Dunking Lessons

Step Back, and Watch Me Work

Kids today – they just don’t understand how a basketball slam-dunk is supposed to look.

I was watching an NCAA game recently with my wife and oldest son, and within minutes, some guy dunked, grabbed the rim, swung his lower body forward and up, landed on his feet, and ran back up court, all flush with pride.

Hanging on the rim is of course against the rules, but is never ever called. It has been reduced to joke status, like travelling. Either or both of these rules is violated on probably every other possession, game in, game out. Year in, year out. That’s a lot of whistle-swallowing.

Of course, swinging on the rim is not even in the rule book, because guess what, you can’t swing on the rim unless you also hang from it. Try it sometime. However, don’t come crying to me when you lose your balance and end up breaking your ankle. I’ll deny everything.

So I commented out loud that if the ref wasn’t going to call hanging on the rim on that play, it will never ever be called. He didn’t have the only legitimate excuse for hanging on the rim available to him: when somebody is underneath, i.e., to avoid injury. There was nobody within 6 feet of this guy.

My high-school-senior son thought I was crazy, so we argued about it for a few minutes. His point was that the player was just “going up strong”, and the swinging is just the natural follow-thru.

True, to a point. But the fact that he couldn’t understand what I was getting at may indicate a basic lack of understanding of what a dunk really “is”.

“The young folk” today have never seen any other type of dunking. To them, dunking literally means swinging on the rim, calling undue attention to yourself, and showing up your opponent. They are one and the same.

They’ve never seen the smooth “old-school” dunks by Dr. J, Wilt, Kareem, the Big E, or any of a hundred other guys, who managed to dunk the ball without either hanging or swinging on the rim. These players had class. They were professional. They played in an era when calling attention to oneself in a team sport was just not done.

The refs, too, had more respect for the integrity of the game, and called the game according to the rules. No jump stops with the ball in your hands at both the beginning and the end of the jump. No driving across the lane with the classic Patrick Ewing move: pick up your dribble, take two more steps, and THEN jump to the hoop. Both of these are travelling violations, and players did not get away with them every game like they do today. And most definitely, there was no swinging, and no hanging. Players who tried would have found that the backboard might shatter — just ask Daryl Dawkins.

Fans in that era were still treated to athleticism, but it was within the context of the team, and the game.

Today, instead, what do we have? Refs that don’t call the most basic rule violations. Players who exploit every opportunity to exhibit their boarishness. Sports highlight shows that encourage all of it, with the promise of a TV appearance, especially if you can call attention to yourself in a team sport.

I’m picking on basketball here, but similar points can be made about football and baseball. Running backs and wideouts who dance in the end zone like they’ve never been there before? Dick Butkus or Ray Nitschke would have loved an opportunity to get to know them better when the ref wasn’t looking. Baseball players who stand in awe of their home runs before running down the baseline? Bob Gibson might have had something to say with the next pitch to that batter.

Players who called attention to themselves, especially by showing up opponents, were taken to task. Sometimes, bleeding was involved. It seemed to work, though. Brawls were rare in those days. Today, despite the “benefit” of meddling pointy-headed lawyers and bureaucratic league officials, hardly a week goes by that there isn’t some kind of altercation, some of them quite serious.

And so somehow, we’ve gone completely off the rails. I’m not that interested in the reasons for it, to be frank, but I do have some theories. Pro sports – and yes, even college sports – made its bed a long time ago, lining it with corporate cash from private boxes and stadium naming rights and big TV contracts, and is now lying comfortably therein. That’s why we have World Series games that end at 12:30 AM on school nights, ensuring that new generations of fans will have grown up without benefit of the vivid memories of those games burned forever into their conciousness. Sports has also recast itself dramatically, and quite intentionally, via youth-oriented marketing campaigns, emphasizing image and the individual over substance and the team. One may pause to note the irony of losing the youth by pushing games late into the night hours, yet trying to compensate for it with marketing campaigns.

I’m not sure who would define this as progress, except maybe those whose bottom lines have become more attractive as a result; most of these people, however, are sharks, who care nothing about tradition.

Hey, who let them in here?

So the bottom line is this: sports chose this path, it didn’t just happen. And they can’t really expect to retain the magic in the minds of those of us who remember how it used to be. Because, to be truthful, the people who runs sports today don’t care about that part, if it means getting in the way of a better balance sheet.


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