LAST SATURDAY NIGHT ANOTHER TORONTO RAPTOR was crowned the NBA’s king of dunks. It is, in most respects, the emptiest of titles. In 2000, when Vince Carter took the title by doing things nobody had ever seen, on All-Star Saturday Night or any other day of the week, he appeared to be approaching all-around greatness. He took the Raptors to the playoffs that year, only to be bounced by the Knicks, and he dunked over a 7’2” Frenchman en route to a gold medal in Sydney. Thereafter, of course, Carter found a way out of Toronto, battled injuries, and while he has reconfigured himself into a useful role player, he exists in the eyes of most observers as a walking “What If?”
Terrence Ross, the Raptors’ rookie who won this year’s Slam Dunk title by leaping over a child’s head while juggling the ball between his own legs before stuffing leather through iron, was rewarded for his toils with three-and-a-half minutes of floor time in his first game back after the break.
All of which is to say that a Slam Dunk championship does not guarantee relevance. Has Nate Robinson done anything of note other than being the only three-time winner of the Slam Dunk Contest? And when was the last time you gave any thought to Cedric Ceballos?
But the dunk still captivates us, still grabs our attention. The NCAA legalized the dunk in the year of my birth — 1976, the same year that the ABA held the first Slam Dunk Contest. I have lived my entire life in the Age of Jam. It is of roughly the same vintage as punk, and rap. Its rise has been concurrent with and in some ways dependent on advancements in television technology. It is the very ideal of the highlight — fast, brutal, artistic, independent of context, as impressive at regular speed as it is slowed down, albeit for different reasons. It is, for good and for ill, an appropriate signifier for our times, and the NBA’s annual Slam Dunk Contest is the most concentrated and explicit celebration of the form. And so herewith, in an effort to rescue the slam dunk from that recess in our minds where oversaturated cultural offerings go to die and be forgotten, are four cognitive levels on which to engage the dunk.
1. The Dunk as Assertion of Radical Individuality
This is perhaps the most obvious level of engagement, and the one which represents the greatest bone of contention for those who insist the slam is merely the most offensive way in which selfish athletes have put themselves ahead of their teams.
This is pure bunk, of course, for the individual can never be more than his team. The numbers simply don’t add up. Basketball cannot rely solely on the dunk; the game would eat itself, and starve in the process. What the dunk does represent is the individual, given his moment, allowing himself to shine in a display, at once balletic and thunderous, that mirrors our own individual desires to transcend conformity and drudgery and, if only for the briefest of moments, to show the world something of who we believe ourselves to be.
Further, the dunk in the context of the contest or exhibition of the form, such as the Slam Dunk Contest, presents us the opportunity to see our sporting avatars unshackled from the rules and set free to roam within the dream logic of no dribble, no defense, no obstacle. It is pure expression; mastery of body in service of the id.
2. The Dunk as Act of Political Dissent
Dr. J was a militant. When he took that first dunk title in ‘76 by leaping from the foul line, he was placing himself on the side of a revolutionary aesthetic, a radical schism of style. The dunk had been demonized, frowned upon, and unmistakably politicised by the game’s establishment who liked their players to look more like Bob Cousy than Elgin Baylor, and who equated the jam with a more “urban” style of play. Julius Erving knew that. He knew that when he went baseline. He knew that when he unleashed a windmill. Dr. J knew.
But the dunk also asserts the ultimate political position of no position, a dadaist denial of order; an absurd act executed for its own sake and, in so doing, necessarily contemptuous of established modes. “Gravity is dead,” said 5’7” Spud Webb in 1986, offering the sort of invocation of nonsense that calls sense caustically into question. Because a man that size can’t do those things, and yet we all saw it. And his meaning was clear: Kill your idols.
3. The Dunk as Cultural Urtext
On February 6, 1988, at the old Chicago Stadium, Michael Jordan took off from the foul line and by the time he reached the rim he had created the 1990s; created Gatorade and all the clothes you wore, and every rap video ever made. He determined the look and feel of basketball thereafter. He plotted the blueprint, and we have been treated to two and a half decades of new tweaks, subsequent iterations more precisely spelling out the pervasive feel common to sport and fashion and music and speech. We learned our lean, our walk, our dance from it. We developed a collective muscle memory of slouchiness with explosions of dynamism; swagger; casualness punctuated by athleticism. A physical language we all speak but can’t name. Our bodily lingua franca.
The hightop fade, inescapable in the early ‘90s, and now enjoying something of a renaissance, was a coiffured expression of surprise at what Jordan had shown us; it also suggested a desire to surprise others by achieving new levels of freshness in the areas of dress, dance, and feats of sporting bedazzlement. The Celtics’ Dee Brown sported a fade when he pumped up his Reeboks and closed his eyes to win the Dunk Contest in ‘91. Brown pumped up his shoes not merely to draw attention to his sponsor’s products, but because we needed him to do so, to provide us with new iconography to challenge the all-pervasive swoosh, and because it was precisely what we would have done, had we thought of it, had we been given such a stage on which to do it.
You’re reading this on a screen of some variety. Take a moment to look away. Scan your surroundings for items that you enjoy, examples of design that brighten your life in some small way. Open your ears: is there music playing? Are your shoes light and breathable? Are you well hydrated? Do you enjoy the love of a good person, who was drawn to you originally for your hype dance moves? Right. Now thank a dunker.
4. The Dunk as Airborne Dance
Look at it! Look at the seemingly simple act of ferrying a basketball from the floor to the space directly above that eighteen inch hoop, and then throwing it into that hoop. Marvel at the dizzying variety of ways in which people have done this small thing. Millions of instances of improvised personal choreography. Visible music, kinetic sculpture. A transient instance of the body as medium; human graffiti, scrawled across air, caught fleetingly in the space between the eye and the brain, and then our observations confirmed (“He actually did that with the ball!”) over and over again via LCD big screen HD slo-mo replay. Now go ahead and say it: It’s beautiful!
I know you did it because we all did it. You lowered the bucket, got a boost, scaled a brick wall, grew five inches over the summer, joined the track team to improve your hops. I saw it again just last evening: at my local YMCA, an adjustable net earlier used for a kids’ class, left temptingly positioned at a height of about seven feet. And what did the young men do?
It is a common thing on our television screens; it is a rare thing in our lives. How many of us can actually dunk a basketball? So we admire and, yes, love the dunk. Whether your love is based on ego, politics, cultural conditioning, or visceral thrill, is finally immaterial. The dunk will out. Ultimately, it touches too many aspects of our lives, in too staggering a variety of ways, to be denied.