While its name and style of execution are endlessly changing, each iteration seems as interesting and creative as the first. Ever since Dr. J revolutionized the move, the slam dunk has grown into something that transcends any two-point play or game and further obscures the already blurry line between sports and American popular culture. Moreover, the evolution of the slam dunk has mirrored the greatest period of social change in American history.
Standing on any basketball court around the country, one indubitably sees people jumping in vain, clasping at whatever twine or rim they can. But for most, dunking manifests itself only in the form of the proper button combination necessary for a Horace Grant half-court dunk in NBA Jam. Remember that, the pixelated image of the Rex-Spex-wearing Grant, or any other player, soaring to the height of the fixed screen and then descending on the hoop, the ball animated with a flaming orange and red tint?
For sports fans, however, the dunk has grown into a nearly omnipresent entity. SportsCenter would not be what it is today without having frequently aired the most electric of dunks. And yet, dunking today would not be what it is without the fan appeal of video games or a player’s desire to “make it” on SportsCenter. Popular culture has served as a catalyst for the dunk’s modernization.
Some history. The dunk became a popular move in the 1970s, not in the centralized NBA, but in the ABA, a sports league as much involved in contemporary social currents as any other. In the NBA, dunking was seen as uncouth, an insult to your opponent. The short-shorts-wearing good old boys feared that dunking would leave them vulnerable to a defender cutting their legs out. Dr. J and his compatriots, though, saw no room for chivalry on the hard wood. The glory of dunking in your enemy’s face far outweighed the risk of falling over. The jam became stylized, with spins and windmills, one hand or two.
Then, in 1976, the ABA folded, and Julius Erving signed with the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers. With him came the dunk.
Yes, as basketball has emigrated abroad, dunking has taken some hits. Citing the jump shots and passing skills of European-born players, many credit the dunk with the downfall of technical play in America. The bronze medal of the 2004 Athens Olympics “Dream Team” has been credited to the team’s inability to pass and shoot effectively, too often trying to drive into a patiently waiting zone defense.
Nevertheless, the dunk remains as iconic as ever. Nikes worn by people all over the world have Michael Jordan’s legs-spread, leaping body etched onto the tongue. Even Derek Jeter’s baseball cleats feature Air Jordan’s likeness. In the frequently criticized world of American capitalist gluttony, Nike stands at the forefront, and again, like ESPN, the dunk has helped escort it to the global stage.
It all seems to make so much sense. Dunking itself is a global phenomenon, and, when used as such, is an effective advertising agent or programming stronghold. But why? It’s worth fewer points than a long-distance shot. It is not very suspenseful, and seemingly every player in the league can at some point or another leap effortlessly into the air and flush the ball into the hoop.
And maybe that’s it: It’s everything we Americans love. It’s high-percentage and egalitarian. But beyond its seeming practicality, it is stylish, an outlet for creative ingenuity. Combined into one move, the dunk allows both success and personal modification. It’s capitalist. Ostentatious? Slightly. But isn’t that exactly what Americans do best? For better or worse, we innovate, push it, whatever it is, to the brink and sometimes beyond. And when we are successful, we aren’t afraid to show it.
So when, in 1976, the ABA introduced the Slam Dunk Contest, both the dunk and the sport of basketball changed. There was now a competitive forum for dunking. Fittingly, Dr. J won that first contest, when he dunked from the foul line. In its 30 years since, the contest has seen the most famous of winners, such as Jordan and Vince Carter, but also some less likely winners, such as the 5-foot-6 Spud Webb.
In the ’88 contest, Jordan matched Dr. J’s foul line dunk. Saturday night, Nate Robinson paid tribute to his sub-6-foot predecessor when he leapt over Webb to dunk. That’s right: over Webb. The 5-foot-9 “Tiny” Nate had to jump, by my calculation, 48.72 inches to clear his obstacle. His hang time seemingly infinite, he just continued to rise and rise, until finally reaching the apogee of his orbit and slamming the ball through the hoop. Robinson, on the strength of his vault, won the contest, even though he was not elected to either East or West All-Star team, and likely was outperformed by Andre Iguodala of the Philadelphia 76ers.
Robinson and the Slam Dunk Contest prove one thing: The slam dunk has become an American institution — an equal-opportunity chance to rise, even momentarily, from the depths of the masses, to score, and, in doing so, to help inspire the spirits of others. I know it’s cheesy, but am I wrong? As society has learned to accept different players and different plays, the dunk has been embraced as the standard, a hybrid of athletic performance and brash creativity.
Nicholas Thorne is a sophomore in Pierson College. His column appears on Wednesdays.