To many basketball purists, it seems silly that the dunk has drawn so much attention over the years. "Why dunk when a layup will do?" is the oft-repeated wisdom. "Conserve energy and hustle back on D."
Like it or not, though, the NBA is so popular today in large part due to the dunk.
When you think about it, in no other sport are you treated to such a raw display of athleticism so consistently. Baseball has the home run grab at the wall. Football the improbable catch. And soccer—if you're into that sort of thing—has the some spectacular headers and bicycle kicks that you see once every few matches, if you're lucky.
Professional basketball shows you what the best athletes in the world are capable of, night in and night out, rather than the odd game here or there. For decades, fans have endured through 82-game seasons precisely because of the potential that each game—and each possession—has to offer.
With the importance of this singular play in mind, let's take stock.
Of course, we could begin with no one else but Bill Russell.
Though it may not impress by today’s standards, Russell’s two-handed dunk from a standstill was revolutionary in its time. In the ‘50s and '60s the game was played below the rim. For a player to rise so quickly and so easily was a sight to behold.
Russell didn’t dunk for aesthetics, however. When the play called for it, he rose up. When it didn’t, he didn’t. But the modesty of his dunks was what made them beautiful. They were a pure statement that Russell was the most physically dominant player on the court…
Until Wilt Chamberlain came along.
At 7’1”, 275 pounds, Chamberlain was the first professional basketball player whose physical advantages could be described as unfair.
He once dunked the ball so hard that it broke Johnny “Red” Kerr’s toe after it fell out of the basket. And by now the accounts of his “shooting” free throws by leaping from the charity stripe and depositing the ball in the basket—causing the league to change the rules—are well known.
In short, he was a monster. He was the first monster.
But when it came to sheer power, the standard bearer was and still is the Philadelphia 76ers’ Darryl Dawkins. In 1979 he shattered two backboards in a span of three weeks, prompting then-league commissioner Larry O’Brien to threaten him with fines and suspensions for future offenses.
Granted, backboards were weaker back then. What can’t be denied, however, are the multitude of stories that Dawkins’ dunks were so powerful that fans throughout the lower seating area felt their vibrations.
In fact, it was a blind fan—a guy by the name of Stevie Wonder—who gave him the nickname Chocolate Thunder. If that isn’t a testament to the force of his throwdowns, I don’t know what is.
As Dawkins did his damage, literally and figuratively, a young small forward was turning heads in the ABA with his combination of length, hops and plate-sized hands. Julius Erving—or Dr. J, as he’s more commonly known—was a revelation.
Prior to his arrival, dunking had been straightforward. If you, the opponent, can’t match my elevation and strength, I’m going over or through you to put the ball in the basket. Dr. J added the missing ingredient that defines dunking in the modern era: acrobatics.
Because his hands were so large, he could wield the ball independently of his body’s contortions. His torso went one way, the ball another. He launched himself toward the rim; he swung the ball underneath it.
Every dunk contest since his storied battle against George “The Iceman” Gervin in 1976 has been influenced by that showdown.
If there can be only one father of the modern dunk, it’s Dr. J, clearly.
Flashier dunkers have come around since his time, but even their best works have been improvisations on a theme he created.
Which isn’t to say the improvisations haven’t been groundbreaking in their own right. The ‘80s gave rise to two of the best showmen the game has ever seen: Dominique “The Human Highlight Reel” Wilkins and, of course, Michael Jordan.
Both were athletes on a level all their own. And both rarely passed on opportunities to bring the fans out of their seats. Their stylistic differences, and the value we should attach to each, are debated to this day: Dominique was the more powerful and perhaps more improvisational dunker; MJ was springier and more graceful.
The outcome of the 1988 All-Star dunk contest, which Jordan took with a perfect score on his final dunk, is still a matter of dispute, as some feel Jordan benefited from home-court advantage (that year’s contest was in Chicago).
Who won the 1988 NBA Slam Dunk Contest?
Whichever athlete you prefer, together they popularized dunking as a competitive sport in its own right, establishing the culture of one-upmanship that prevails today.
Maybe we should pause here. All of the dunkers we’ve discussed up to this point have been icons, but the history of dunking in the NBA has had contributions from more minor figures as well.
Spud Webb. Harold Minor. Isaiah Rider. Nate Robinson. Gerald Green. Their impact on the game itself was minimal, but as above-the-rim talents, they probably deserve more than the passing mention I’ve given them here.
But back to the main attractions.
The mid-‘90s brought about one of the most devastating athletes from the power forward position the game is likely to see: Shawn Kemp. The way he cradled the ball en route to reverse dunks was reminiscent of Dominique, the one difference being that Kemp was a bigger, more formidable specimen, in possession of more agility and body control than any big man should have.
A freak, in plainer terms. One of the NBA’s honest-to-goodness freaks.
Kemp changed the power forward position in one major way. Whereas previously, 4’s were expected to do their damage with a refined skill set for the high and low post, Kemp showed that a leaper with great off-the-ball instincts could thrive in the NBA.
The traces of his game can be seen in Josh Smith and Blake Griffin’s work—especially the latter, who attacks the rim with the same ferocity.
Coming up as Kemp was hitting his stride?
The inimitable Shaquille O’Neal.
Here’s the thing about a young Shaq, who came into the league in ‘92 after his junior year at LSU: No one that big had ever been that quick or light off his feet before. Not by a long shot.
While his size alone would have earned him a spot in the league, what made him the most dominant center ever was his explosiveness. He could go through anyone. Like Juggernaut, once in motion he couldn’t be stopped. Ask Chris Dudley if there’s much that a guy his size, a “mere” 6’11” and 240 lbs, could do to slow the original Superman.
While Shaq was holding down the center spot right on through the early 2000s, the wing position was amassing one of the most impressive collection of wing dunkers in the NBA at one time.
Young Tracy McGrady was a rangy, quick-twitch beast. A prep-to-pro named Kobe Bryant was doing his best Jordan impression nightly. Latrell Sprewell was making noise with Golden State (for good reasons early in his career, before the well-chronicled tailspin).
But Vince Carter deserves his own category.
I’m an unabashed Jordan fan, but if you anointed Half-Man Half-Amazing the best dunker of all time, I’d have a hard time arguing with you. It’s almost unnecessary to list his iconic moments. The Frederic Weis dunk. The Alonzo Mourning dunk. The entire 2000 dunk contest, which was undoubtedly the greatest dunk contest performance of all time.
Vince’s dunk resume speaks for itself in a way that his overall impact as a player never has.
LeBron James, of course, has been no slouch either. Yes, he’s relied heavily on his tried-and-true right-handed tomahawk dunk. But what he lacks in variety he makes up in the inevitability of his outcomes.
There is no scarier open-court dunker than LeBron James.
Once he gathers speed, it takes nothing short of a flagrant foul to prevent him from grabbing a handful of rim.
Since Carter, though, only one other dunker has inspired “must-see TV” excitement: Blake Griffin. Like Carter, Blake’s dunks recognize no obstacle. He takes off from an impossible spot on the floor and finishes with an effortless power that he caps with a blank stare into the great beyond.
That brings us to the present. From Russell the originator to Griffin the torch bearer, the NBA’s dunking history is what has made it the most highlight-worthy of America’s major professional sports. As with all facets of the game, we honor the past, enjoy the present and, as always, anticipate the next.
Be sure to add the dunkers I didn't mention in the comments section.