleyball players. Jamming is for those who can fly in the sky. One of today's Alabama players, T. R. Dunn, sums it up: "It's like we've been playing the game with something missing all these years."