The slam dunk has been part of the fabric of the NBA for over 60 years. From it’s beginnings, when it was seen as a vulgar and arrogant way to score, to it’s current position as the most famous move in basketball. The dunk has gone from being banned in the collegiate game between 1967 and 1976, due to the dominance of Kareem Abdul Jabbar, to being elevated to an art from by players such as Julius Erving, Dominique Wilkins and most recently Zach Lavine. The dunk has been responsible for some of the most iconic images in the history of the NBA, Vince Carter hanging from the rim by his elbow in the 2000 dunk contest, Jordan wagging his finger at Dikembe Mutombo having finally dunked on him in 1997 and Shaq destroying backboards throughout his career. However, it’s importance to the game goes beyond creating highlight reels.
Dunking as we know it today rose to prominence in the 70s, a time when the leagues popularity was waning. During this period it became more than just the most efficient way to score, Julius Erving and David Thompson began to make it about entertainment, amazing crowds with their athleticism and imagination. This style of dunking also had a practical purpose, intimidating defenders and energising crowds.
The fear of humiliation is a crucial element of modern dunking. Fear of being posterised was at the forefront of a defender’s mind when playing against Erving, Jordan or any of the great exponents of the art. Nobody wants to appear on a poster that will hang on countless walls around the world as the guy who is being dunked on, it is emasculating, and in the hyper male world of professional sports during the 80s and 90s highly embarrassing. This meant that at times defenders would hesitate slightly before contesting the shot providing easy baskets for the dunkers.
Dunking can definitely affect the flow of games. It can whip a home crowd in to a frenzy and equally silence a hostile crowd on the road. The energy from a dunk can spread through the team and the bench sparking scoring runs and punctuating a teams dominance. There is a sense that the other team can’t stop you, that you are at the peak of your power and you can exert your will on the opposition as you please.
There is something incredibly, and perhaps even troublingly masculine about the slam dunk, the emphasis on power and strength, the sense of confrontation and extrovert displays of athleticism, as well as the muscle clenching celebrations they trigger. Add to this the rhetoric used by commentators to describe dunks and it becomes one of the most masculine acts in all of American sports. It goes beyond, say a nutmeg in football, because it is so much more about pure physicality than skill. There is something almost primal about the visceral desire to physically best your fellow man. It is interesting that dunking is not a big part of the WNBA despite the fact there are plenty of female players physically capable of dunking.
Despite the obvious issues with hyper masculinity in sport, which I aim to cover in greater detail over the summer, the NBA’s obsession with dunking and physicality may have contributed to the leagues slow realisation of the value of the 3 point shot. When it came into the league in 1979 it was considered a fad, teams were geared towards being tough, driving to the basket, initiating contact and getting to the free throw line. It was the hallmark of the Detroit Pistons bad boys teams of the late 80s as well as Jordan’s Bulls. Teams who took lots of perimeter jump shots were considered inferior and weak, only last year TNT analyst Charles Barker stated that a jump shooting team could never win a championship. The Golden State Warriors have proven this to be a complete myth over the past two seasons and the league is transforming as a result.
The dunk will always be part of NBA basketball, fans want to see feats of ridiculous athleticism performed by large men. However, it is perhaps a sign of things to come that the best and most popular player in the league has dunked a handful of times during his whole career.